Note: Throughout this text I use the term private property anarchism to denote the political philosophy consistent with that of anarcho-capitalism, individualist anarchism, and hardcore (capital L) pro property rights Libertarianism. The male pronouns in this text are interchangeable with their female counterparts.
An Explanation of Private Property Anarchism
Private property anarchism is based upon the following normative claims: (1) Every individual owns his physical body and (2) Every individual owns the untouched material with which he “mixes his labor” (a Lockean phrase).
Government is a broad term encompassing all entities consisting of at least one person who violates one or more individual’s property rights.
Property rights designate the freedom of action and the freedom of exclusivity an individual has over specified physical material. Every individual is born with a complete property right over his physical body, meaning that he has both complete freedom of action and complete freedom of exclusivity over his physical body, and he later gains a complete property right over the untouched material he “mixes his labor” with. Whole or partial property rights can be transferred from one individual to another via charity and trade.
To violate an individual’s property rights is to deprive an individual of the freedom of action and/or freedom of exclusivity he has over specified property according to the above stated formulation. A ban on violations of property rights constitutes the entirety of the natural law on which the political philosophy of private property anarchism is based.
The term natural law invokes the idea that certain political laws limiting human behavior exist as a matter of objective fact and/or the idea that certain political laws limiting human behavior should exist because they comport with one’s normative beliefs.
The term private property anarchism then invokes the idea that every individual has the property rights specified above according to natural law, and that he has by extension the political right to do literally whatever he wants to that which is his property, including transferring it or a partial right to it to another individual via charity and trade. Conversely, the term private property anarchism invokes the idea that no individual has a political right to do anything to that which is not at all his property (hence the term private property anarchism, or anarchistic freedom solely within the confines of one’s private property or within the confines of one’s private property rights).
As such, because a violation of property rights is a violation of political rights, a violation of property rights by definition commences political conflict.
Furthermore, since initiating political conflict inherently infringes upon the rights granted to others according to natural law, the initiator of political conflict is by definition the manifestation of tyranny.
(1) Governments are entities that violate the property rights of others,
(2) A violation of property rights commences political conflict, and
(3) The initiator of political conflict is the manifestation of tyranny,
Government itself is the manifestation of tyranny.
Political Versus Non-Political Conflict
Since private property anarchism is a political philosophy, it is concerned solely with political conflict. Political conflict is distinct from non-political conflict in that the latter does not involve a violation of an individual’s property rights.
To understand this critical distinction, consider the following example of conflict: (1) Person A insults Person B and (2) Person B responds by physically assaulting Person A. Assume that this situation takes place on Person C’s property and that Persons A and B entered upon Person C’s property with Person C’s permission and without ever relinquishing to Person C their respective rights to free speech and to protect themselves from bodily harm (unless it is stated otherwise, such is always implied).
In this example, Person A’s insulting of Person B commenced a non-political conflict because no one’s property rights were violated. However, Person B’s assault on Person A escalated the conflict into a political one in that Person B violated Person A’s property rights over his physical body.
Now because Person A was within his political rights to insult Person B, Person A did not commit a crime. Person B, on the other hand, did most certainly commit a crime since his assault on Person A’s property rights over his physical body violates natural law.
With that said, it should be noted that private property anarchism grants an individual in Person B’s position the political right to retaliate against his insulter so long as his retaliatory action(s) occur within the bounds of his own property rights. Examples of retaliatory action an individual in Person B’s position would be within his political rights to commence include lobbing a retaliatory insult and forbidding his insulter from ever again stepping foot on his property (such as his land, home, restaurant, store, etc.).
Political Versus Moral Endorsements
Granting a political right for an action is not the same as giving a moral endorsement for an action, because while political rights solely encompass the things that an individual is or should be allowed to do legally based on a conception of natural law, moral endorsements encompass the things one encourages others to do based on a personal code of ethics.
That is not to say that there is no overlap between the actions for which one grants a political right and the actions for which one gives a moral endorsement. For example, one might grant a political right to engage in acts of charity as well as give a moral endorsement for such action. Moreover, it is important to note that the private property anarchist’s endorsement of certain political rights, even if he doesn’t always like how those rights are exercised, is a fundamental part of his ethical code. However, every private property anarchist’s personal judgment about the morality of the exercise of various political rights is entirely exclusive from his political philosophy.
To understand this distinction, consider the example of a white restaurant owner barring colored people from eating in his restaurant. While I personally believe such an action is stupid, every private property anarchist, including myself, endorses the political right of an individual (in this case, a white person) to discriminate against whomever he wants (in this case, people of color) within the bounds of his property rights.
