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Politics and Property: Can We Do Without Either?

David Gordon asks an important question about my critique of property-based libertarianism [1]:

You seem to me entirely right that inequalities of property ownership would be likely in a libertarian society. It isn’t clear to me, though, why that by itself poses a problem for liberty. You seem to take for granted that the larger property owners would form a common class that would then act coercively against the rest of us. One need not assume that the large owners would be unusually benevolent to doubt that this would occur. Why think that the larger owners would view themselves as a class at all?

Class terminology aside, the distinction I want to bring out is between “being subject to someone else’s rules” and “making the rules oneself.” I think in any social order there is going to be a division between those two concepts—although that’s a hunch rather than something I want to prove just now.

The ruled/ruler distinction applies not only to states—where there’s a difference between, say, king and subject—but also to property, where there’s a parallel difference between owner and nonowner. The owner makes the rules, and the nonowner agrees to them or leaves. There may be negotiation, and the nonowner may even have some leverage against the owner for other reasons, but I think the theoretical distinction remains clear.

Add to this the hypothesis that most people want to think of themselves as more ruling than ruled. Thus even when the ruled get a good deal—and even when the ruler gets a lousy one—there may still be a demand to change places. Expropriation and revolution, on this model, are both examples of violent changes in roles of ruler and ruled.

I suspect, then, that even a benevolent king may face resentment from his subjects sooner or later. Similarly, a benevolent proprietor may find his employees or tenants one day challenging his role. This is the conceptual class divide.

A system of all politics and no property necessarily sharpens the ruled/ruler conceptual divide. The ruler is absolute, and the ruled are absolutely subject.

A system of all property and no politics also seems to sharpen the divide, though in practice it would surely be milder than what we see in totalitarian states. But in theory, at any given moment some people are rule-making and others are rule-obeying, based on who owns the land one is standing upon.

To say that there may be some fluidity in who owns which patch of land is like saying there may be some fluidity in which party or family or other entity governs a state. In real life, the absolutes are rare. But keeping the model as simple as possible, let’s think of both ownership and political power as things that don’t change hands and don’t require compromise with the ruled.

What I tentatively propose is that distributing ownership and political power according to different principles helps mitigate, if not cancel out, the ruler/ruled distinction. Rothbardians agree that private property actually has impeded political absolutism in history. Might the converse be true, too: that politics has a place in impeding ownership absolutism? (Unfortunately, this proposition is harder to test against history.)

Schematically, a balanced picture might look like this: both political power and strong property rights exist in a given society. John Doe is a political ruler in that society (maybe he’s the king), but his power is limited on someone else’s property (he’s ruled). Jane Roe is a property owner, and in that sense she’s a ruler (maybe she owns Disneyland), but she’s also subject to political government, so in that sense she’s ruled. Even though Doe and Roe each has to accept some limitation on his or her own dominion (in politics or on private property), neither has to accept complete theoretical subjection, either.

Reality is much more complicated, of course. Political power and ownership do not perfectly balance, and sometimes the two can coincide in tyrannical ways even when the conceptual distinction remains clear. But it’s the division of power between different principles, not its practical division in a society, that I want to focus on here.

Libertarians understand very well that a state is a state, no matter what its form or how benevolent it may seem for a time. Shouldn’t the same conceptual uniformity be applied to ownership, no matter how much turnover there is in who particularly owns something, or how benevolent the owner mat be at a given time?

For the same reason, then, that libertarians don’t quite accept the idea that competition among multiple states is sufficient to qualify a world as justly ordered—even if those states aren’t all in collusion—does it not follow that competition among owners, even if they are not all colluding, might not be sufficient either?

And I do argue that narrowly: “might not be” rather than is/isn’t. One can devise best- or worst-case scenarios to answer definitively, but in the real world there is doubt about the question, and my argument would use that doubt to say: if we’re unsure about aligning all power (that is, all ruler/ruled relationships) according to one principle (politics or ownership), shouldn’t we maintain the division? In theory at least—rather than accepting an ideal the reduces the ruler/ruled distinction to a single dimension.

