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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, May 06, 2005

The Perils of Utilitarian Property Rights Theory

Brad Spangler directed me to this great Murray Rothbard quote:

Suppose that libertarian agitation and pressure has escalated to such a point that the government and its various branches are ready to abdicate. But they engineer a cunning ruse. Just before the government of New York state abdicates it passes a law turning over the entire territorial area of New York to become the private property of the Rockefeller family. The Massachusetts legislature does the same for the Kennedy family. And so on for each state. The government could then abdicate and decree the abolition of taxes and coercive legislation, but the victorious libertarians would now be confronted with a dilemma. Do they recognize the new property titles as legitimately private property? The utilitarians, who have no theory of justice in property rights, would, if they were consistent with their acceptance of given property titles as decreed by government, have to accept a new social order in which fifty new satraps would be collect­ing taxes in the form of unilaterally imposed "rent." The point is that only natural-rights libertarians, only those libertarians who have a theory of justice in property titles that does not depend on government decree, could be in a position to scoff at the new rulers' claims to have private property in the territory of the country, and to rebuff these claims as invalid.

This discussion of utilitarian property rights theory reminded me of article I read a couple years back presenting an anarcho-capitalist model of eminent domain: a powerful party seizes someone else's property for a "better and higher use," and then pays damages in court--essentially using local juries to assess payment for seized land after the fact. I'm almost certain I saw it at Anti-State.Com, but for the life of me I can't track it down. I'm also pretty sure I remember who the author was, but since it doesn't presently appear in his archives, I don't want to unfairly charge him with it.

Here's what bugs me about all the pseudo-Coaseian arguments that the origin of property titles doesn't matter, because the market will sort them out to the most efficient users: it's not much consolation to a peasant proprietor who could be supporting himself by subsistence farming, but is currently squatting in a Calcutta gutter with a begging bowl, that the land is being used more "efficiently" by Cargill. (Of course, my knowledge of Coase is completely indirect, mainly from his use in vulgar libertarian apologetics, since I don't have the neoclassical math apparatus it takes to follow his argument in original form.) Peter Lawrence has pointed out that while the enclosure of common lands may have increased the "net efficiency" of society, one group that definitely did not benefit from this increased output were the people whose land was stolen.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are plenty of utilitarian reasons to oppose such a move. Ol' Murray sure was good with the lies and smears.

(I'm a deontologist, FWIW.)

- Josh

May 06, 2005 11:58 AM  
Blogger b-psycho said...

"lies & smears"? Would you care to show some actual examples?

May 06, 2005 12:58 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Whenever someone says "efficiency" these days, my first reaction is "in terms of what?"

May 06, 2005 3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Efficiency or utility from whose perspective? If one claims to pursue that which is efficient or maximizes utility for society as a whole, this begs the question of who makes such a determination and on what basis the claim is made. If people claiming the "good of society as a whole" as an end grants them license to aggress is not the entirety of the obstacles to liberty, it is surely a sizable chunk at least. It was a sham whenever Bill Clinton and his ilk professed to be doing something "for the children" and I'm inclined to view all such claims similarly until proven otherwise.

May 06, 2005 4:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But how could Rothbard have done any better in opposing the new titles in the new anarco-capitalist system. I know he believed that individuals had a right to appropriate unowned land, but did he have a coherent rectification theory? Did he propose giving New York and Massachusettes back to the Iraquoi? If not, how was his system any better than those who would recognise the claims of the Kennedys and the Rockefellers in his hypo? If right-wing anarcho capitalism suddenly sprang up, how far back does he propose we recognise old government-granted titles?

May 06, 2005 7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


At the very least, recognition of existing titles is better because *most* owners of such titles have a considerable real claim to them. Not a perfect claim, but a much better claim than one who'se just recently been granted title by government fiat. Your typical homestead plot in New York or Massachusetts, for example, has been exchanged freely among owners for numerous generations since its initial royal governor's grant or whatever, and has had people build on it and otherwise "mix their labor" with it multiple times. The Rockefellers, etc. can't say the same.

