Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Initiating Force

Will Wilkinson is one of my favourite libertarians, and his sensible post on 'fake libertarian clarity' exemplifies some of the reasons why. There's one passage in particular that I want to discuss here:
[Some] libertarians are also notoriously guilty of pretending that their favorite kinds of coercion aren’t. Threatening force to deny another person use of one’s land, or one’s house, is coercion. A system of private property is a system of coercion. It may be justified coercion. It is justified coercion. But then the question is: What justifies it? The coercive protection of property is justified because people do better with it than without it. If people do better in a system that defines rights to property a bit less strictly, and coercively guarantees an economic minimum, then that is justified coercion.

Too right. At this point simple libertarians appeal to the distinction between self-defense vs. initiating force. But as I explain here:
Property-claims initiate force against others. The original privatization unilaterally removes others' access to what would otherwise be a common resource. That's an aggressive imposition of harm on innocent people, without their consent. We then threaten aggression against them, merely for wanting to use the resource in the same (peaceful) way as we do...

Again, one's attempts to claim exclusive use ("ownership") of a resource may well be a reasonable limitation to (attempt to) impose on others. But that doesn't change the plain fact that the claim to property is an (attempted) imposition. And of course it's logically necessary that their initial claim to ownership occurs prior to anyone else's interfering with their property -- otherwise it wouldn't be "their property" yet!

So there's really no possible way to deny this. It's a plain statement of fact: to claim a right of exclusive use (i.e. a "property right") over a resource, is to limit the options available to other people -- including people who have not yet done anything to you. This is a form of "coercion", in the value-neutral sense of the term.

Simple libertarians have difficulty appreciating this, because they think of property as a 'given', a basic feature of the natural world, rather than a human imposition -- or "social relations of constraint", as Cohen aptly puts it. These constraints are so thoroughly internalized that they fail to even notice them anymore.

So step back, and try to imagine seeing things from an alien's anthropological perspective. The alien has all sorts of physical and psychological concepts, but no explicitly moral ideas such as 'rights'. All he does is observe what is the case; he makes no judgments about what ought to be. So when he visits Earth, what will he see?

Bob and Sally are stuck on a desert island, with a banana tree. Bob gets there first and claims it as his own -- maybe he mixes his labour with it a bit, waters and nourishes it, whatever you like. Later, Sally goes to eat a banana, and Bob stops her, pushes her back. Who aggressed against whom? From the value-neutral perspective of the alien, the answer can only possibly be that Bob was the one initiating force here.

For libertarians to offer a different answer, they must not be using 'force', 'aggression', 'coercion', 'liberty' etc. as purely descriptive, value-neutral terms that even the alien could understand. They must instead be loading their moral assumptions into the concepts, effectively collapsing 'aggression' into 'unjustified aggression'. These moralized concepts presuppose libertarianism, they therefore cannot be used to argue for libertarianism on pain of circularity. This is why simple libertarianism is more accurately called 'propertarianism'. What's philosophically fundamental to the view is property rights, not liberty.

Anyone who truly takes liberty itself as a basic concept (rather than redefining it in terms of some other moral conception like property rights) must acknowledge that property rights can infringe on liberty. And once you make that step, the only sensible response is to assess the various institutional systems on offer, including those which render property subject to some degree of redistribution, and opt for the one that best promotes human flourishing (or whatever we think is ultimately good).

'Philosophical libertarianism' thus looks to be incoherent. There's simply no avoiding ubiquitous coercion (understood in a value-neutral way). So we can't get anywhere by taking that as our fundamental evaluative principle. 'Propertarians' instead treat property rights as their fundamental value, but further reflection reminds us that it is not rights themselves that fundamentally matter, but the people they are meant to protect. And so we end up with utilitarianism, at least at the fundamental level. One may, of course, still be a 'political libertarian' in the sense that you think libertarian policies will tend to best promote the common good. But anyone who thinks capitalism is intrinsically or necessarily just is simply confused -- or am I missing something?


  1. I agree with your criticism, but only because land is scarce. There is no way to get from non-initiation of force to who is entitled to occupy and use a piece of land.

    It will not necessarily always be the case that land is scarce though. I'm thinking of self-sufficient communities on other planets, on the sea or in the air. Still science fiction at this point but that has never stopped philosophers before.