One Rothbardian response might be that no one is fully ruled or an absolute ruler in a system of property-without-politics, because self-ownership means that one always has a share in ruling no matter what external rules apply when standing on somebody else’s property. But that sounds like Hobbes saying that Leviathan cannot command a subject to die. A libertarian wouldn’t accept Hobbes as a great liberal because of that minimal exception to the power of the state, and I don’t think non-libertarians accept the minimal powers that come with self-ownership as any real remedy to the power imbalance that exists between owners of other stuff and owners-only-of-themselves.

(That said, the Rothbardian and Hobbesian provisos here are worth something—the extent of the constraint Hobbes’s life proviso puts on Leviathan is something worth considering. If, as libertarians say, the state is everywhere and always predicated on lethal force, then Hobbes is a crypto-anarchist. But then Hobbes’s whole point, of course, is that the state isn’t ultimately predicated on force but on rational consent. Force is just icing on the theoretical cake.)

A great chess player may be a lousy basketball player, and vice versa. If all life were a single game, one of these players would always lose. If the many kinds of freedom we enjoy, or aspire to enjoy, were all to depend on the outcome of one game, I would have little confidence in their survival. Liberty is a game that has to be played on many fields.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Politics and Property: Can We Do Without Either?"

#1 Comment By Viking On April 21, 2013 @ 1:21 am

Hi Daniel, another excellent piece. However, I wonder about one thing you said, to wit, that the “all property and no politics” society would “surely” see a milder divide (between rulers and ruled) than in totalitarian states. The reason I have my doubts about that is because, in an anarchist society, there seems to be no preventative for Mafia-style groups taking over geographical areas. And there’d be a huge difference between the Mafiosi and all others. I actually think, in fact, that people might be a bit happier in the totalitarian state than in the anarchist society.


PS Am I being too familiar by addressing you as Daniel? If so, please inform me. My actual first name, btw, is “Tom”.

#2 Comment By Daniel McCarthy On April 21, 2013 @ 1:45 am

Not too familiar at all; blogs are a casual medium.

States tend to be much larger entities than even the most massive privately-owned estates, although there’s a bit of haziness when it comes to royals who may claim entire countries as their private property. But assuming we rule that out, the basic abstract picture of a world where all rules are set by property-owners is more fragmented and competitive than a world divided into total states. That’s one reason to think, in the broadest terms, private-property anarchy would be a milder system than state totalitarianism. Fewer people would be subject to any one ruler.

#3 Comment By EngineerScotty On April 21, 2013 @ 2:10 am

If I own property then one of the following is true.

1) There is some powerful entity defending said property interest on my behalf.

2) I possess sufficient capability of force to defend said property from incursion by others.

In the first case, the entity in question is virtually always the state. If the second case is true but not the first, then as Louis said, L’etat, c’est moi.

Property is a social convention, first and foremost. A system with strong property rights but a weak state is not a stable one–either property rights will not be easily violated, or lots of private security arrangements will be needed. Or more likely both, with the end result of the strong preying on the weak.

#4 Comment By EngineerScotty On April 21, 2013 @ 2:17 am

Correction: “Either property rights will (no not) be easily violated”…

An edit button, an edit button, my kingdom for an edit button…

#5 Comment By libertarian jerry On April 21, 2013 @ 5:14 am

The basis of all rights are property rights. If I don’t own (which means control) my property including myself I am not free. Of course with property rights comes the responsibility to not infringe on other people’s property rights. The state is there to not only protect your property rights,but also the rights of others. Thus by either stealing,polluting or infringing on someone’s property the state is there to act as a neutral referee and or protector of individual property rights. In today’s America we really don’t possess individual property rights. The fruits of our labor are subject to direct taxation to the point where the state can take all our earnings and decide how much the individual is permitted to keep. We never own our home or property but instead have only an equitable interest in that home. Don’t pay your property taxes and see how long the state allows you to live there. The military draft,whether active or non active, controls the property of the self. There are countless laws,taxes,regulations some mundane others draconian to control you and your property. All backed by the monopoly on force and coercion possessed by the state. The popular politics of today is what Ayn Rand called the “aristocracy of Pull.” That is the rush to control the referee status of the state by influence. Influence either by voting blocks or influence by money in the form of bribes or campaign contributions. It has come to the point in America where the law,especially when it relates to property is fluid to the point of making it meaningless. We have very corrupt politicians on all levels of government. Special Interests such as crony capitalists who socialize their losses, poverty pimps who raid the treasury,the Military Industrial Complex who do the same plus countless others,too many to mention,who rape the individual’s property rights through the taxing powers of the state. The old adage that the best government is the government that governs least comes to mind when it comes to property rights. In the end, all of the warnings ,over the years, by defenders of property rights have been ignored to the point where America is bankrupt both fiscally and morally. As one of my favorite comedians,George Carlin, once stated and I paraphrase “the real owners,behind the scenes,give you the illusion that you own your property…….you don’t.”