-- Nick Weininger

May 07, 2005 7:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Ol' Murray rolled out a nice smear of utilitarians here.

As for lies, check out Rothbard on the Winter War, when democratic republican Finland defended itself against the terror of the Soviet Union. Rothbard, predictably, takes the side of slavery, a tradition Lew Rockwell continues proudly: http://www.no-treason.com/archives/2003/07/03/more-rothbardian-lies-about-the-winter-war/

- Josh

May 07, 2005 9:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a typical right-libertarian cop-out. Even ignoring the fact that the land grant to the Kennedys and the Rockefellers in the hypo *would be* an "existing claim" when the anarcho-capitalist regime was created, you have still relied on fuzzy words like "better" and "most" to support a supposedly deontological claim. That is NOT deontology: It doesn't matter how long and hard you have toiled on the land since you shot the previous owner, if you stole it, it's not yours, and I have not responsibility to recognise your false claim. The fuzzy balancing act you propose is what UTILITARIANS do, and Rothbard was arguing against utilitarianism.

I just love how you right-libertarians switch between absolutist deontology and fuzzy utilitarianism whenever it is convinient to holding on to your blood-soaked property deeds.

May 07, 2005 5:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of Henry George's remarks about Captain Kidd, and the rights of his grandson.

After considering this, I see at least two ways around the conundrum. One is to use at least part of a system like the Ottoman system that made breach of the peace the foundation, not property, and the other is to use whatever self stabilising thing the new arrangements have.

With the "Ottoman" approach, you wouldn't base the property rights on just holding, but on holding unchallenged for a while - adverse possession. Then the Rockefeller claim would be defeated until they had been there for a while, since the "state" never had what it purported to sell (having no existence as a "moral person"). During the interim, whatever measures the Ottoman approach gave, to stop breaches of the peace, would be there to assist the Rockefellers in staying put - or to assist challengers. The Ottoman approach makes no distinction between perpetrators and victims, it just objects to the affray they get into.

The self stabilising approach relies on the fact that you wouldn't have a proper system anywa, if it allowed people to subvert it. That is, in its plain form a Mafia-style approach could "persuade" people to sell "voluntarily" at cheap rates anyway. The only way to cope is to have a system that encourages poachers to turn gamekeeper to internalise the correct values, and so become respecters rather than destroyers. The system would also need a generational redistribution mechanism so that bumps would tend to even themselves out; one of the easiest ways is to have customs that make people marry only when they can afford it, so that the wealthier average more children
and so more heirs (the sort of thing Malthus mused about). With that

May 08, 2005 2:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It looks as though the system is truncating longer posts. My post just now got truncated, but it isn't that important.

May 08, 2005 2:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

decnavda, leaving aside the inflammatory rhetoric (and your gratuitous misreading of my "existing titles", meaning the sorts of titles that actually exist in the Real World (tm), to mean any title that might exist in a hypo world): your central claim about the nature of deontology is plain wrong.

Nothing about deontology precludes the use of "better" or "worse" terminology, in talking about property claims or anything else. Nothing about a deontological defense of property rights requires that claims be perfect in order to be worthy of respect at all. If I talk about greater and lesser evils, or greater and lesser degrees of justice, I haven't suddenly switched to utilitarianism; I've simply recognized that the world is not divided into absolute good and absolute evil.

Moreover, deontology and utilitarianism, properly considered, are not mutually exclusive or even at cross-purposes; indeed, any philosophy worth having must incorporate significant quantities of both. So criticizing someone for using both in an argument reveals your own intellectual limitations, not any supposed inconsistency in the arguer.

--Nick Weininger

May 08, 2005 10:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I didn't actually say the losers' lands were stolen. It's not necessary to get into whether what happened was "stealing" or not; you can follow through the consequences regardless of whether you personally agree that it was stolen, or if you suppose that the taking was morally or legally justified.

