Where Hoppe Goes Wrong

Column by Paul Bonneau.

Exclusive to STR

Sometimes I have to laugh at all the arm-waving that libertarian theorists display. The inclination to argue about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin must be irresistible. I’m referring in particular to Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s latest 9,600-word broadside, A Realistic Libertarianism.

1) It is amusing to see someone on the right explaining the difference between right and left--almost as much as it would be to see someone on the left explaining the difference between right and left. Really, it is hard to take these constructions of caricatures seriously, no matter how earnest the presenter. It’s as if he can actually see what those on the left are thinking; he has personal access to their innermost thoughts.

Anyway, do we really want to advance the old ruler-approved left-right paradigm?

He writes, "It is the power elite that determines how – out of countless possible ways – to actually do the “equalizing” of the lucky and the unlucky, i.e., what and how much to “take” from the lucky and “give” to the unlucky to achieve equality.” Of course a leftist power elite does this sort of thing--or at least, gives “equality” as an excuse for picking winners and losers. But let’s not be pollyannish about it. A rightist power elite will do exactly the same thing, while giving a somewhat different excuse. The excuse is not the important thing; the theft is.

2) To Hoppe, the bedrock principle of libertarianism is private property. Funny, I always thought the bedrock principle was non-aggression; and that at best (and depending strongly on the details, private property is a corollary.

3) He brings out the old chestnut of “first use,” despite the high improbability of any square inch of the earth’s surface (on land anyway) being traced in proper non-aggressive transfers over all of human history to the actual first use. Why bother to bring it up, then? It is completely irrelevant, unless you are talking about setting up a libertarian paradise on or under the ocean somewhere.

He later admits as much when he says older claims are what matter (as opposed to first claims).

4) He dismisses any claims for restitution that are not provable to the benefit of the claimant. How convenient. His claims to support restitution sound so reasonable, so respecting of private property--until you realize only the tiniest fraction of people could support such a claim--and let’s not mistake it, the poor are going to be a lot less able to carry around for decades, or lifetimes, a bunch of old documents proving that claim, than the rich are--on the off chance they will have their day in court at some point in the future. This also assumes there ever were such documents; in what percentage of first uses were there such documents? Scratched on a clay tablet in cuneiform, perhaps?

A particular member of today’s Cheyenne tribe may well have a hard time supporting his claim to a particular piece of land; it was stolen from his ancestors safely in the past, many of the “real” owners murdered at the time. But it is incontrovertible that a person who is not an Indian cannot have a valid claim to any square inch of North or South America, if “first use” (or oldest use anyway) and private property are to be respected. One might have a hard time saying who owns it; but it’s certain we (non-Indians) don’t--with a very few exceptions for descendants and assigns of early Quakers, who actually bought their land from Indians.

No doubt one could find a document signed by Sir Walter Raleigh, or one of his contemporaries, sitting in a museum somewhere and laying claim to all of North America for the King of England. That will do for proof, I suppose!

Hoppe here is advancing the thesis that what matters with property is the paperwork (no matter that paper can be forged, lost, cooked up with dubious justification, etc.) and not actual physical and currently verifiable facts such as the genetic background of individuals. This is a strange kind of reverence for a libertarian to have, with its implicit reliance on state institutions.

If my neighbor suffers a secret home invasion, and is killed during the process, and he has no descendants for the property to pass to, the property will be disposed of in some way, either auctioned off with the money going to the government or to some charity, or some other way (I’m not claiming that these outcomes are equally just). Nobody would consider it reasonable or just for it to be left to the killers or the killers’ descendants, even if they last held the property, and even if they held a piece of paper signed by the murder victim saying he was signing it over.

5) On immigration, Hoppe writes, True enough, the tax-funded public welfare system should be eliminated, root and branch. But the inevitable crisis that a “free” immigration policy would bring about does not produce this result. To the contrary: Crises, as everyone vaguely familiar with history would know, are typically used and often purposefully fabricated by States in order to further increase their own power. And surely the crisis produced by a “free” immigration policy would be an extraordinary one.”

So, what are we left with? “Socialism for me, but not for thee?” Talk about ways to support state power, the picking of winners and losers in the free bennies sweepstakes is certainly a good one. And what item more representative of state power can be found, than a border?

One could just as easily posit that an influx of beneficiaries is exactly the way, and possibly the only way, to break socialism--certainly, when accompanied by a collapse of the dollar, as seems imminent. How better to demonstrate that there is no free lunch? How better to demonstrate Bastiat’s point, that everyone living at the expense of everyone else, is not workable?

Hoppe worries about the presence of immigrants when the gravy train ends. But these are immigrants who grew up without a gravy train and still managed to survive. I’d worry more about the home-grown welfare queens who have been on the gravy train for generations, and who have no life experience other than a parasitic one.

Most of this latter section in his article amounts to a lot of artful contrivance of reasons to keep the borders controlled. How libertarian! And he whacks left libertarians for inadvertently supporting the state?

What Hoppe is doing with this article is basically saying, “I want most property to stay in current hands, with a bit of restitution to put a polish of legitimacy on it, and to grab government lands and sell them off.” I’m not actually that much in disagreement with this aim; it may well be the best possible, least disruptive outcome. What I don’t understand is the need to give the process some gloss of respectability, by wrapping himself in the flag of “private property.” Human interactions are not like mathematics. Despite the wishes of libertarian theoreticians, there are not iron-clad proofs of human behavior, good or bad. There is only a rough approximation of “stuff that mostly works”; and that makes for (roughly speaking) a pretty good society. Yes, conflict will be reduced if at least some lip service (and that is often all it is) is paid to property “rights.” But conflict minimization is not the be-all and end-all of human existence, is it? Look at Ira Levin’s dystopian novel, This Perfect Day. There was no conflict there--but who would want to live like that?

Anyway, property rights is just another variety of “rights” which is just a meme having little connection to reality, as I have discussed here and here. It’s a pretty weak reed to hang your arguments on.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not a “left libertarian,” and have taken my own whacks at “thick libertarianism” in the past, and I am completely against government meddlings in the market such as “Affirmative Action.” But even Rothbard, that great defender of liberty and property “rights,” managed to look askance at the large estates in colonial New York granted to cronies of the various European monarchs, if you look at his history of the period. Sometimes, it’s “conflict be damned” and some rough justice needs to be dealt out, where property is concerned. And it will be dealt out, in the real world, no matter how many angels dance on that pin.

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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


Glen Allport's picture

Way to knock it out of the park, Paul! I too was annoyed with Hoppe's essay, and thought about penning a response. Yours is excellent, not to mention far more pleasing to read than the dense, dry prose that Hoppe produces. 

Mark Davis's picture

What Glen said.  Hoppe came off in this one as trying to establish his conservative credentials, not expand libertarian discourse.