#6 Comment By grumpy realist On April 21, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

libertarian jerry, you still haven’t addressed the question: who implements these so-called property rights? You? Or someone else?

As long as someone else is implementing those property rights, then what? Are you going to pay them for the work they’re doing? Or not? It’s really great when you can conjure a right out of the air and then claim that how is gets implemented and defended is totally None Of Your Responsibilities.

You want property rights, you’re either going to have to pay for a government, or be the government. Take your pick.

(Libertarians don’t know history, law, or ethics. Sheesh.)

#7 Comment By libertarian jerry On April 21, 2013 @ 3:16 pm

Grumpy Realist……….You are born with inalienable rights and government is constituted to protect those rights. This is one of the legitimate reasons we pay taxes. The rest of your comments,as usual,is troll gibberish.

#8 Comment By Ken T On April 21, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

libertarian jerry – now I’m really confused. You spent 3/4 of your first post ranting about how the government has no right to collect taxes, then your second post says, “This is one of the legitimate reasons we pay taxes.” Are you suggesting that tax paying should be voluntary? Because otherwise, granting the existence of a “legitimate reason to pay taxes” pretty much implies that the government has the power to collect those taxes, and do all of the things that you said in the first post they can’t do.

#9 Comment By nicholas glenn On April 21, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

Somehow we managed to get by without an income tax until the 20th century. I don’t understand what is confusing about this. This all changed with the progressive era. The State was limited in what it could do without the income tax. Whether you view this as a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of opinion. There is nothing confusing about it however.

#10 Comment By libertarian jerry On April 21, 2013 @ 10:00 pm

Ken T…………..I never said that government didn’t have the “right” to collect taxes. Government possesses no “rights” but legal duties. Sometimes that duty can be abused or even unlawful. If you study the amount of taxes taken by government on all levels the average American is now working almost 8 out of 12 months to pay,directly or indirectly, all their taxes. This has made the average American a tax serf. I call this abuse,unless you enjoy being a serf.

#11 Comment By Ken T On April 22, 2013 @ 8:29 am

Jerry — I never said the government has a “right” to do anything. What I said was that once you recognize that government has a legitimate purpose, and that it needs tax revenue in order to accomplish that purpose, then you must also grant the government the authority to collect those taxes. I completely agree with you that the government spends a lot of money on things I do not want it doing. My point is simply that attacking the mechanism of tax collection (as you did in your first post) has nothing whatsoever to do with the process of deciding how much tax is collected and what it gets used for. All you accomplish that way is mindless cutting (which is exactly what we are seeing now with the sequester), which certainly does not do anything to change the direction of spending. We all need to keep our focus on the budget setting process, not the tax collection. Taxes are a red herring meant to distract you from the real issues. Decide what you want government to do, then figure out how much that will cost, and the result is how much tax needs to be collected.

Government “small enough to drown in a bathtub” is too small to protect your property rights. The people who advocate that principle do so precisely because THEY want to take YOUR property, and they don’t want government to interfere.

#12 Comment By CK On April 22, 2013 @ 11:39 am

“If, as libertarians say, the state is everywhere and always predicated on lethal force, then Hobbes is a crypto-anarchist.”

This an interesting point which can be taken in another direction which is that Hobbes’ individualism qua the state can arguably produce a sort of moral anarchism with respect to customs and laws (e.g. natural law) not under the direct jurisdiction of the state.

#13 Comment By grumpy realist On April 22, 2013 @ 1:45 pm

Nicholas–we also managed to get along with a much smaller military until the 20th century.

Coincidence? I think not. You want a big military, you’re going to have to pay for it.