May 08, 2005 10:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. We were discussing a hypothetical world - if you only count actual reality in answering a hypo and not the hypothetical reality, the hypothetical is useless.

2. If you want to use better or worse in a deontological sytem, you need standards for better or worse - which is what I was asking if Rothbard had. So far I heard no such standards from Rothbard, you, or any other right-libertarian. (So far the only honest right-libertarian on this issue is Nozick, who admitted his political philosophy was useless without a rectification theory he admitted he never developed.)

3. So, the fact that you choose whatever basic principles you need to justify your beliefs as need arises shows your intellectual superiority to those lesser minds who demand so-called "logical consistency". Look, IS IT POSSIBLE for deontology and utilitarianism to be compatible? I suppose maybe. But if you are the one switching between them, it is YOUR responsiblity to show HOW they compatible, not declare the theoretical possibility and then feel superior when your opponent can not work out for you how system can work together logically, when you have failed to do so yourself. Your rationalizations are a perfect example of what help convince many non libertarians that libertarians are the intellectual prostitutes of the corporate plutocracy.

May 08, 2005 2:34 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


That's my reaction to the utilitarian arguments for patents--they essentially boil down to giving somebody a monopoly on the right to produce something for the good of "society."


You're right--I should have made it more clear what was a paraphrase of you and what was my characterization of its significance.


I believe Rothbard was fairly conservative in applying his theory of property rights, at least in the case of individual holders--those with existing titles would would have a presumption of ownership unless somebody could show a valid claim to being heir to the dispossessed.

The main forms of title likely to suffer large-scale transfer would be

1) tracts of land derived from state land grants, and never personally altered by the title-holder or his ancestors; this would include feudal or quasi-feudal situations.

2) large, vacant and essentially unaltered tracts of land;

3) business firms which derive most of their profits from state action--these would be treated as "unowned" and "homesteaded" by their existing work force.

I'm sure I'm leaving something out, but it's been a long work week.

May 09, 2005 7:14 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


More generally, I should have said that Rothbard rejected in principle the idea that transfer by sale could legitimize stolen goods.

I don't think he would have recognized the Iroquois' collective claim to the land (as opposed to individual claims to particular parcels based on ancestral title), or how stringently he would have set standards for the amount of labor necessary to appropriate a given tract of land. So how viable any living Iroquois could present, in his view, I couldn't guess.

But in principle, he believed land to legitimately belong to the first person to alter it with his labor, and his heirs and assigns.

May 09, 2005 7:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...those with existing titles would would have a presumption of ownership unless somebody could show a valid claim to being heir to the dispossessed...

How sad. I have not been convinced by any initial appropriation theory, but at least most of those are logically coherent. However, it seems in practice Rothbard wants me to respect the claims of the earliest known thief. Is that really the best that right-libertarians can do?

May 10, 2005 9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't the point that you only know that the present titleholder is a thief when an heir of the dispossessed comes forward with some evidence that the land was in fact stolen?

One need only respect the claims of the earliest known thief as against the claims of "later known thiefs" (this is what is meant in property law by the relativity of title). As a against the rightful owner, the claims of the earliest thief would count for nothing.

May 10, 2005 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Relativity of title works as a legal because the law is intended to secure certain consequences. But, again, consequentialism (specifically utilitarianism) was what Rothbard was arguing against.

My point is that the title of virtually evey square inch of land in the United States - and, for that matter, the other five inhabited continents - can be traced back to someone who was, according to Rand, Rothbard, and Nosick, a theif, so why should I, for deontological reasons, respect anyone's title? Nosick was at least honest enough to admit that there is no reason I should.

May 10, 2005 12:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A critic of anarcho-capitalism: A Landlord is a Government: The Libertarian Basis for Land Rights.

May 22, 2005 10:30 AM  

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