Although many consider this position and those who defend it racist, the philosophical underpinnings of private property anarchism are entirely color-blind. This is proven by the fact that, when the races of the people in the given hypothetical are switched, that is, when a black person bars white people from eating in his restaurant, the private property anarchist’s position remains the same: the black owner has the political right to refuse entrance to white people given that that act of discrimination falls within the bounds of the black man’s property rights.
But putting it in these terms misses the point: the philosophy of private property anarchism has absolutely nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the rights of the individual. As such, private property anarchism is not only color-blind but also gender neutral, and it allows for an individual to discriminate against whomever he wants for whatever reason he chooses within the bounds of his property rights.
With that said, private property anarchism does not endorse any of the discrimination allowed under the above stated guideline; rather, private property anarchism, since it is solely a political philosophy, remains neutral on the subject of an individual’s discriminating within the bounds of his property rights since such action, even if it is immoral, is inherently non-criminal according to the private property anarchist’s conception of natural law.
The Right to Defend One’s Property
Although private property anarchism forbids the initiation of force inherent in acts that involve the violation of property rights, it allows for the use of force in self-defense and the use of force required to obtain appropriate compensation for the violation of one’s property rights. The reasoning behind this is as follows: According to natural law, when one individual violates the property rights of another, the violator forfeits to his victim a commensurate amount of property rights to which he has violated. (What exactly constitutes a commensurate amount of property rights is an admittedly subjective determination that needs to be decided reasonably and judiciously.)
In other words, if one person violates the property rights of another, the victim has the right to violate a commensurate amount of property rights his offender would have otherwise had to an equivalent degree in which his property rights were violated.
So, for example, if one person physically assaults another, the victim is within his political rights to (1) take from his offender the medical expenses incurred from the assault, along with any money he loses from missing work, and in addition to appropriate compensation for his “pain and suffering,” or (2) inflict an equivalent amount of bodily harm on his offender (perhaps by imprisoning him for a period of time); or (3) utilize degrees of both methods that, when added together, equal 100 percent. The victim can employ the voluntary assistance of others in order to exercise one of these options or he can choose to forgo bringing his violator to justice altogether.
The right to bring the violator to justice is solely the victim’s. However, in the case of a victim’s death or permanent incapacitation in which his wishes on the matter are unknown, the right to bring the violator to justice is inherited by whoever the victim has appointed his next of kin.
A Defense of Private Property Anarchism
Freedom = Order, Peace and Prosperity
Many are likely to at least partly subscribe to the philosophical ideal of individual liberty that is at the heart of private property anarchism but still think that the application of private property anarchist ideology to society would necessarily lead to chaos. However, such a belief is entirely unfounded and is based upon a grave misunderstanding of what private property anarchists mean when they use the terms government and state.
In the terminology of private property anarchism, the terms government and state not only encompass the entities that coercively rule over large areas via the violation of property rights, but also those entities that violate the property rights of as few as one individual. As such, the common rapist, murderer, vandal and thief are all examples of government.
Therefore, when the private property anarchist talks about leveling government, he is referring to the multitude of entities that infringe upon property rights, and disposing of all such entities and preventing them from reemerging would not only not create chaos, but would effect the very opposite outcome of restoring and maintaining perpetual order, peace, and prosperity forever.
An Economic Defense
Based on the premise that wealth facilitates the exercise of freedom, statists often argue that the promise of individual liberty (freedom of speech, trade and association, etc.) in a society in which strict property rights are respected is an empty promise because “the vast majority of people in such a society will be too poor to enjoy the individual liberty granted to them.” The implication of this argument is that government is needed in order to maximize the freedom of the poor, but this contention is undermined by the economic defense of private property anarchism provided below.
A completely free market economy in which strict property rights are respected (or in other words, a private property anarchist economy) lifts up every socioeconomic stratum of society to the maximum degree possible because of the free trade, the division of labor, the competition and the market pricing this type of economy entails and the creation of wealth these features together bestow upon society. The ways in which these features help facilitate the creation of wealth are as follows: free trade allows people to give up goods they value less than the goods they receive and thereby become richer; the division of labor is conducive to the greatest amount of productivity and innovation which eventually benefit all of society because it allows people to specialize in a limited number of tasks whereby the attention of each worker is more narrowly focused than it otherwise would be; competition forces business owners to lower prices and/or produce better products in order to attract customers and thus creates the best deal for consumers; and finally, allowing the market to dictate prices is efficient since the market, unlike any body of human beings, is able to take into account the millions of variables concerning supply and demand for any given product and adjust prices accordingly to prevent shortages and surpluses of goods.