  2. Nigel - I can see how abundance would affect the moral question of justification (why take something Bob wants/claims if you can just as easily find your own banana tree?). But it would not seem to affect the factual question of who initiates force in case of such a conflict. Even supposing banana trees are abundant, what physical fact could lead a Martian to judge that Sally initiated force against Bob rather than vice versa?

  3. That works if you assume the banana tree was just sitting there with bananas on it and Bob got to it first.

    More likely, and especially into the future, the tree with bananas would not be there unless Bob or someone else did work to make that happen. The fact of that work having been done is what makes the difference.

    Bob's ownership of his own body implies ownership of the work he does using his body and the result of that work.

    The problem is that Sally and Bob can't use libertarianism to decide who is entitled to grow the banana tree on that particular spot. Without scarcity of land the problem goes away.

  4. Nigel - I could just repeat my previous comment, since you haven't actually addressed the problem I raised for you.

    The one thing your second comment adds to your first is that it reveals that you take the propertarian route: although you acknowledge the problem of initial acquisition, in the ideal case you would define liberty in terms of ownership. I just want to make your implicit commitments perfectly clear here. You do not treat liberty as a fundamental concept, instead you define it in terms of some other moral concept -- 'ownership'. This is revealed by the fact that an alien anthropologist would identify the "coercion" facts differently from how you do. So your claims about the initiation of force are not purely factual. Instead, they're hidden value judgments; in particular, they presuppose your propertarian claim: "Bob's ownership of his own body implies ownership of the work he does using his body and the result of that work."

    In this thread, I am not concerned with arguing against propertarianism (the moral theory that has 'ownership' at its core). But I do want propertarians to recognize that their moral view is really centered around ownership, not freedom. (And so rhetoric to the contrary is misleading.)

  5. Richard,

    I'm struggling to see how the second quote below follows from the first:

    "These moralized concepts [i.e. an evaluative use of words like 'coercion'] presuppose libertarianism, they therefore cannot be used to argue for libertarianism on pain of circularity."

    "anyone who thinks capitalism is intrinsically or necessarily just is simply confused"

    Your first worry is about an argument for the view that capitalism is intrinsically unjust, and the latter worry is about stating the view that capitalism is intrinsically unjust. Can't they admit your former point but deny the latter?


  6. Your argument posits a particular genealogy - the idea that human societies began in a planet-wide state of Arcadian communism, which was later disrupted by the historical creation of property. That's inherent in your claim, "the original privatization unilaterally removes others' access to what would otherwise be a common resource". In fact most animal species are highly territorial, whether for their family or their pack ( There are Darwinian reasons for this. If the alien in your example evolved by natural selection back on his own world he might well see Sally's trespass as the trigger for conflict. Historically, the codification of legal property rights may well have reduced rather than increased the amount of force generated by these conflicts.

  7. Also, it's an overstatement to say that property rights remove others' access to whatever thing is deemed property. They make access conditional on the owner's consent.

  8. It is perhaps worth noting that property as a natural right is the origin of the Marxist notions of capitalist exploitation and alienation. The capitalist owns the goods produced by the workers; since the workers are the ones who injected their labor to produce the products, by the traditional Lockean picture they've infected it with their natural property rights, and the capitalist system "alienates" them from their natural property by assigning ownership to the capitalist. Of course the workers get paid, but since it's really their goods that the capitalist sells, when the capitalist sells the goods for far more than the workers get paid for making them, the capitalist's profit is "exploitation." The Marxist analysis only makes sense against the background of the natural rights theory of property. Probably more propertarians should have this pointed out to them more often.

  9. Alex - Sure. I was implicitly assuming that the liberty-based argument was the only half-plausible argument on the table. But I guess if someone came up with some other, better reasons for the view, they could escape my charge. (I'm yet to hear any such reasons, though.)

    Georges - I don't think any of that really affects the argument. I don't deny that property is a good thing. I'm simply trying to get people to be more aware of any moral presuppositions in their concepts of 'liberty' and 'initiating force', so as to prevent them from making circular arguments.

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  11. Precisely. I don't think anyone should base their political philosophy on a concept like 'freedom'. It needs to be underpinned by a theory of the good. So people should be arguing about what's good, not whether taxation (or whatever) is "coercive".