Whether income taxes are the best way of raising taxes, well, that can be squabbled about for quite a while. I’d prefer some form of progressive tax rate, mainly because of marginal utility (an extra dollar is worth more to a poor person than to a millionaire.) Which is why sales taxes and similar always hit the poor and lower middle class more than they do the rich. How about a straight capital tax?

#14 Comment By David Gordon On April 24, 2013 @ 11:06 pm

I don’t think that the picture you have of a libertarian society is a very plausible one, though admittedly it’s logically possible. People engaged in production in a free market economy aim to earn a profit. To do this, owners of businesses need to satisfy consumers. This, not setting up arbitrary rules that those who set foot on “their” property must follow, is their principal goal. Owners who do not share the goal of pleasing consumers will tend to be driven out of business by those by attuned to consumer demand. This, by the way, is one reason worker cooperatives are not as prevalent in the market as one might imagine, given the fact that people don’t like to take orders from bosses. No doubt they don’t, but worker-controlled firms in a free market, just like those run by bosses, must meet consumer demand to stay afloat. In a free market economy, the exigencies of profit making do not leave as much scope as you imagine there is for anyone, boss or worker, to set rules for the workplace as he pleases.

In like fashion, landlords want to earn money and tend to
be more interested in their tenants’ pocketbooks than their political or religious opinions. No doubt there are exceptions, but if you ask someone today for his political views on a controversial topic, wouldn’t it be unusual to encounter the response, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you. I’m a renter and have to watch my step”?

If you think that a Rothbardian anarchist society would fall prey to dominance by property owners, do you think the same of the strictly limited “nightwatchman” state? This too has no power to interfere with property. Does it too require balancing by political intervention?

I’ll end on a speculative note. You are a classicist, and I suggest you have been too much influenced by the situation of the Roman Republic, in which the tribunate was needed so that those without much property would not be totally controlled by the elite of large property owners. This is not a good model for the society Rothbard had in mind.

#15 Comment By KateLE On July 19, 2013 @ 8:54 am

Libertarian Jerry – what do you see as the legitimate method for collecting the taxes needed for your system, and what is the government’s recourse if they are not paid?

#16 Comment By matt On July 19, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

How do the property-owners and non-owners eat?

#17 Comment By Myron Hudson On July 19, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

Disclosure: I’m registered as a Libertarian, if only because neither major party offers anything to me (although they promise a great deal), and I believe in the free market and in non-intrusive government. However I don’t buy anything hook, line and sinker and this includes the view of how everything would turn out in a libertarian society. I believe that in reality this would return us to feudalism. As in most things, it comes down to a question of balance.

#18 Comment By Myron Hudson On July 19, 2013 @ 6:51 pm

To add to the above, the fact that our real lords and masters control us through the power of puppet governments should not distract us from the fact that they are controlling us – somehow – period. If they do not do this through bought and paid for governments, then they will do this by some other means.

#19 Comment By William Dalton On July 19, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

In post-colonial America, up until the period before the Civil War, states established bicameral legislatures with a significant purpose – one house would represent citizens with substantial ownership of real estate – the primary “property” interest of the era, and the other would be elected by the general citizenry – or at least all male freemen. In this respect American legislatures were patterned on the Parliament of the United Kingdom – a House of Lords to represent the landed aristocracy and a House of Commons to represent all the king’s untitled subjects. The rationale for this arrangement was understood by all Americans. If the unpropertied class could rule all by the power of numbers alone, they would quickly organize to dispossess the those with property of their wealth by taxation and redistribute it to themselves.

Eliminating the truly bicameral legislature did not, of course, cause men of means to submit to the rule of the masses. They simply exercised power through the veneer of bipartisan electoral politics, manufacturing issues to entertain and distract the masses, while assuring that the representatives of both parties would always protect their own interests.

I think if we returned to a system where no legislation could be enacted without the assent of the representatives of the wealthy, by an assembly denominated as such, it would be easier to distinguish their interests from those of the common citizen, and an impetus to electing a separate and equal house truly interested in representing the interests of the latter, whose assent must also be given to all laws and government appropriations.

It is clear our present system isn’t doing that job.

#20 Comment By Gene Callahan On July 20, 2013 @ 10:45 am

“This is not a good model for the society Rothbard had in mind.”

No, it isn’t. And the USSR isn’t a good model for the society Marx had in mind.

But Daniel’s is a good model for the society we would actually GET without any state.