Now while it is true that government action can improve the condition of some members of society, it only does so at the expense of others, since every single dollar the government spends has been stolen from the taxpayers through the threat of fines and/or imprisonment.
Moreover, redistributionist taxation schemes do not merely hurt the rich as many statists seem to think; on the contrary, many jobs that would have otherwise been available to the poor are destroyed as a result of government taxation. This is because taxation takes potential investment money out of the hands of those with capital, and as a result, although some people benefit directly from the stolen government aid (via jobs or direct relief, etc.), others lose out on the job opportunities that those with capital would have provided had their investment money not been taken from them by the government.
Additionally, by punishing success in the marketplace, government redistributionist schemes incentivize people not to work, save and manage their funds wisely, and as a result of all this, economic growth is inhibited.
Furthermore, the argument that government is needed to help the poor is undermined by the fact that, throughout history, a ton of government aid has gone to fund completely useless projects (such as unnecessary wars) and to aid the wealthy and politically connected rather than the poor. And all of this is on top of the fact that government operations themselves cost a great deal of money and waste quite a bit of capital. Think about the millions of dollars spent on electoral campaigns each year and all of the taxpayer money shelled out to pay the salaries of the thousands of city, state and federal employees that “work” in the legislative, judicial and executive branches of government.
This is not to say that welfare recipients are necessarily hurt by the money they personally receive from the government but that the poorest stratum of society (who are often welfare recipients) is rendered even poorer than it otherwise would be without the existence of the welfare state in general. To put it another way, while poor welfare recipients benefit at least in the short term financially from the government aid they each receive personally, such people would have better economic prospects if they had the opportunity to compete in a system in which no government aid was ever given to anyone period. This is especially due to the fact that free market economies are not zero-sum since they are driven by productive technological innovation which eventually benefits everyone. To understand this fact, compare the technology available to society today to the technology available a few centuries ago, and you will realize that the poorest people in industrialized economies today have way more material comforts than their equivalents had previously.
Many statists claim that government intervention in the economy can yield a utilitarian benefit for society. Such statists think that central planners can direct resources more wisely and more efficiently than the market will naturally do by itself. This belief is belied not only by what has already been written but also by the fact that, when private citizens make bad investments with their own money, they lose their capital and go out of business, whereas when government bureaucrats make bad investments with money stolen from other people, they have the opportunity to keep making bad investments for the duration of their terms in office and even longer if they are able to get re-elected (and history has shown that bad leaders are often able to get re-elected and that elections most always are a contest between horrible would-be tyrants in the first place).
Now it is true that some government action can theoretically produce utilitarian results for society in the short term if government bureaucrats are able to competently coordinate productive economic action faster than the marketplace. However, the probability of any government actually accomplishing this is slim to nothing since government officials generally do not operate with good intentions, let alone have the competence to do more harm than good even on the rare occasions when their intentions are in fact noble.
Furthermore, even if some particular government action initially produces utilitarian results, the government is bound to eventually make economic miscalculations which will not be subject to market scrutiny and which will thus eventually produce un-utilitarian results in the long run. As such, the existence of government always has and always will, on net balance, retard economic progress and damage the public welfare.
Statists disagree and contend that the pain caused by the booms and busts of the free market can be mitigated by a government-backed central banking system that allows designated rulers to inflate a fiat currency and artificially lower bank-lending interest rates when they see fit.
Such a system is nothing short of insane for many reasons. One problem with this system is that its central banks are encouraged to make riskier investments than private banks would since the government-backed banks are guaranteed a bailout if their investments go sour. The fact that these government-backed banks are not subjected to the rigors of competition of course makes them inferior to private banks.
Another problem with a government-backed central banking system concerns its fiat currency. Declaring a fiat currency is inherently coercive in that it infringes upon the citizenry’s property rights and is therefore tyrannical. Moreover, fiat currencies are also of course inferior to market currencies since they too are not subjected to the rigors of competition.
Still another problem with a government-backed central banking system concerns its currency inflation. Governments inflate their currency by creating more of it (i.e., by printing more money or by increasing its electronic equivalent and funneling that money into their central banks), and such action decreases the currency’s spending power per unit. Governments often do this in order to fund projects or to pay off debts they cannot afford, and such action functions like an invisible tax on the citizenry since it necessarily decreases the spending power of the currency in the citizenry’s hands. As if all of this wasn’t bad enough, currency inflation distorts market prices that communicate crucial information to consumers and investors about supply and demand, which in turn causes malinvestment in addition to shortages of some goods and surpluses of others.
