By David Gordon*
I would like to examine some criticisms of anarcho-capitalist theories of property acquisition raised by Jesse Spafford in his article “Social Anarchism and the Rejection of Private Property”, included in the Routledge Handbook of Anarchy and Anarchist Thought, edited by Gary Chartier and Chad Van Schoelandt (Routledge, 2021). Spafford, a research fellow at Trinity College Dublin, is a “social anarchist”, who rejects private property rights.
Spafford appeals to a plausible moral intuition shared by most people, certainly including anarcho-capitalists. By “intuition” I do not mean a hunch or a conjecture, but rather a judgment on a case, not based on an explicit moral theory. An oft-cited example of such intuition is “torturing babies for fun is wrong.” Philosophers who appeal to moral intuitions start from intuitions that seem plausible and attempt to draw controversial conclusions from them. Other philosophers reject this procedure as too subjective and unsystematic.
The plausible intuition from which Spafford starts is that the use or threat of force requires justification. Suppose you think smoking is bad for people and you use force to stop people you know from smoking. For most of us, it seems that you are not justified in doing this. Anarcho-capitalist philosopher Michael Huemer uses examples like this to question the legitimacy and authority of the state. If you can’t do it, why is it normal for the state to do it? What is the difference?
Spafford suggests that arguments like Huemer’s can be used to challenge private property rights. If you have ownership of something, you have the right to prevent anyone from using it without your permission. If you use force against someone to exclude them, why isn’t that wrong? Spafford offers this example:
Take the case of a cruise ship that docks on a hitherto unknown island. The passengers are excited to spend the day exploring the island, but before they have a chance to disembark, a passenger runs to the end of the gangplank and says: Sorry, but I’ve decided that this island is reserved for my personal use! I forbid any of you to set foot there, unless, of course, you pay me $50 and take off your shoes before getting off the boat. When the first passenger in line ignores this edict and enters the island, the edict sender’s friends rush in and grab the “intruder” and begin binding his wrists and ankles. She struggles a bit, but after spraying sunscreen in her eyes, she stops resisting and is taken back to the ship and locked in one of the cabins until she agrees to stay out of the ship. Isle.
Isn’t it reasonable to think that the passenger does not have the right to appropriate the island and exclude others from it? If so, what about property rights?
The answer to this question is obvious, and Spafford anticipates this answer; but I don’t think he’s able to counter it. Property advocates will say that the passenger did not meet the correct conditions to acquire property. If the ship had landed on an island belonging to someone, why would not the owner had the right to force the passengers to leave the island?
Stafford responds that standard Lockean property acquisition accounts do not work. He uses some examples from the philosopher Ed Feser, who at one time had a Lockean view:
According to Feser, a person acquires rights over natural resources that did not previously belong to him either (a) by gaining control or (b) by sufficiently modifying these resources. Thus, a homesteader who tills the soil of an ownerless parcel of land or builds a substantial fence around its perimeter would thus become an owner of it. However, examination of other cases cast doubt on Feser’s proposition. Consider, for example, the case of a person who deliberately starts a forest fire that burns an entire forest, blackening thousands of acres of trees and land. Suppose a hiker then tries to enter the forest to see the damage. Can the firestarter imprison the hiker or threaten to shoot her if she does not leave the burned area? Surely not. Thus, simply modifying terrain and objects seems insufficient to make them coercive.
But, if we agree with Spafford that burning the forest does not establish ownership, that hardly invalidates all claims that it is enough to do something about ownerless resources to acquire them. Spafford will then demand to know what are the conditions that lead to the acquisition of a property, and specifying them is not an easy task. All I’m claiming here, however, is that Spafford has given us no general reason to doubt that there are legitimate ways to acquire property. What, for example, is wrong with owning a house or a car?
Spafford makes a bad argument against property rights. He says,
Note that the use of force to control some resources is only necessary if non-coercive forms of control prove inadequate, i.e., control of the resource has not been established. only by non-coercive means. In other words, even if one accepts that the non-coercive control of resources implies the legality of the coercive control of these resources, any recourse to coercion implies the absence of such non-coercive control. Thus, there can be no instance of coercive exclusion that is permitted by virtue of the existence of non-coercive prior screening of the resource.
This argument has at least two flaws. If you are using force against someone trying to take your car away from you, it is trivially true that you are not while you are struggling with the thief who is controlling the car. But the relevant fact is that you became the owner of the car without coercion. Spafford wrongly carried over the hunches of a case where someone claims ownership while pushing other claimants back to all cases of initial ownership acquisition.
A second problem with the argument is that a right to prevent others from using your property does not imply that at all times while you have that right you are exercising it by coercing others. Your right to exclude means that you are allowed to exclude others, not that you actually exclude them. Spafford struggles to distinguish between your right to something and the activities you engage in exercising that right. In another example, he says, discussing a case in which a mechanic worked on your car, that while the work was in progress, you waived your right to disqualify the car. It’s not correct. The mechanic uses the car with your permission, but you have not waived any of your rights. You can tell him at any time to stop working on the car.
Spafford faces a problem faced by many critics of Lockean appropriation. What is the rationale for one’s own account of the morally appropriate use of resources? It assumes without argument that people have an equal right to use all resources, as long as they respect the equal rights of others. He is firmly committed to this position, and at some point he says something incredible. He first suggests that some social anarchists would allow certain types of coercive exclusion of others from the use of resources. He says,
Consider the case of two castaways stranded on an island lush with peanut plants. One castaway is allergic to peanuts but good at catching fish, while the other lacks the arm strength and coordination to catch fish. The net result of these differences is that both are able to lead equally good lives, with one fishing and sleeping on the beach while the other forages inland for food. However, suppose one day the allergic castaway starts clear-cutting the densest area of peanut plants so that it has a place to play football. Furthermore, suppose that destroying these plants would impose great difficulty on the uncoordinated castaway, as he would then have to spend many tedious and difficult hours each day searching for the few remaining peanuts. Given these stipulations, would it be permissible for the uncoordinated castaway to use coercion to prevent the allergic castaway from destroying the plants on which his quality of life depends? Some egalitarian anarchists might answer in the affirmative, claiming that the legality of coercion is based on the need to ensure that the uncoordinated castaway does not live a worse life than his companion (through no fault of his go) .
Now comes the amazing part. He says,
Some social anarchists might reject the intuition that coercion is permissible in the case of peanuts. Given this rejection, they would insist that coercive control of resources is always impermissible, except when it has been consented to by the victim or, perhaps, when such control is necessary to avoid some sort of catastrophe. moral. This position places stricter limits on the forms society can take. Specifically, it would sanction only two forms of resource management, each with its own drawbacks, but both of which avoid the coercion that is pervasive in private property regimes (and which persists in a more limited form in egalitarian anarchist society). ).
(I don’t think it’s necessary for our purposes to describe these two forms.)
A society where the division of labor is under constant threat of interference would be vastly less productive than a market economy. But never mind, equal access to all resources must be preserved!
Note: Opinions expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
*About the author: David Gordon is a Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Updates.
Source: This article was published by the MISES Institute