On property, non-aggression, Marxism, anarcho-communism, anarcho-capitalism, statism, and the "social contract"

published Oct 12, 2011, last modified Jun 26, 2013

It's not the concept of property that is in dispute. The dispute is solely and always about the moral theory behind it.

In a conversation I had today with a guy about the "social contract" instituting "property rights", I experienced an epiphany when I remembered this article by Stephan Kinsella. Epiphany follows:

The concept of property is the idea that human control, at a point in time, of a rivalrous and scarce objects, is decided by a true "set of rules" (a "moral theory" so-to-speak, which we will call a theory of property). This concept implies, as any moral theory obviously implies, the complementary idea that whoever breaks these rules is evil / in the wrong, and therefore must be punished. When you say This is my property / This is mine, what you actually mean is: This thing, I have obtained according to a set of rules that I believe to be ethically correct, ergo you should not touch it without my permission; if you do, I will punish you and this punishment will be ethically legitimate.

Now, the concept itself is distinct from (and refers to) a rule set (theory of property) that expresses the algorithm used to figure out what objects belong to whom at which time. In other words, the concept of property embodies "this is legitimately mine", while any specific theory of property attempts to explain why "this is legitimately mine" (along with the obvious implications).

From this standpoint, we can analyze the perpetual dispute between statists, anarcho-communists and anarcho-capitalists, or any two groups in society, as never ever being about whether property is a valid concept or not. Let me stress this point because it's very important: All people from all political groups accept property as a concept; they all will eventually say This is mine at some point. The fact that everybody believes in the concept of property is easy to demonstrate, even in the case of anarcho-communists (who reject the idea of "property" very vocally). If you approach an able-bodied, muscular anarcho-communist, then try to swipe his computer out of his hands, he'll punch you in the face to stop you (psst: he'd be right to do that, and he'd agree with me!).

Having said that, the dispute between all political groups is actually and solely about which theory of property they accept as true. Which is a very tricky dispute to settle, because the theory of property that people operate from is almost never explicitly stated. In other words, people will tell you "This is mine", or "You owe the government 50% of what you make", or "You are a thief"... always sharing the conclusions that they derived from deducing facts together with their own unstated theory, but almost never explaining how they reached those conclusions.

So, by way of example, let's take the case of marxists vs. ancoms vs. ancaps vs. statists vs. self-professed sociopaths:

  • Marxists: the dispute is about the Marxist theory of capital goods and consumption goods, vs.
  • Anarcho-communists: the Possession theory of property, vs.
  • Anarcho-capitalists: the Hoppean theory of property, vs.
  • Statists: the theory that who owns what is ultimately (and arbitrarily) decided by The Democratically Or Divinely Selected Kingpins Of Society, vs.
  • Sociopaths: the theory that might makes right;

No, of course, any two of these theories cannot be true at the same time because they contradict each other. Therefore, these groups are forever at odds.

Hell, even thieves themselves accept the concept of property -- they just assert a different rule set. Something to the effect of "Everybody must leave my things alone, but I don't have to do that for others", which is non-universal and therefore can be dismissed as a false theory right away.

(It should kind of be apparent that I myself judge that the true theory of property is the Hoppean one. I have never seen an argument for any other theory of property that was ethically and practically justifiable.)

At any rate: to "have" property (that is, for you to believe that there is a rule set that governs the control and use of objects) you don't need to sign or accept any magical "social contract". You already believe there is such a rule set, "social contract" or no. Everybody already does. All territorial mammals already do (sometimes even scarily so -- think of big cats or wolves). In the space of animals that can conceive of theories, the dispute is solely over which theory is true, and it's perfectly sensible to have two different societies (in different geographical spaces) living according to their own, incompatible theories of property. That's it.

From this framework, it's easy to recognize that the belief that the "social contract" is what "institutes" property is no less crazy than the idea that "God" is what "imbues" free will and ethics into Man. I believe that, when statists say You must believe in the social contract, or else you have no legitimate claim to any property, what statists mean is I am truly terrified of accepting the fact that no such contract exists or is valid, because it would mean to me that I am vulnerable to being assaulted by people who want my property. They do want rules of property (just like anyone else), but they have been trained via systemic operant conditioning (school) to believe that without the belief in this godlike creature called the "social contract", their wishes will vanish in a bloodbath. This plea is not unlike religious people's claims that without belief in God, the world would descend into rapy murdery assaulty chaos. As always, terror via immaterial lies is the most effective tactic to control anyone.

How does this connect with the non-aggression principle? Simple. From the standpoint of the observer, a person violates the non-aggression principle if he initiates violence to obtain an object that belongs to someone else, according to the theory of property of the observer. That is, violence is morally justified if it's perpetrated as a "defense of property", and in those cases the aggressor is whoever is trying to "misappropriate property". Thus -- at the risk of saying something obvious that perhaps has remained unsaid for over a hundred years -- from the standpoint of a Marxist, a group of factory workers "taking possession" of a factory would be the defenders, whereas from the standpoint of an anarcho-capitalist, the factory workers would be the aggressors, violating the NAP.

In conclusion: the radical discovery of Stephan Kinsella is that distinguishing the concept of property from any specific theory of property from the concept of aggression from the principle of non-aggression, makes the whole subject of property much clearer; the theory of property is clearly a more fundamental concept than the non-aggression principle, whenever it comes to resolving violent disputes over a non-human object. Stephan brilliantly enunciated this separation of moral theories in his article -- the non-aggression principle is the true moral theory that arbitrates the control and use of people, while the Hoppean theory of property is the true moral theory that arbitrates the control and use of non-person objects. Stephan Kinsella summarizes his discovery thus:

> So, in my view, and in the Hoppean framework (which extends and builds on that of Mises and Rothbard), all ownership is based on the fundamental fact of scarcity, and the consequent possibility of conflict. Property in one’s body is based on the fact that each person has the best link to his body, because of his direct control over his body. Property in external objects is based on Lockean homesteading, where first use, or original appropriation (“embordering,” as Hoppe refers to it), serves as the link between agent and resource. (And the reason first use gives the first user a better link to the resource is because ownership is based on the prior-later distinction, as Hoppe explains; if the first user did not have a better claim than the second claimant, who is a latecomer with respect to him, then the second claimant would not have a better claim than a third claimant, i.e., property rights evaporate and we have only possession and might makes right, which is contrary to the entire endeavor of property allocation rules in the first place.)

Damn right.