Violence and Property are Inseparable

Here’s an interesting excerpt from Oligarchy by Jeffrey A. Winters that highlights the inseparable relationship between property and violence:

In the study of oligarchs and oligarchy, it is important to draw a sharp distinction between a property claim and a property right. Property is a fluid thing, its status shifting throughout history between claims and rights, with the two sometimes mixed in the same system. Both are secured by violence and coercion. However, the distinction arises in the locus of enforcement – that is, who or what provides the coercion that makes a property claim or right secure. There are two broad possibilities: property can be enforced personalistically against the community; or it can be enforced impersonally either by the community (where distribution is fairly equal), or in the name of the community (where distribution is highly unequal). The first is a property claim; the second two are property. The first is enforced individually and personalistically; the second two through collectivities.

Property claims are always enforced by oligarchs themselves (separately or jointly) or personalistically by a sultanistic ruler who is invariably a leading oligarch. Property rights are enforced externally by an impersonal state via laws. Thus, state enforcement through the law is only means by which property can be secured, and not even the most prevalent in the long history of property claims and rights. On this view, Jeremy Bentham (1978 [1843], 52) was mistaken when he wrote: “Property and law are born together, and die together. Before laws were made there was no property  take away laws, and property ceases.” This is true only with reference to property rights, not property claims. Long before there were modern states and laws – and including where these once existed but later collapsed – oligarchs and sultanistic rulers have been aggressively and effectively enforcing property claims personalistically. Smith makes the point concisely: “Private property… precedes the state.”

Ultimately all forms of property are founded on coercive capacities, whether it be the impersonal coercion of the state (something that Libertarians often point to), or a more personal form of coercion that precedes the state.

Evidence suggests that 10,000 years ago , as humans developed permanent settlements in the Fertile Crest and mastered that art of farming, there sprung needs in innovation of property rights. Small prehistoric communities had to set up land rules to incentivize member to engage in small tasks such as raising crops and in domestication animals:

The scenario’s starting points are the biological realities that each person naturally possesses strength to participate in forceful self-defense, and also innately feels altruism toward kin. As a result of these two traits, each individual belongs to a family unit that shares its wherewithal and is capable of coordinating to administer forceful self-help sanctions on those who have wronged it.

Now imagine a collection of these “family units” living in the Fertile Crescent. These groups will participate in “forceful self-defense” when defending their crops and animals from some external threat, such as another group that tries to move in and exert its dominance. It’s unrealistic to assumer that all of these “family units” are in perpetual conflict, so there must be some form of cooperation between them. It’s through these spontaneous social interactions that property claims are formed:

There is abundant evidence that a close-knit group need not make a conscious collective decision to establish private property rights in land. People who repeatedly interact can generate institutions through communication, monitoring, and sanctioning. Through processes as yet dimly understood, usufructuary land rights arise spontaneously on basketball courts, in stateless societies and even among animals. Contrary to Hobbes and Locke, a property system can get going without an initial conclave.

This cooperation is presupposed by the threat of violence and aggression.

Bringing this up might confound Paulbots and other “vulgar” Libertarians. However, I don’t think it’s something that a serious Libertarians thinker would need to worry about. They could just say that this coercion is justified:

But libertarianism is a theory concerned with the justified use of aggression, or violence, based on property rights, not morality. Therefore, the only proper questions which can be addressed in this philosophy are of the sort, if the flagpole hanger attempts to come in to the apartment, and the occupant shoots him for trespassing, Would the forces of law and order punish the home owner? Or, if the owner of the cabin in the woods sets up a booby trap, such that when someone forces his way into his property he gets a face full of buckshot, Would he be guilty of a law violation? When put in this way, the answer is clear. The owner in each case is in the right, and the trespasser in the wrong. If force is used to protect property rights, even deadly force, the owner is not guilty of the violation of any licit law.

In this quote, Walter Block makes the distinction between political philosophy and moral philosophy.  So things like absolute property rights and the NAP (non-agression principle) are theories of political interaction, not ethics. I still find this position bizarre. I’m not sure you can really separate political interaction and ethics, as the former is derived from the latter, but it’s an interesting topic to think about. Plus it’s important to keep in mind that many Libertarians don’t necessarily believe in NAP and absolute property rights.

1. Ellickson, Robert C., “Property in Land” (1993).Faculty Scholarship Series.Paper 411.



Filed under History, Home, Notes on History

3 responses to “Violence and Property are Inseparable

  1. I really like this very insightful discussion. You raise a lot of important questions. One thing I would toss into the mix is the distinction between “possessions” (understood as the collection of things routinely used in the course of one’s life — your food, shelter, clothing, and perhaps some items of personal value) and “property.” Having possessions is commonplace throughout history and everyone can relate to it, including the homeless man rolling a shopping cart full of “his” things down a Chicago alley. But it is only with extreme material stratification that the much more exclusionary social construction of “property” arises (in the sense of wealth, fortune, capital). Libertarians and the Right in general are clever to treat possessions and property as if they are one in the same. It encourages ordinary people (including even those at the very bottom) to think more in terms of what they have in common with the propertied (even to oligarchs at the other end of the material spectrum) than on the enormous social and economic gulf that separates them. The personal defense of one’s possessions and wealth defense by and for oligarchs have very little in common, despite surface appearances to the contrary.

    • I must say, I’m honored to have you comment on this post (this certainly wasn’t what I was expecting). I’m about half way through your book and it’s a wonderful read so far. Unfortunately I’ll have to slow down a bit because of finals, but I digress.

      Anyway, you bring up some great points that I will definitely expand upon. On “possession vs property”, I think Proudhon talked about it in his classic, “What is Property?” , which I will definitely check that out (among other sources) before I write about this distinction, but you summarized the issue quite well.

      I’m very interested in the point about the “extreme material stratification that the much more exclusionary social construction of “property” arises (in the sense of wealth, fortune, capital)” and the possible historical origins of this phenomenon.

      Also I’m curious on your thoughts about the implications of this quote as it pertains to the US (I’m know you have a section on the US, but I haven’t gotten that far into the book yet).

      “In all ages, whatever the form and name of government, be it monarch, republic, or democracy, an oligarchy lurks behind the facade” Ronald Syme

      I know you don’t feel as strong as Syme (I think), but in your opinion, how legitimate is the US republican system as of now and how much influence do oligarchs exert on our system?

      • Where Syme and I part ways is the stuff about a “facade.” He suggests oligarchy lurks behind these other forms, and so democracy is a sham. I argue, following Aristotle, that oligarchy blends with these forms. It’s a fusion of democracy and oligarchy in the US, not one or the other.

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