Property and Force


My last essay, “One Moral Standard for All,” drew a curious response fromMatt Bruenig, a contributor to the Demos blog, Policy Shop. In reading his article, “Libertarians Are Huge Fans of Initiating Force,” one should bear in mind that the aim of my article was not to defend the libertarian philosophy, but to show that most people live by it most of the time. The problem is that they apply a different moral standard to government employees.

Mr. Bruenig’s article, which will satisfy only those of his readers who know nothing firsthand about libertarianism, charges libertarians with failing to understand that the concept “initiation of force” must be defined in terms of a theory of entitlement. It is that theory which reveals who, in any particular violent interaction, is the aggressor and who is the defender. Thus, he says, an act that a libertarian would call aggression would look different to someone working from a different theory of entitlement. (Strangely, he believes he can validate taxation by this reasoning.)

That Mr. Bruenig thinks this is news to libertarians indicates how much research he did before writing his article. I know of no libertarian who would be surprised by his statement. But Mr. Bruenig goes further and accuses libertarians of circular reasoning in defining entitlement and the initiation of force, or aggression. Is he right? Let’s see.

To be fair, I will quote him at length.

Suppose I walk on to some piece of ground that a libertarian claims ownership over. Suppose I contend that people cannot own pieces of ground because nobody makes them. In my walking on the ground, I do not touch the libertarian or threaten to touch him in any way. Nonetheless, the libertarian proceeds to initiate force against me or calls the police to get them to initiate force against me. Libertarians are fine doing this and therefore libertarians are huge fans of initiating force. The initiation of force or the threat to initiate force is the mechanism that underlies all private property claims.

Now a libertarian will see this and object. They will say that, in fact, violently attacking me for wandering on to some piece of ground is not the initiation of force. It is defensive force. Aimlessly wandering on to ground is actually the initiation of force. I am the force initator because, despite touching and threatening nobody, I set foot on some piece of the world that the libertarian believes belongs to him.

I must stop here. As I understand libertarianism, a property owner has no right to violently attack someone merely for aimlessly wandering on his land. The means of defending oneself and one’s property must be morally proportionate to the rights violation. Aggression and its synonyms are terms of art that apply to a large range of actions, from the trivial to the lethal, and these terms do not imply that violence or deadly force may be used in response to any and all violations. Any uninvited crossing into another person’s moral sphere counts as an invasion, no matter how slight or nonviolent. But since the sole permissible objective of defense is to terminate the invasion and obtain compensation for damages (if any occur), one may use only the minimum force required to accomplish those goals. Any greater use constitutes aggression in itself.

As Roderick Long formulates the Principle of Proportion: “If S violates O’s boundary, O (or O’s agent) has the right to invade S’s boundary in whatever way is necessary to end S’s violation of O’s boundary, so long as O’s (or O’ agent’s) invasion of S’s boundary is not disproportionate to the seriousness of S’s violation of O’s boundary.” (Also see Long’s “The Irrelevance ofResponsibility” [PDF].)

Mr. Bruenig shamefully tries to inflame his readers with images of libertarians beating up or shooting — with impunity — free spirits who harmlessly stroll onto private property.

He continues,

But at this point, it’s clear that when the libertarians talk about not initiating force, they are using the word “initiation” in a very idiosyncratic way. They have packed into the word “initiation” their entire theory of who is entitled to what. What they actually mean by “initiation of force” is not some neutral notion of hauling off and physically attacking someone. Instead, the phrase “initiation of force” simply means “acting in a way that isinconsistent with the libertarian theory of entitlement, whether using force or not.” And then “defensive force” simply means “violently attacking people in a way that is consistent with the libertarian theory of entitlement.”

This definitional move is transparently silly and ultimately reveals a blatant and undeniable circularity in libertarian procedural reasoning. Libertarians like Richman claim that they think we can determine who is entitled to what by looking towards the principle of non-aggression (i.e. the principle of non-initiation of force). But then they define “non-aggression” by referring to their theory of who is entitled to what. [Emphasis added.]

So in the case of the libertarian in the hypothetical who attacks me, here is how the libertarian line goes. The reason the libertarian is entitled to that piece of land is because they are being non-aggressive. The reason the libertarian’s attack on me is non-aggressive is because he is entitled to that piece of land.So their claims of entitlement are justified by appealing to non-aggression and their claims of non-aggression are justified by appealing to their claims of entitlement. It is truly and seriously as vacuously circular as that. [Emphasis added.]

We stand charged with circular reasoning. How do we plead? Not guilty.

First, note that Mr. Bruenig presents no evidence for his charge; he quotes no libertarian at all, let alone me. (I’m not claiming that no libertarian ever argued the way Mr. Bruenig describes, only that such an argument does not inherently underlie the libertarian philosophy.)

Next, what’s idiosyncratic about the libertarian idea? It’s the way most people think about these issues, which was the point of my article. To use an old example from Murray Rothbard, if you see a person seizing a watch from someone, in judging who is the aggressor and who the victim, it makes a world of difference who owns the watch. Likewise if someone peacefully walks onto private property or into a home uninvited. Most people would agree with the libertarian view.

As for the charge of circularity, I (and the libertarians I know) do not justify entitlement in terms of the noninitiation of force. We justify entitlement in terms of the conditions under which human beings, in light of their nature, may flourish in a social setting. Justice and rights theory are aspects of morality. “Morality as I conceive of it has both personal and interpersonal dimensions (which are … inextricably linked): it is concerned with personal flourishing and with what we can reasonably be said to owe others,” Gary Chartier writes in Anarchy and Legal Order: Law and Politics in a Stateless Society.