  12. Someone discussing this post elsewhere asks whether my view implies consuming, rather than claiming ownership over, the banana would likewise count as 'initiating force' against everyone else who would otherwise have access to the banana. I agree that sounds crazy. So I should clarify that it isn't really the claim to ownership that's coercive, but the enforcement of one's claim. (The claim itself is merely an announcement of one's aggressive intentions.) The key question is: who is the first person to physically push the other around? Eating a banana doesn't involve pushing anyone around. Protecting it from alleged "thieves" does.

  13. Aaron,

    You are very astute in your understanding of the problem with the capitalist employment contract but to say that this view is Marxist is incorrect. Marx actually missed this interpretation and instead focused on the ownership of the means of production rather the product (the correct view). It certainly follows that the product would naturally fall to the workers if they also owned the means of production but not because they owned the means of production (it would be because there are no capitalists, making the conflict moot). The role of residual claimant is a contractual role, not a property right, and Marx missed this, playing the perfect foil to capitalism in giving such significance to capital.

  14. Property is rooted in causality. Why do you own anything? Because you have took action that caused the thing you own to come to existence and/or to your posession. That's the base of it. That's also the whole reason why people apply the homesteading principle and that's what the said alien being would recognize.

    Causality is universal, thus it is likely that the alien would easily recognize the justification of Bob's forceful action. If Bob made the Banana tree into what it currently is, kept the land and the tree maintained and so on, Sally's coming to just take from it is essentially claiming to take the products of somebody elses labor. She didn't cause what Bob did. Those aren't "her" effects, thus it isn't her property.

    I don't know how much more basic does it have to get to answer your question of justification. I reiterate, causality is universal.

    That said, if I ever use the word "rights" it's merely a shorthand for a moral imperative or even more precisely "acting as what you objectively are or exist as". Nothing in nature denies its nature. A flower grows quite selfishly towards full bloom. It doesn't ask for permission nor care about the water it drives from the ground. An animal who hunted down its food doesn't ask for permission to eat it or pay up "taxes" to other animals as a percentage of the meat. Instead if someone comes to take it away, the animal defends its prey, unless it feels generous I suppose. ;)

    I would even be tempted to remove morals from the picture, if you will, and leave only objective observation and I'd still see property as absolutely fundamental, because it is a natural expression of simply being alive, that is, acting and causing things to happen. And I would see successful violation of this to be an anomalous disruption of a natural balance.

    Property IS Liberty (or vice versa). Liberty is the "freedom" or ability to BE what and who you are. From self ownership (control of your own self, your thoughts, your body movements and therefore actions) to the things you cause with those actions into existence or posession it's all property, the ability to control (cause and then cause some more) that is what we typically call liberty. Without property you are literally as good as dead - no control, no actions, no cause, no effects, nothing.

  15. Aaron, the thing you are missing is the fact that those workers agreed to provide the labor they did for the wage they get. Their consent causes the owners of the factory or wherever they work to rightfully believe himself entitled to control of the product as well as setting its price as much as he wants.

    Ultimately, however, a product wont be on the market until his price meets what people are willing to pay for. This is what sets the market price. It isn't fixed (like Proudhon style socialists seem to believe sometimes) at some sort of an universal "cost" of materials and labor). That cost is factored into the price, but that's not the final price. The final price depends solely on the equilibrium between personal values of buyers and sellers.

    Finally, the workers have every right to seek better wages or to quit and seek better employees. With enough workers increasing the prices of their labor the employers would have no chance but to increase them. That's all the workers uprising you need. :)

  16. I am nowhere near as educated as the lot of you but I am loving this whole discussion! :)

    I wanted to ask Libervisco about the part where you say:
    Because you have took action that caused the thing you own to come to existence and/or to your posession.

    Yet short of puncturing the crust of the earth through the ocean floor and allowing an island to pop up - no one in history has ever really "taken action that caused [land] they own to come to existence and/or to their posession"

    I think that's where I lean towards "geo-libertarianism", you know? There's just a flaw of logic around the concept of "owning" land that I can't get over. If you inherently own everything you make - how does that work when it comes to something that you clearly DIDN'T make and indeed NO ONE made? How can anybody rightfully claim ownership??