Finally, more malinvestment is caused when a government-backed central banking system artificially lowers their interest rates in order to stimulate investment during market recessions in which the circulation of money is restricted. While loans with artificially low interest rates can be beneficial to society, they just as often hurt society because they involve governments risking money that they simply do not have. As such, these loans are inherently irresponsible, and while they do decrease pain in the short term by allowing fast money to keep flowing, they most certainly do real damage in the long-term by preventing necessary market corrections from taking place.
Unfortunately many of the government’s victims simply do not realize that they are being hurt more than they are being helped by the government’s existence. Such victims, influenced by the propaganda spread by the statist demagogues and economic illiterates, hold a zero-sum view of economics whereby they believe that wealth is a finite commodity and think that when one person makes money, he limits the amount of wealth for other people to garner. These people think of wealth as if it were a single pie, whereby if one slice is taken by one individual, everyone else merely has a partial pie to compete over. Because of this belief, some victims of government support taxing the rich in order to redistribute wealth.
The truth however is that even the most basic economic transactions are not zero-sum. Rather, when two rational individuals engage in an act of trade with each other, both benefit from the transaction since physical material has a subjective value that is dependent upon its owner. To understand this principle, consider how a set of weights has a higher subjective value to a bodybuilder than it does a non-bodybuilder and how a given food has a lower subjective value to someone allergic to it compared to someone who is a big consumer of it.
Some statists object to a policy of free trade on the grounds that people don’t always know what is in their best interest and thus do not have the capability of making rational economic decisions. However, individuals who inherently have more access to their own minds than anyone else are much more likely to know what is in their best interest than a body of power hungry bureaucrats.
The Linchpin of Voluntaryism
Private property anarchism only precludes institutions whose members are coerced into being “participants” via the violation of property rights. As such, private property anarchism allows for the creation of communities in which each member voluntarily surrenders a portion (or even all) of his property rights to the will of the collective or to the will of other designated rulers. This fact should make private property anarchism more palatable to the communitarians who wrongly assume that the ideology necessitates a society in which atomistic individualism prevails.
Obstacles to Revolution
The ultimate goal of private property anarchism is to privatize all property and get rid of all government. Once again, private property anarchists endorse the political right of every individual to do literally whatever he wants within the bounds of his property rights. That means private property anarchists reject all taxation, all fiat money and all government interference with individual freedom per se. Just to be clear, such freedom includes the freedom of trade, speech, religion, association, contract, and discrimination, etc. It also includes the freedom to do whatever one wants with one’s body and to engage in “deviant” activities such as suicide, dueling, prostitution, drug use, and gambling, etc.
With all of that said, there are at least two major obstacles to private property anarchist revolution. The first major obstacle is the cult of statism, which is comprised of people who believe in the morality and utility of government for illogical and/or superstitious reasons. Because statism has dominated the mainstream for so long, such people are frankly dumbfounded by the mere advocacy of a stateless society; moreover, stuck in their prejudices and old ways of thinking, such people are unable to overcome their statist indoctrination and make the conceptual leap required to realize the benefits of a truly stateless society. The only possible way to remedy this problem is through education awareness efforts, mainly aimed at the young who haven’t been exposed to as much statist propaganda as the older generations.
The second major obstacle to private property anarchist revolution is the fact that no group of people wants to give up their public handouts. Even the people who recognize that the existence of government handouts does more harm than good are essentially out to “get theirs” since everybody else is doing the same. Furthermore, because most if not all singular government handouts benefit each individual recipient more than they hurt each individual non-recipient, the recipients lobby harder for the handouts than the non-recipients do against them, and this makes the government likely to keep expanding in harmful ways (1 Harford).
To understand this fact, consider the following hypothetical: There are ten million members of society. Of that ten million, one-thousand people want a one-million-dollar government handout for their particular interest group.
In this hypothetical, each of the one-thousand members of the interest group has a one-thousand-dollar incentive to lobby the government for their desired handout (one-million dollars in government money divided by one-thousand members of the interest group equals a one-thousand-dollar incentive per member of the interest group to lobby for the handout).
However, the other nine-million nine-hundred-ninety-nine-thousand members of society only have a ten-cent incentive to lobby against the handout, since ten cents is the amount of government money each of them would have lost out on the opportunity to garner through the legislative process if the interest group got their handout. Under such conditions, ridiculous government handouts are inevitable, and though each one may not be very significant individually, combined they do serious damage to an economy.
The logical conclusion to draw from this is that everyone should agree to get rid of all government and do their part to advocate for this end. Until we do this, we will continue to live under governments which oppress the masses at the benefit of the few politically connected.
Harford, Tim. The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World (Random House, 2008).
Kevin Cornell is currently studying to get a B.S. degree in Liberal Studies from Southern Connecticut State University.