Determining the legitimacy of property?


Matt Bruenig once again responded to my previous article with more Twitter back and forth with me.  He declared himself the winner of the exchange, which is kind of cute.  But I wanted to take the opportunity to set the record straight on some things.

In the original Bruenig article, he used one of the frameworks of common libertarian thought to prove in his mind that that the libertarian objections to the violence of taxation should also apply to property, rendering many libertarians as hypocrites.  In my two articles, I attempted to show that the type of violence used to secure property is different from the type of violence used in taxation.  You can agree with libertarian logic if you want or you can reject it, but the contradiction that Bruenig is trying to prove simply does not exist.

He then asked me to prove myself “without assuming anything belongs to anyone.”  With that statement, he moved the goalposts (which could have been intentional or unintentional, I don’t know).  Instead of attacking what I said in response to his original point, he simply changed the question.  He used an answer from me where he allowed the assumption of property and used it to answer his question where property ownership was not assumed.

That’s like asking someone to bake you a loaf of bread and then telling them that they couldn’t use flour, water, and yeast after they had baked it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to lose sleep over a Twitter debate.  I just wish I didn’t forget to bring up a good point—why do I have to prove that the concept of owning property is legitimate?

The concept of property can be seen empirically.  Throughout the history of the world, people have claimed ownership of many things.  The ownership is not always legitimate (e.g. owning people via slavery, government claims on land, etc), but that doesn’t render the concept itself as incorrect.  Even animals make claims on territory, so I would argue that the process of taking ownership of goods is quite a natural occurrence.

And we all implicitly agree with that because we all claim property.  Even the staunchest of anti-property proponents wouldn’t tolerate another person ripping the shirt off their back.  And if there is someone like that, I’d love to meet them.  By eating food, you prevent others from using it, thus claiming it as your own.  Even if you consider that to be coercive and violent, do you claim that it is as violent and coercive as murder?

So to make someone prove that someone can own something is kind of silly.  It can be interesting and thought-provoking to debate and talk about, but if you ask me to prove how property ownership is legitimate, there’s at least a 99.99999% chance that I can ask you, “If it’s not legitimate, how do you justify it for yourself?”

Now the next question may be “Why do we all implicitly accept the idea of property?”  “Thorax232” from commented on the previous article with the following words:

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.)


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.

Big thumbs up go to him for bringing this up.  It is a view that I also hold but unfortunately never thought to bring it up until he reminded me of it.

People act in their own self-interest.  In any given situation will act in a way that will generate the most “psychic” utility.  In other words, people are always trying to do what they feel is best for themselves.  That doesn’t necessarily mean they act selfishly—sometimes selfless acts provide a lot of satisfaction.

Even if a person doesn’t view property ownership as a real thing, trying to take the shirt off someone’s back will probably earn them something like a black eye (or will have to expend energy to not get a black eye), so they deem that it is better for them to allow the other party to retain ownership.  This is akin to the famous “fight or flight” mechanism in animals. 

Sure the big guy in town can make a living by threatening people and keeping them in a state of fear, but it’s a dangerous occupation because eventually the townspeople will probably get fed up and deal with him rather violently.  People will want to get rid of you if you cause them harm.  Treating others peacefully and making mutually beneficial transactions with them will make them want to keep you around. 

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Ah ha! I’m glad it helped. 🙂


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