To be sure, it is a marker of entitlement that no initiation of force occured in the acquisition of goods, but that simply means that no one else had previously satisfied the conditions bestowing entitlement and hence the acquisition violated no other person’s rights. Fundamentally, one is entitled to a parcel of land as the initial appropriator, not because force was not used in its acquisition, but because the land was unowned when one mixed one’s labor with (transformed) it and brought it into one’s sphere. (James Sadowsky’s classic essay, “Private Property and Collective Ownership,” is relevant here.)

Where’s the circularity, Mr. Bruenig? There is indeed a close relationship between the conceptsentitlement and aggression, but as Roderick Long wrote in private correspondence, “Master and slave are interdefined; so are parent and child. It’s not circular because we can define the whole relationship.”

Let’s go at Mr. Bruenig’s argument in another way. In a follow-up post, “The Libertarian Bizarro World,” he writes,

If you are a libertarian who believes justice requires the following of a certain liberty-respecting process, you have to explain how anything can come to be owned in the first place. That initial move is, by any coherent account, the most violent extinction of personal liberty that there ever can be.

On a fairly traditional account (e.g. Hobbes’ account), liberty and freedom are defined as: being free of bodily restraint. Being able to walk about the world freely and without people stopping you and saying you can’t go here or there is a fairly appealing notion of liberty. This is what things are like (analytically speaking) prior to ownership. Prior to anyone owning things, you should presumably be free to move about the world however you see fit. And if someone were to come up to you and physically restrain you from moving about the world, you would rightly understand that as a restriction on your liberty.

But physically restraining you from moving about the world is exactly what property ownership does. Whereas before ownership you have full liberty to walk about the earth as you’d like, after ownership, you don’t. Should you try, someone (the person claiming ownership of, for instance, a piece of land) will physically restrain your body.

It is true that in the libertarian (and in most people’s) view, the lives and property of each person represent restraints on the physical freedom of everyone else. That’s what it means to respect other people, to treat them as ends and not merely as means. But Mr. Bruenig’s conception of freedom entails the freedom to disregard the lives and interests of others. Observe this exchange from the comments section of the blog:

Me: So a valid account of freedom would entail everyone’s being able to walk through anyone’s home at any time.

Matt Bruenig: Yes. Now maybe you have some good reasons for why we should violently destroy that freedom. But that’s what they are: reasons for violently restricting people’s liberty.

Apparently the homeowner’s status as an end in himself does not count as a good reason to restrict (not necessarily violently) the intruder’s “liberty” to use the homeowner as a means to his own ends.

Of course, libertarians don’t define freedom in merely physical terms, as Mr. Bruenig does. Libertarians don’t talk about freedom in a vacuum, focusing on one isolated person’s ability to move anyway he chooses. Rather, they advocate the freedom of all persons in society. If everyone is to be free, freedoms cannot conflict; they must be compossible. Smith’s freedom cannot morally include the freedom to enter Jones’s house uninvited, or the freedom to thrust his fist against Jones’s head. It doesn’t much matter if you call these prohibitions limitations on freedom or exclusions from the concept freedom. In the end, Mr. Bruenig is making a trivial point.

Even when pressed, Mr. Bruenig stuck to his physical, amoral, and relativist notion of freedom. When he wrote that a purported trespasser is an aggressor only if you think the “victim” owns the property, I commented, “And a rapist is aggressive only if you think the woman owns her body.” I received no reply.

Why should persons be free of bodily restraint, able to walk about the world freely? The likely answer is that each owns himself or herself, body and mind, and thus has a right to autonomy. But if that is so, they may not ignore the equal freedom of others — otherwise all are not free — and they should not do so because a fully human life consists in a life of reason, not force.

But how do we get from the right to one’s body to the right to one’s (justly acquired) possessions, including land? A person’s possessions are extensions of his life and labor. (Mr. Bruenig says no one made the land, but labor can make it productive.) Flourishing requires the use of physical objects, including shelter and other uses of land, in an environment of respect for and from others. Thus to violate a person’s property is to violate that person. (Again, violations can be de minimis, and the response must be proportionate.) Nothing in libertarian theory, however, rules out nonstate public property or common-law easements. (Elinor Ostrom’s work on nonstate management of common-pool resources is relevant here.)

The details of a property system will surely be determined by custom and could well differ from place to place. But the centrality of property in a proper human community cannot be denied. InA Treatise on Human Nature (Book III, Part II, Section VI), David Hume referred to “the three fundamental laws of nature, that of the stability of possession, of its transference by consent,and of the performance of promises,” noting that

’Tis on the strict observance of those three laws, that the peace and security of human society entirely depend; nor is there any possibility of establishing a good correspondence among men, where these are neglected. Society is absolutely necessary for the well-being of men; and these are as necessary to the support of society.

Finally, I must point out that defending property rights in theory does not obligate libertarians to defend all particular property holdings in a given society. Land and other forms of wealth are often obtained through government privilege, that is, through theft from their rightful owners. A sound libertarian theory of property does not regard such property as justly held. As Karl Hess wrote in “What Are the Specifics?”: “The truth, of course, is that libertarianism wants to advanceprinciples of property but that it in no way wishes to defend, willy nilly, all property which now is called private.”

Sheldon Richman is vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va. (www.fff.org).

More articles by:

Sheldon Richman, author of America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com.  He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.

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