George Reisman's Double Standard
To get the superficial stuff out of the way first, I can't help noticing Reisman is putting "iced-cream"--er, "mutualism"--in quotes, as though it were something I just invented. I'd like to take credit for it, I really would, but I don't think I'd get away with it. Reisman ought to do a Google on Proudhon, Warren, Tucker, et al. It's a good thing I'm not a Galambosian, or I'd be paying royalties on the "philosophy of thieves."
Reisman makes enough allusions, however distorted, to arguments I made in my last response, and to arguments I and others made in the comments at his Mises Blog post, to indicate that he at least attempted to follow the debate.
But he seems to have gotten fixated on the idea that the main application of mutualist property theory would be by cuckoos in the Lockean nest, waiting to surprise unsuspecting landlords after they sign a lease. He still doesn't grasp the idea that it's a rival, internally consistent set of private property rules that could only exist in a society where majority consensus backed it up. He assumes most of the present system into existence in his hypothetical scenario, with mutualist property relations being introduced only through individual perversity. He changes one little thing in a system that, in every other particular, is the present one. Ever see that episode of The Honeymooners where Ralph imagined how he'd live as a rich man? "And I'd put a telephone on the fire escape, so I could handle my big business deals if I had to sleep out there when it was hot." I suspect Reisman of a similar lack of imagination.
He presents a hypothetical case:
Thus, to elaborate on the case I presented in my last post, “Mutualism: A Philosophy for Thieves,” let us imagine that our legitimate land owner—legitimate even by Carson’s standards—has spent several years clearing or draining his land, pulling out stumps, removing rocks and boulders, digging a well, building a barn and a house, and putting up fences to keep in his livestock. It is this land that he agrees to rent to a tenant, or, what is not too different, sell on a thirty-year mortgage, which he himself will carry, on the understanding that every year for thirty years he will receive a payment of interest and principal.
The tenant or mortgagee signs a contractual agreement promising to pay rent, or interest and principal, and takes possession of the property. Being a secret mutualist, however, he thereupon proclaims that the property is now his, on the basis of the mutualist doctrine that, in Carson’s words, “occupancy and use is the only legitimate standard for establishing ownership of land.”
This is a clear theft not only of the land, but also of the product of labor. A worker has toiled for years and is now arbitrarily deprived of the benefit of his labor, and this in the name of the protection of the rights of workers!
Of course, this case is irrelevant. Mutualist property rules could only exist on a stable basis if there were a local consensus on them, embodied in some code of libertarian common law. And under those circumstances, it would be a singularly obtuse would-be landlord who entered into such an agreement knowing the local legal system. It would make about as much sense as somebody in Canada, around 1850, making a contract in which somebody else sold himself into slavery for $10,000. He'd be laughed out of court if he attempted to enforce the contract; if he pleaded hardship for losing his money, the likely response would be that life is necessarily hard for someone that stupid.
On the other hand, a closeted mutualist tenant who attempted to surprise his landlord in such a manner, in a Lockean-consensus community, would fare about as well as an absentee landlord attempting to collect rent in a Tuckerite-consensus community.
Here's an opposing case for you: Imagine I'm renting a house under a Lockean property system, and get permission to plant a garden on it. I invest a lot of effort in composting and green manuring, and even spend money on granite dust, greensand, rock phosphate and the like to improve the soil. When I get done with it, what was hardpan clay has been transformed into rich, black, friable soil. And when I cease renting, I lose the value of all the improvements I made. That's the sort of thing that happens all the time under Lockeanism. But I suspect that Reisman would say that I made the improvements with my eyes open, and am entitled to no sympathy because I knew what the rules were. I certainly doubt that he's shedding any tears over the invested labor that the South Central Farmers are in danger of losing.
The difference is, when it happens under the system he's defending, it's just life; when it happens under the system he's demonizing, it's an outrage.
Here's another example of the same double-standard:
Mutualists pretend that there will be communities in which such behavior is accepted and routine, and chide opponents for their lack of knowledge of anthropology for not understanding this. They do not care to admit that the only thing which can enforce such a practice is the threat of physical force against those who would put an end to it, i.e., for all practical purposes, the existence of some form of tyrannical state. Yes, mutualists are “anarchists” who turn out to be statists!
And just how could Lockean practice persist unless it was enforced by similar threats against those who would put an end to it (what Reisman calls a "state")? To put it in more neutral language, neither the Lockean nor the mutualist property system could function without the willingness of the majority of one's neighbors to recognize one's rights claims under that system and to back them up with what they perceive as defensive force, if necessary. If such a consensus, backed up by the power of the community, is a "state" under mutualism, then it's also a "state" under Lockeanism.
It is possible to see why this must be so by starting with a condition in which there is no government. In this state of affairs, our exploited worker-victim easily proves to his neighbors that a “lying, thieving mutualist” has stolen his land and deprived him of the benefit of years of work. If his neighbors have neither been lobotomized nor castrated, they will probably contemplate lynching this “mutualist.” In any case, they proceed with our victim to his land and are ready forcibly to evict the “mutualist.” What will stop them from doing so and thus putting an end to any practice of Mutualism’s depraved concept of “property rights”?
The only thing that will stop them is the threat or actuality of greater force exerted by mutualists, i.e., by a mutualist armed gang. If the mutualist gang has its way, it constitutes a de facto mutualist state, which must continue in existence indefinitely in order to uphold the mutualist concept of “property rights.”
See, when there's a consensus on Lockean rules, and neighbors band together to enforce each other's rights under those rules, it's a defensive action on behalf of all that's right and holy. When neighbors band together to enforce a consensus on mutualist rules, on the other hand, it's a band of thugs.
