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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Friday, July 08, 2005

Rothbard on Feudalism and Land Reform

Thanks to Terry Burgess, on the LeftLibertarian yahoogroup, for providing the following links from Murray Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty.

9. Property and Criminality

Let us say that Ruritania is ruled by a king who has grievously invaded the rights of persons and the legitimate property of individuals, and has regulated and finally seized their property. A libertarian movement develops in Ruritania, and comes to persuade the bulk of the populace that this criminal system should be replaced by a truly libertarian society, where the rights of each man to his person and his found and created property are fully respected. The king, seeing the revolt to be imminently successful, now employs a cunning stratagem. He proclaims his government to be dissolved, but just before doing so he arbitrarily parcels out the entire land area of his kingdom to the “ownership” of himself and his relatives. He then goes to the libertarian rebels and says: “all right, I have granted your wish, and have dissolved my rule; there is now no more violent intervention in private property. However, myself and my eleven relatives now each own one-twelfth of Ruritania, and if you disturb us in this ownership in any way, you shall be infringing upon the sanctity of the very fundamental principle that you profess: the inviolability of private property. Therefore, while we shall no longer be imposing ‘taxes,’ you must grant each of us the right to impose any ‘rents’ that we may wish upon our ‘tenants,’ or to regulate the lives of all the people who presume to live on ‘our’ property as we see fit. In this way, taxes shall be fully replaced by ‘private rents’!”

Now what should be the reply of the libertarian rebels to this pert challenge? If they are consistent utilitarians, they must bow to this subterfuge, and resign themselves to living under a regime no less despotic than the one they had been battling for so long. Perhaps, indeed, more despotic, for now the king and his relatives can claim for themselves the libertarians’ very principle of the absolute right of private property, an absoluteness which they might not have dared to claim before.

It should be clear that for the libertarians to refute this stratagem they must take their stand on a theory of just versus unjust property; they cannot remain utilitarians....

10. The Problem of Land Theft

But suppose that centuries ago, Smith was tilling the soil and therefore legitimately owning the land; and then that Jones came along and settled down near Smith, claiming by use of coercion the title to Smith’s land, and extracting payment or “rent” from Smith for the privilege of continuing to till the soil. Suppose that now, centuries later, Smith’s descendants (or, for that matter, other unrelated families) are now tilling the soil, while Jones’s descendants, or those who purchased their claims, still continue to exact tribute from the modern tillers. Where is the true property right in such a case? It should be clear that here, just as in the case of slavery, we have a case of continuing aggression against the true owners—the true possessors—of the land, the tillers, or peasants, by the illegitimate owner, the man whose original and continuing claim to the land and its fruits has come from coercion and violence. Just as the original Jones was a continuing aggressor against the original Smith, so the modern peasants are being aggressed against by the modern holder of the Jones-derived land title. In this case of what we might call “feudalism” or “land monopoly,” the feudal or monopolist landlords have no legitimate claim to the property. The current “tenants,” or peasants, should be the absolute owners of their property, and, as in the case of slavery, the land titles should be transferred to the peasants, without compensation to the monopoly landlords.

11. Land Monopoly, Past and Present

THUS, THERE ARE TWO types of ethically invalid land titles: “feudalism,” in which there is continuing aggression by titleholders of land against peasants engaged in transforming the soil; and land-engrossing, where arbitrary claims to virgin land are used to keep first-transformers out of that land. We may call both of these aggressions “land monopoly”—not in the sense that some one person or group owns all the land in society, but in the sense that arbitrary privileges to land ownership are asserted in both cases, clashing with the libertarian rule of non-ownership of land except by actual transformers, their heirs, and their assigns.

Land monopoly is far more widespread in the modern world than most people—especially most Americans—believe. In the undeveloped world, especially in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, feudal landholding is a crucial social and economic problem—with or without quasi-serf impositions on the persons of the peasantry. Indeed, of the countries of the world, the United States is one of the very few virtually free from feudalism, due to a happy accident of its historical development. Largely escaping feudalism itself, it is difficult for Americans to take the entire problem seriously. This is particularly true of American laissez-faire economists, who tend to confine their recommendations for the backward countries to preachments about the virtues of the free market. But these preachments naturally fall on deaf ears, because “free market” for American conservatives obviously does not encompass an end to feudalism and land monopoly and the transfer of title to these lands, without compensation, to the peasantry. And yet, since agriculture is always the overwhelmingly most important industry in the undeveloped countries, a truly free market, a truly libertarian society devoted to justice and property rights, can only be established there by ending unjust feudal claims to property. But utilitarian economists, grounded on no ethical theory of property rights, can only fall back on defending whatever status quo may happen to exist—in this case, unfortunately, the status quo of feudal suppression of justice and of any genuinely free market in land or agriculture. This ignoring of the land problem means that Americans and citizens of undeveloped countries talk in two different languages and that neither can begin to understand the other’s position.

