Property Provisos

tty0 login: novatorine
login date: 2021-12-24


One of the particularly interesting threads from 'Anarchistic Relations' that I wanted to follow more was that a set of limitations on property were a natural outgrowth of property based on egoistic reciprocity. To recap:

Essentially, if we take the idea that generally speaking people want to be able to satisfy the maximum amount of desires, that conflict is bad for that, and that autonomy is pretty much a prerequisite for desire satisfaction, it seems clear to me that the basis for property "rights" would be in a reciprocal deal to respect the boundaries of others in return for similar consideration, in order to protect individual autonomy. This is because raising up some boundaries around people protects their ability to act as an individual, to achieve their goals without needing to go to others for permission, and also because having a clear set of norms around that can help with resolving the inevitable conflicts that the infinite extent of our possible desires creates.

I realized, however, that if we base property rights on this sort of "gift" from everyone in society to each other, based on this kind of reasoning, that puts some pretty clear limits on those property rights. After all, if we take them to be the result of a deeper set of interests and values that are at play, than those deeper values will sometimes have to take precedence over property. So far, I've discussed two limits on property based on this observation:

First, as soon as property becomes a tool for the subordination of others, granting it as a gift ceases to serve the purpose of protecting them from subordination, and so there would be no reason to respect it. This leads to a heavy bias towards possession (occupancy and use) property norms over ones that allow a lot of debt and absentee ownership, since absentee ownership basically only extends the liberty of the owner by dominating and controlling the people actually using the property, instead of extending the owner's liberty directly by insuring that they can take individual actions with the property as they see fit (use it).

Second, that if someone already doesn't have the basic necessities needed to survive, they are not going to have much of an interest in ensuring the protection of what they do have by protecting or respecting that of others. If I'm already going to starve, or I already don't have a house to call my own where I'm not dominated by others, or a workplace where I am not already essentially a slave, I'm not going to have much interest in respecting the property of the people doing this to me, because I've already lost what I would be bargaining for their reciprocal respect of by doing so. This leads to a picture of a society that will, first and foremost, have to ensure that everyone really owns, has an individual possession of, with no domination attached, the basic necessities of life, and then, once that is done, will then be able to establish something on top of that that's more rigid.

I phrased this second proviso (limitation) on property in terms of Locke's proviso: it is hard to see a community voluntarily respecting someone's property rights, as part of a mutually-beneficial equilibrium where everyone's interests are represented, if they don't already have ""enough and as good" of the basic necessities for themselves.


One way of describing both of these provisos is through a generalized form of John Rawls' difference principle. Although I dislike Rawls in general, and how he used the difference principle himself is still pretty dubious, I do think that there is a kernel of truth in it: it really does describe something similar to how a rational egoistic actor would think about inequality of material possessions. Here is the principle:

Social and economic inequalities ... are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.

I think the biggest issue I take with the phrasing here is just the word "greatest." An egoist would have no reason to support inequality in possessions if it was of no benefit to me, except perhaps to avoid the threat of force, but such an egoist would totally support inequality that was overall beneficial to them, even if they did not get the most benefit out of it. Crucially, I bolded the word "overall" there because defenders of capitalism often talk about the billionaire class's riches actually do benefit people, and in a sense they do, but only at the expense of a lot of other things in people's lives, which means they are, overall, worse off. It's kind of a "giving with one hand, taking with the other" situation. Lord Bezos giveth, and Lord Bezos taketh away, blessed be His name!


Honestly, though, finding a more concise formulation of my two property provisos isn't why I'm bringing up Rawls. What I really wanted to talk about goes a little deeper. When someone hears me say that property rights don't really have any claim to be respected until everyone is provided with enough to survive, what they probably hear me saying is that what we need is the state, or some other organization, to redistribute property from those who have enough to give away, and those who need it to meet the basic minimum needs. And that's essentially what Rawls got out of his principle, which is very similar to mine, so it's understandable why you would have that impression.

That is not at all where I'm going with this, though. First of all, I think if we eliminated absentee property — property that one is not using as a way to protect one's own freedom to act as an individual, but is instead using to extend one's freedom by restricting and controlling the actions of others, because you never actually use it, only make others pay and obey to use it — much of our problems with distribution would be solved stigmergically. With everyone no longer able to lay claim to things they don't even need and prevent others from using them, those who actually need resources will be able to claim them from those who do not without any kind of organization or centralized authority. They will simply move into that empty apartment, take a few cans of that stored grain that would have rotten otherwise, and so on. We already produce enough of the basic necessities of life to feed, clothe, and house basically everyone, the problem is merely one of having a system that does not permit, or reward, a more equitable distribution happening on its own. Once you fix the incentives, market forces and individual action will take care of the rest, no top-down "forcing" necessary.

I can't pretend to know how this will be solved on an ongoing basis, though, but I'm sure other anarchist writers have written on this. I do foresee a slight problem, in that if people can just take what they need, and you can't horde things, there might be less of an incentive to produce as much as we do in the first place. There still would be an incentive, though, because if you don't have the power of the state protecting you, you kind of need to start caring about what the "underclasses" and the public think, because all of your "rights" are on the line if you go far enough. Moreover, contributing to a minimum safety net for society voluntarily ensures that it is available for yourself as well, should you fall on hard times, so there will be an incentive to contribute to whatever pool there is for supporting people who can't work so that people have an interest (through reciprocity) in supporting you should you be injured or fall on hard times or whatever.

Importantly, though, although my logic here might sound similar to that of statists praising the welfare system, there are crucial, important differences. First of all, I do not think that having a centralized body with the power to give and take property at will is the right way to solve this, precisely because my logic for supporting these redistributive provisos rests on the fact that there is no such agency in society, and also because the existence of such a thing implies domination of one institution over everyone in society, their property on loan by its benevolence, instead of horizontal balance between the interests of everyone in society. Additionally, my logic for this kind of libertarian socialist welfare "system" is logic endorsing a purely voluntary system. When a statist says "I want redistributive welfare so that if I fall on hard times there will be something for me" it is not on reciprocal logic that they rest this statement. They are not saying that they want to give a gift so that others will be willing to return the favor should they need it, which is what I was saying above. They are saying that they want to be able to point a gun at everyone else in society and force them to contribute to something, not just themselves, and they don't want anyone involved to have a choice, so that they can unilaterally ensure that, if something goes wrong for them, they have a backup plan.


If I'm starting to sound like a socialist, that's because I am! Anarchists, even individualist anarchists, have always been socialists, and always will be. We are just a different kind of socialist than the state socialists and communists that you usually find under that label. That difference is crucial, because it shows our commitment to individualism and liberty, but you shouldn't lose sight of the important similarity in our goals. To quote Gary Chartier:

There is good reason to use “socialism” to mean, at minimum, some- thing like opposition to:

  1. bossism (that is, subordinative workplace hierarchy); and

  2. deprivation (that is, persistent, exclusionary poverty, whether resulting from state-capitalist depredation, private theft, disaster, accident, or other factors.

“Socialism” in this sense is the genus; “state-socialism” is the (much-to-be-lamented) species.

These are goals that all socialists share, whether statist or not, and for all my individualism, my anarchism, and my affinity for markets and the private ownership of the means of production, these are, still, among my goals as well.