Explaining the difference between property and taxes to Matt Bruenig


Yesterday, I wrote an article about Matt Bruenig and his misrepresentation of libertarian theories of property and theft, and he responded to it via Twitter and we had a little conversation going.  It was actually pretty cool of him and I do appreciate that he took the time to do so.

Apparently, my arguments weren’t very convincing to Matt and the conversation ended with this challenge (if you will) posed by Matt:

Bruenig TwitterNow bear with me as I go through this because libertarians like me aren’t necessarily the brightest bulbs…

Hmmm, this will actually prove to be pretty difficult because trying to explain property and taxation without assuming anything belongs to anyone is like asking someone to explain the ocean without mentioning water.  If nobody owns anything, then no one owns their own body, so no one would really own their actions.  If this were the case, using another person’s body would be amoral, so it wouldn’t be wrong to beat something to death I suppose.

So regardless of the methods used to justify ethics and property ownership, I think we can all agree that beating up another person without reason is wrong.  Is there, however, any situations where beating up someone is not wrong?  We should all be able to agree that beating someone up, i.e. violence, would be justified in self-defense.  And when would someone need to use self-defense?  Self-defense would be used when there is a credible threat or an actual action of someone using another’s body without their permission.  And so, a person does not have the right to use another’s body without their permission.  The right to use a body is only given to the person who resides in that given body.  This would be the owner of the body.  This means that there is a claim to ownership of the body and that you own your own body.

Now let’s say that you, the owner of your body, are all alone in the woods and without contact with any other people.  You mix the labor of your body with the resources available to you and you build a hut.  Given that you are the only person around, it is easy to see that you would have the right to use the hut.  And like the right to use your body implies ownership of your body, so also do you have ownership of the hut.  If you are the only person around, who else could also claim ownership?

All of a sudden, another person stumbles upon your little dwelling place.  We’ll name him Bill.  Despite never mixing his labor with the resources of the land, would Bill have the right to use your hut?  You are already using the hut, so Bill’s right to use the hut would have to trump your right in order for him to use it.  Since you supplied your labor to create the hut and he did not, you have a better claim to the right to use it and therefore can justifiably claim ownership of it.

If you can use violence in the form of self-defense in order to protect your body, which you own, you should be able to use violence in the defense of the hut because you also own it.

Bill decides to move to another part of the woods and builds his own hut.  After awhile, both of you begin to do some farming and other tasks to sustain life.  You notice that you are better at Bill than farming but that Bill is better than you at making clothes.  You and Bill decide to make a trade—you give him some of your excess food in exchange for some of his excess clothes.  You make the trade because you value Bill’s clothes more highly than your food.  Bill makes the trade because he values your food more highly than his clothes.

A third person, Dan, happens upon the little community of two that you and Bill have created.  He sees the two of you making the food for clothes exchanges and decides that he wants some of the clothes and food as well.  He approaches you and Bill and explains that every time that you make an exchange, you owe him 10% of the food and 10% of the clothes.  If you do not give it him, he will club you over the head (Dan’s skill is clubbing people).  Where is Dan’s legitimate claim of ownership over either the clothes or the food?  He did not mix his labor with the resources to create the clothes as Bill did and he did not grow the food by mixing his labor with other resources.  His right to use the clothes and food does not trump yours and Bill’s, just as Bill’s right to the hut did not trump yours.   Since he does own either good, the violence he uses to attain them is not self-defensive and is therefore illegitimate.

I hope that explains in better detail why the violence used to protect property is not the same as the violence to collect taxes.  Bruenig did not go far enough into the details of the violence in order to come to a reasonable conclusion and thus has a confused view of libertarian logic.

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That was pretty much the simplest way of explaining what Matt missed. If you don’t understand the difference between initiation of violence and response to that initiation, and why one is ‘acceptable’ and the other is frowned upon, then you’re missing essentially the crux of the libertarian argument. Libertarians are not against violence as a categorical imperative. So taxation, when defined as initiation of violence, would be frowned upon whilst defense of property would be acceptable. You can’t establish which is which without some property rights in place. So unless Matt is using some different definition of property (or some… Read more »

I always like to take it from the Theory of Mind, human nature approach. It’s not that beating people up is wrong (it is, bear with me), it’s that the person getting beaten up doesn’t like it, and instincts may kick in to fight back. This is not preferable to anyone.

Stealing is in itself not wrong (again), it’s just that when some people drain resources (use them) while others work with them (produce) there are less rewards and if too much is drained out it can mean starvation. (Not preferable to anyone.)

Rollo McFloogle

I absolutely agree and that’s the better way to approach it. I’m probably going to steal that premise as a follow-up.


I would be honored! lol If interactions between individuals are not mutual, problems arise. I never liked the argument that “property is coercion” because forcefully not allowing people to defend an area they call home is coercion too. =/ The question is, is that ownership, in the real world, actually harmful? You don’t have to own property, no one can force that. Nor can anyone not force you to not own property. XD
It’s all derived from this: http://ancapus.com/HLnNz4 :p


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