American conservatives, in particular, exhort the backward countries on the virtues and the importance of private foreign investment from the advanced countries, and of allowing a favorable climate for this investment, free from governmental harassment. This is all very true, but is again often unreal to the undeveloped peoples, because the conservatives persistently fail to distinguish between legitimate, free-market foreign investment, as against investment based upon monopoly concessions and vast land grants by the undeveloped states. To the extent that foreign investments are based on land monopoly and aggression against the peasantry, to that extent do foreign capitalists take on the aspects of feudal landlords, and must be dealt with in the same way....

What, then, is to be our view toward investment in oil lands, one of the major forms of foreign investment in underdeveloped countries in today’s world? The major error of most analyses is to issue either a blanket approval or a blanket condemnation, for the answer depends on the justice of the property title established in each specific case. Where, for example, an oil company, foreign or domestic, lays claim to the oil field which it discovers and drills, then this is its just “homesteaded” private property, and it is unjust for the undeveloped government to tax or regulate the company. Where the government insists on claiming ownership of the land itself, and only leases the oil to the company, then (as we will see further below in discussing the role of government), the government’s claim is illegitimate and invalid, and the company, in the role of homesteader, is properly the owner and not merely the renter of the oil land.

On the other hand, there are cases where the oil company uses the government of the undeveloped country to grant it, in advance of drilling, a monopoly concession to all the oil in a vast land area, thereby agreeing to the use of force to squeeze out all competing oil producers who might search for and drill oil in that area. In that case, as in the case above of Crusoe’s arbitrarily using force to squeeze out Friday the first oil company is illegitimately using the government to become a land-and-oil monopolist. Ethically, any new company that enters the scene to discover and drill oil is the proper owner of its “homesteaded” oil area. A fortiori, of course, our oil concessionaire who also uses the State to eject peasants from their land by force—as was done, for example, by the Creole Oil Co. in Venezuela—is a collaborator with the government in the latter’s aggression against the property rights of the peasantry.

We are now able to see the grave fallacy in the current programs for “land reform” in the undeveloped countries. (These programs generally involve minor transfers of the least fertile land from landlords to peasants, along with full compensation to the landlords, often financed by the peasants themselves via state aid.) If the landlord’s title is just, then any land reform applied to such land is an unjust and criminal confiscation of his property; but, on the other hand, if his title is unjust, then the reform is picayune and fails to reach the heart of the question. For then the only proper solution is an immediate vacating of the title and its transfer to the peasants, with certainly no compensation to the aggressors who had wrongly seized control of the land. Thus, the land problem in the undeveloped countries can only be solved by applying the rules of justice that we have set forth; and such application requires detailed and wholesale empirical inquiry into present titles to land.


Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

It should be clear that for the libertarians to refute this stratagem they must take their stand on a theory of just versus unjust property; they cannot remain utilitarians....

This is a strawman of utilitarian theory. There are plenty of utilitarian reasons to oppose the King and His Court assigning themselves all the land, then exacting rent.

- Josh

July 09, 2005 1:56 AM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: that's not what feudalism really was, any more than what is now called free trade really is free trade. Most of these misunderstandings come from listening to the misunderstandings of the 18th century enlightenment that used "feudal" to refer to the state sanctioned approach that had been used to buy out certain sectors under feudalism and get them on side with absolutism. To see how Rothbard's scenario would work out under real feudalism (reciprocal obligations) see how things would evolve from his reinitialising over time. The privileged would have to trade off some of their position for mutual support from the rest. Eventually - with no more capturing the system and becomin

July 09, 2005 3:51 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I think what Rothbard was referring to, primarily, was dumbed-down Coaseian arguments that justice in property titles didn't make much difference, because it'd wind up in the most efficient hands anyway.


What R. calls "feudalism" is more accurately a description of the "bastard feudalism" of later years, in which the landed classes divested themselves of all reciprocal obligations and attempted to transform the peasants into tenants at-will. I agree, it's not a very accurate description of feudalism as it existed in the high medieval period that Chesterton idealized.

What he describes as "feudalism" really existed--but it's closer to Wallerstein's "long sixteenth century," when the landed aristocracy was transforming itself into agricultural capitalists, than to the classic feudalism of the high middle ages

July 10, 2005 7:34 PM  
Anonymous P.M.Lawrence said...

Bastard feudalism, otherwise known as Livery and Maintenance, did not eliminate all reciprocal obligation, it merely expressed it between the magnates and their underlings (who got livery - clothes - and maintenance - board and lodging - out of it). It came about with a change to a more cash oriented economy and shifts in the arts of war that needed more specialists. But there's far more to say here. For the moment, think of Sancho Panza and the Three Musketeer's servant whose name I forget off hand.

July 12, 2005 1:39 AM  

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