Column by tzo.

Exclusive to STR

I am not one to get caught up in labels when it comes to identifying which flavor of non-governmental society one may envision. There are anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, anarcho-socialists, anarcho-communists, anarcho-syndicalists, mutualists, voluntaryists, and a long list of others.
I generally choose to use the term voluntaryist for myself, as it seems to best capture the essence of a stateless society wherein all human interactions and transactions are voluntary.
So it surprised me a bit when I was denounced for being merely a “statist by another name,” and that the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP)—the very foundation of voluntaryism—was merely a billyclub used to enforce monopolies.
But after hearing more of his argument, I could see where he was coming from, and his accusation was not as irrational as I first took it to be.
Many “anarcho-capitalist”-flavored anarchists have the battle-cry “Privatize everything!”, and believe this is the solution to solving the problems of publicly-held land and the accompanying “tragedy of the commons.”
Now an “anarcho-socialist” may hear this and envision a small group of wealthy individuals eventually gaining control of all the valuable land and enslaving the rest of society with that power in the same manner as government has traditionally done in the past.
The anarcho-capitalist would then perhaps roll his eyes and point out that shared property is a flawed concept because any decisions about the use of the property would have to either be by majority vote or by an organization of appointed “deciders,” and this is just how government operates now.
As is often the case when two sides have flawed arguments, it is easy to punch holes in the other guys' propositions, but impossible to defend your own.
I believe both sides have the same basic flaw, and that is not taking the time to make rational and logical arguments as to how any individual can come to own or control land. By glossing over this ultimately important concept in building a free society, their foundations are weakened.
If “privatize everything” is coupled with arbitrary land claims, then bragging about having a voluntaryist society after that is indeed pretty hollow. If the NAP means protecting private property from trespass, but the property being protected was arbitrarily acquired, then the NAP becomes arbitrary. And that's bad.
The history of the settling of the North American continent by the European nations that “discovered” it is an object lesson illustrating the typical arbitrariness of government proclamations as a basis for land claims. Competing governments claimed huge tracts of this “new world” as “theirs” and then eventually resolved the overlapping and conflicting claims through the application of force until national borders were finally determined. Along the way, the privileged classes were granted arbitrary large chunks of land within these nations so as to ensure that the political hierarchy had powerful allies to help protect them from any discontent that may have arisen from the common folk within each nation.
One may argue that these claims were not arbitrary, but were objectively settled through force. But I am not using the word as it may be applied in mathematics—being synonymous with “random.” In the social sciences, the word is synonymous with capricious, unreasoned, irrational, illogical, unjustified, and subjective. When the word is applied to government within a social setting, then we can add autocratic, dictatorial, despotic, tyrannical, authoritarian, and unrestrained.
Such arbitrariness can only stand if it has force behind it, and violence is never an argument, but rather a lack of rationality, logic, and justice. As Thoreau noted, violence reduces men to the level of wood and earth and stones—things to be manipulated and arranged at the whim of their owners. This rotten material cannot possibly be the foundation for any free society.
So how does one go about determining a non-arbitrary, rational way to determine how human beings should own or control land? This certainly is not a new question, and many wise people have built many good arguments in this direction, but this subject seems to be quite often glossed over among those who put forth their versions of government-less society.
Extracting a rational theory from the complex issues that very quickly arise when digging into this question is not easy, yet not impossible. And if the goal cannot ever be perfectly realized, it certainly can be approached to the extent that the land of the planet can be allocated and shared by all human beings in a manner that minimizes the arbitrariness and maximizes the rational and ethical principles that apply to all other types of property ownership.
Land monopoly is the great problem in society. Until we dive in and really examine the logic of how a person is able to ethically own or control land, then the decision will remain arbitrary. And no free society will ever be built upon a foundation of arbitrary land ownership.
So I will hereby append to my label and call myself a “rationalist propertarian voluntaryist.” My proposed voluntaryism is based upon first establishing a rational method of determining how land may be ethically claimed or controlled. This is a fundamentally different problem than determining who owns/controls individual human beings or who owns/controls resources extracted from the Earth. And this fundamental difference has been glossed over by most anarchists, and I believe it is a major contributor to the fragmentation of anarchy into various camps, each seeing the others as “just another name for statism.”
I am not going to offer anything by way of a solution to “the land problem” here in this essay, but am merely taking the opportunity to suggest that it is an issue of great importance that needs more attention than it is currently receiving. I would ask you all to give it some careful consideration.

Your rating: None Average: 8.7 (3 votes)
tzo's picture
Columnist tzo
Columns on STR: 64

tzo now lives in your head.


Suverans2's picture

"Extracting a rational theory from the complex issues that very quickly arise when digging into this question [" to how any individual can come to own or control land..."] is not easy..."

You've got that right, tzo!

Good to see you posting again.

GregL's picture

I agree with you on the importance of a sound theory of real property. Walter Block has probably done more than anyone else that I have read about addressing some of the tough problems that arise related to real estate. I'm sure you're already aware of some of his articles in this area, but just in case, here is one example about water rights:

- Greg

Mark Davis's picture

Good point and article. Sorting out legitimate land claims after thousands of years of conquest and subsequent, on-going transfers of "legal" land titles does seem an impossible task. This does not, however, change the fundamental problems associated with collective ownership. I also prefer the rational approach of trying to work out what individuals have legitimate claims on land than the irrational method of setting up collective ownership of all land.

Paul's picture

I've been thinking of this too:

Rothbard's theory was that land becomes owned when a man mixes his labor in it. This rather dry description does not bring out the essence of the matter. If a man comes into some land via inheritance or by winning the lottery, and the very next day he loses it (e.g. eminent domain), he will relinquish it without a fuss: "Easy come, easy go." However the more he invests time and money into it, the harder he will fight to stay on. This is only natural; people won't easily walk away from something they have invested half their life into.

The market will favor such people aquiring modest-sized plots of ground (absent government). Why? Because the larger it is, the harder to mix your labor with it. The harder to keep squatters off. The fewer neighbors you will have to help you defend your claims, and (since you are being a pig about grabbing land) the less likely they will be to do it. The land owners who manage to hold on to their land will have modest-sized plots so their connections to their neighbors will be more frequent and easier and more numerous, and so their "mixing of labor" will be more intense. Such people will be very hard to push off the land.