    I actually thought about this back in 7th grade when my teacher told us about the Native Americans (he was Native American) and how they didn't understand the European concept of *land* ownership... I think I understand them now lol

    My philosophical perspective on freedom has to do with comparing civilization to "the jungle". To me Freedom lies somewhere inbetween the two. Civlization (agriculture) clearly freed up our time and faculties to pursue various other interests (technology, arts, etc.) But we can't really be free when Civilization cuts us off from the natural economy by coercing us into the money economy.

    Someone on youtube said that "when a man can't put his two feet on the ground and drink water (like any other animal) without working for somebody else (because it requires money to BUY the water), then that man is not free (it's like a form of slavery".

    I think both are valid: Animals that have unregulated access to the natural economy are free from the trappings of Civilization - yet human beings are free of the trappings of "the jungle"; of having to constantly fight for the bare necessities.

    I think freedom lies somewhere inbetween. I don't even know what to call myself because I believe in both anarchy and statism, I believe in individualism and collectivism LoL. Those things are all complimentary somehow (to me lol)- I think we just haven't found the right "formula" yet.

  17. Also, Libervisco on the employment thing:

    When there's unemployment that means there's a shortage of jobs, right? And there's pretty much always a shortage of jobs (unemployment has never been zero)

    When you say that the workers have every right to seek better wages, I'm with you. But if there are no jobs to choose from then it doesn't matter if you have "the right" because you don't have "the choice" (and sometimes it feels more like it's the other way around: companies have the choice among the many people who are in need of jobs)

    I see that there is an emphasis in Libertarianism on "personal responsibility" but to me that's exactly the reason why people don't just up and leave low-wage jobs. When you have a family, you have to provide for them - it's your responsibility. And the reality is that most people can't afford to just leave their jobs.

    Wages have risen like 1 % in almost 40 years while profits have risen astronomically in the same amount of time. Just the fact that Unions ever HAPPEN, says alot about the "open agreement" between employers and employees.

    I used to work at Wal-Mart and our meetings with management were always so rowdy because we wanted - NEEDED - raises and they just never listened LoL. And it it doesn't do any good to up and quit - because so many other people need a job, they can replace you lickety split. Yet you can't replace your employer lickety split. The playing field is never level.

    As far as I can tell, wages haven't gone up because employers don't care. And they don't care because they don't have to. Workers are never scarce. As long as you make everything on this planet cost money, you will never be for want of workers. It just seems so unfair, that's why I do like government - at least then there's a way to enforce accountability and protect the rights of the ones who would otherwise be ignored.

  18. One more thing about the "Banana Tree" dilemma:

    Now that we've established that no one can rightfully claim ownership of land - what about the right to own "the fruits of your labor" and the right to profit from improvements on the land?

    If I gather seeds and start a banana tree nursury, I'm only using resources that, again, I don't own because I didn't make them. I didn't MAKE the seeds, the land, the water, or the sunlight that I'm using to grow the banana trees.

    And if you think about it, I also don't "make" the banana tree grow. The Banana is really the fruit of *the trees* labor. All I did was fascillitate the process - I *helped out* LoL. So I'm left with the right to claim that I helped a tree make its bananas LoL.

    I can't claim that I MADE a banana any more than I can say I am to thank for the digestive processes in my baby's stomach, just because I fed his face this morning LoL.

    Anything that is produced by another living thing BELONGS to that other living thing. So basically I helped the tree grow and then I STOLE the fruit of it's labor (how rude!lol).

    But then again, I wasn't stealing was I? Because it's a symbiotic relationshp. The fact that the tree *knows* I like sweet stuff [creepy - don't even get me started] and produces a sweet fruit with seeds in order to USE ME as a carrier/transporter means that either we are all just using each other on this planet or we are helping each other out somehow.

    Both positions presuppose MEANING. And if you are not allowed to presuppose anything, then the idea of "theft" and "helping" is as much an illusion as that of "ownership". Everything just IS - there's no reason.

    It's all very TAOIST ;)

    Anyway to sum it up: you can have rights to your improvements on the land, like helping trees grow their fruit LoL. And that's about the only thing that checks out logically when it comes to Libertarian views on property rights...


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