But any system of property rules requires a majority consensus of people willing to enforce each other's rights under that system, and such a majority will tend to view attempts to enforce any rival system as "aggression." In the one case, Reisman calls it a "state" or "armed gang." In the other, he doesn't. All Reisman proves, in so doing, is that he likes one system and hates the other--something we already knew. Refusing to admit any parallel in the cases just demonstrates a tribalistic emotional attachment to his own set of rules; it certainly does nothing to validate those rules.
Reisman simply starts from the assumption that the system of rules he favors is right and proper, and that other systems of rules are pernicious. He then uses loaded terminology, both god-terms and devil-terms, to describe analogous phenomena in the respective systems. I believe it's called begging the question.
Perhaps I'm overpsychologizing things, but Reisman seems almost pathologically deficient in the empathy or imagination, or whatever it takes to put oneself in someone else's place sufficiently to be able to understand, on its own terms, an argument he disagrees with.
But at least he seems to be attempting to engage, however feebly, arguments that have been made in response to his last statement--and not just reasserting his original statements. That's a definite improvement.
Addendum. George Reisman isn't the only person who has attempted to challenge me with hypothetical scenarios. I've been asked more than once, in various discussion threads at Mises Blog and here, how a mutualist property system would handle this or that case. The short answer, in many cases, is "I don't know."
Manuel Lora, an anarcho-capitalist, put it quite well in reference to his own system:
I cannot provide an answer for every conceivable question regarding the organization of society. At best, one can offer opinions but not guarantees. And that does not mean that an answer would not exist, it’s just that right now, it’s impossible to know what it is. Furthermore, we could have several answers and even overlapping answers. With government, there is only one way to do things. Freedom is unknown, yet no less valid if we’re today unable to answer questions about a reality that does not exist. [via iceberg]
I can, however, put forth certain principles that would likely govern its practical application. Most importantly, any libertarian common law code based on mutualist property rules would be worked out in a mutualist community, the community being one made up overwhelmingly of small property owners who see their own property as the basis of security and independence, and see the distributive ownership of property in general as a bulwark of social stability against polarizing inequality and class conflict. The main evil to be prevented by their law code, accordingly, would be the concentration of large amounts of property in a few hands (particularly exclusion of homesteaders from large tracts of vacant land, or large-scale ownership of many rental properties by a single landlord).
For situations short of this, such as the one Reisman brings up in his latest post, the practical application of mutualist principle would be worked out by the local community in such a way as to avoid stepping on their own toes; and the majority of people in a community of small property owners would hardly wish to live in fear that their property might be seized by a squatter as soon as they went on vacation or let some of it lie fallow for a year. In other words, their application of mutualist law would be on the principle that the law is made for man, rather than the reverse.
For hard cases like the one Reisman presents, there is a variety of ways a jury of sympathetic neighbors might deal with it in a mutualist legal system, without undermining the central values of mutualist property law. I already discussed one possible way: the community might be willing to enforce a contractual agreement for a post-transfer payment for transfer of possession, by all means short of dispossessing the new owner: the remedies of the injuried party might extend to seizure of movable assets, shunning or exclusion from mutually organized social services, and the like (for a picture of how this might work, recall the story about the lazy guy who repeatedly skipped out on his "obs" in Russell's "And Then There Were None," and wound up starving because nobody would do business with him). This would be no more an impairment of the specifics of such a contract than the absence of debt slavery for bankruptcy is an impairment of debtors' obligations in our society.
On the other hand, the community might be willing to evict an occupant and restore the land to the original owner in cases where fraud was involved in the transfer of possession, on the grounds that the transaction was rendered null and void. Such fraud would be equivalent to violent dispossession, in which case the community would be justified in the use of force to restore the original owner. (I got this suggestion from Joshua Holmes, aka Wild Pegasus, in the comments to Reisman's post).
I can also imagine, consistent with mutualist principle, a local jury enforcing a contract to pay amortization costs of labor and improvements in return for a transfer of possession. There's no reason they could not do this, consistent with mutualist principle, and still refuse to enforce an extended rental agreement.
A mutualist community might do any, or all, or none of these things, or some that I haven't thought of. I just don't know.
It's interesting that critics portray such practical discretion as backtracking or inconsistency, when no system could exist without it. Lockean systems, for example, involve largely conventional provisions for constructive abandonment and salvage, adverse possession, etc., none of which can be derived in all its specifics from the basic principles of Lockean theory. As Sheldon Richman commented, any system, for its practical application, requires large elements of seemingly arbitrary convention.
Mutualism, on the other hand, is judged in the worst possible light, on the assumptions that neighbors either would be looking for the first opportunity to screw each other over, or would apply some cartoonish version of pure mutualist principle with no discretion or common sense whatever.
As I pointed out above, in a mutualist community any landowner who sought to negotiate payment for a transfer of possession would do so in the awareness of what the legal code allowed and did not allow. It would be decidedly odd, in such a community of small landowners, if the common law did not make some provision for the transfer of possession and recouping of improvement outlays (perhaps one of the expedients I listed above, or perhaps some other) other than a thirty year mortgage or an extended rental. I also wonder about the specifics of the hardship case that motivated the owner to dispossess himself of the property he had worked so hard to develop; whatever the specifics, I find it unlikely that a community of congenial neighbors with a vigorous tradition of mutual aid would fail to provide any means of hardship relief short of the alternatives Reisman mentions. Shawn Wilbur, for example, said this in a comment on an earlier post:
It's not hard to imagine a mutualism that includes summer homes and caretaking arrangements. On the other hand, i live in a town where something like half of the real estate is in the hands of a handful of folks, who live off the needs of a much larger group of folks for a place to live. that's a very different situation. The concentration of real property here has consequences that make certain kinds of basic personal security and justice much harder to attain. A mutualist society would undoubtedly attempt to reorganize itself along other lines.