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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:

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.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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