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Mutualism: A Philosophy for Thieves

June 18, 2006

The collapse of socialism-communism has not only given rise to the remarkable growth of environmentalism, as a replacement outlet for hostility to capitalism, but also to some growth, vastly less considerable of course, in the remnants of the old anarchist movement, which now sometimes calls itself "libertarian" or "left-libertarian." A leading strand of this remnant goes under the name "Mutualism." And its philosophy has recently been set forth in a book by one Kevin Carson, called Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (Fayettville, Arkansas: Self-published, 2004), which I reviewed in the current issue of The Journal of Libertarian Studies. The opening portion of my review appears in my blog posting of June 10 on this site.

The purpose of this posting is to expand on the following paragraph of that portion of my review:

Thus, for example, if I, a legitimate owner of a piece of property, legitimate even by Carson's standards, decide to rent it out to a tenant who agrees to pay the rent, the property, according to Carson, becomes that of the tenant, and my attempt to collect the mutually-agreed-upon rent is regarded as a violent invasion of his [the tenant's] "absolute right of property." In effect, Carson considers as government intervention the government's upholding the rights of a landlord against a thief. He believes he has the right to prohibit me and the tenant from entering into an enforceable contract respecting the payment of rent and that such action is somehow not a violation of our freedom of contract and not government intervention.

In support of my claims, I now quote Mr. Carson:

For mutualists, occupancy and use is the only legitimate standard for establishing ownership of land, regardless of how many times it has changed hands. An existing owner may transfer ownership by sale or gift; but the new owner may establish legitimate title to the land only by his own occupancy and use. A change in occupancy will amount to a change in ownership. Absentee landlord rent, and exclusion of homesteaders from vacant land by an absentee landlord, are both considered illegitimate by mutualists. The actual occupant is considered the owner of a tract of land, and any attempt to collect rent by a self-styled landlord is regarded as a violent invasion of the possessor's absolute right of property. (p. 200.)

Careless readers of this passage from Carson may assume that all that he is talking about is the case in which a later owner chooses not to occupy or use the property to which he has obtained title. Such a case is certainly possible, but it is not the case that needs to be considered first. The case that needs to be considered first is that of land which passes from the possession of someone whom Carson acknowledges as a legitimate owner, that is, precisely the kind of person of whom he says, "An existing owner may transfer ownership by sale or gift" to someone else, and then this someone else does, indeed, occupy and use the land.

The problem is that, according to Carson, this new party's mere occupancy and use of the land extinguishes any possible property right in the land on the part of the previous possessor, whom Carson acknowledged as legitimate.

For suppose the first owner and the prospective second owner mutually agree on a rental of the land. According to Carson, once the second owner takes possession of the land and begins using it, he is now the legitimate owner. "A change in occupancy will amount to a change in ownership," he has just said. If the first owner, who no longer occupies or uses the land, collects rent on it, he is a landowner who is absent from the land on which he collects rent. He is thus, necessarily, an "absentee landlord." And Carson has also just said: "Absentee landlord rent, and exclusion of homesteaders [i.e., presumably the second occupant-user] from vacant land by an absentee landlord, are both considered illegitimate by mutualists. The actual occupant is considered the owner of a tract of land, and any attempt to collect rent by a self-styled landlord is regarded as a violent invasion of the possessor's absolute right of property."

Here there is a mutually and voluntarily agreed upon rental contract, but after taking possession, the new occupant decides that he is the owner of the land and will not pay any "absentee landlord rent," which Carson believes it is his absolute right to decide. Has he not obtained another's legitimate property and is now refusing to pay for it? And, having taken it, and both refusing to pay for it and refusing to give it back, is he thus not stealing that property?

Would he have been able to obtain the use and occupancy of the land if it had been known or suspected that this is how he would behave, once having obtained it? Obviously, he would not have been able to, and the assurance of his not behaving in this way is a written and signed enforceable rental contract. In that contract it is agreed that in the event of failure to pay the rent, the use and possession of the property reverts to the first user/possessor, who is recognized as the property's owner despite his absence from the property. The contract also provides that in the event of non-payment of the rent, the owner has the right to dispossess the tenant by force if necessary.

Carson denies the landowner's rights in a case of this kind and regards the landowner's act of dispossession as "a violent invasion of the possessor's absolute right of property." He considers the support given the landlord by the courts and the police in enforcing the contract to be "government intervention."

Because of these facts, I concluded in my review of his book, as I said near the beginning of this posting, that "Carson considers as government intervention the government's upholding the rights of a landlord against a thief. He believes he has the right to prohibit me and the tenant from entering into an enforceable contract respecting the payment of rent and that such action is somehow not a violation of our freedom of contract and not government intervention."

It should be realized that Carson's hostility to private property rights is not limited to the case of land. He makes clear that it also includes houses and apartments. He advocates the seizure of vacant homes and apartments by homeless squatters. Thus, he declares:

If every vacant or abandoned housing unit in a city is occupied by the homeless, they will at least have shelter in the short term until they are forcibly removed. . . . In the meantime, the squatters' movement performs a major educative and propaganda service, develops political consciousness among urban residents, draws public attention and sympathy against the predatory character of landlordism, and—most importantly—keeps the state and landlords perpetually on the defensive. (pp 377-378.)

On the basis of this and all of the foregoing, I say that Carson's "Mutualism" is a philosophy for thieves. As I wrote in my full-length review in the JLS:

The logic of Carson's position extends to legitimizing auto theft: An individual rents a car from Hertz or Avis. He is the user/occupant. Hertz or Avis is the absentee owner demanding rent. It extends to the theft of clothing that is not being worn at the moment by its—absentee—owner. It extends to all property, for once in the possession of the thief, the thief as user/possessor becomes the legitimate owner, according to Carson's conception of things.
Carson simply does not understand that ownership is not the mere possession and use of property but rather the moral and legal right to determine the possession and use of property.

Ironically, his failure to grasp this last principle totally undercuts his condemnation of the massive seizures of land that have occurred throughout history and which are the ostensible reason for his condemnation and hatred of "landlordism." To the extent that such seizures were the result of a population of outsiders that not only seized the land of the previous occupants but also proceeded to work it, Carson has no basis of opposition, because his principle is that use determines ownership, and they are now the users. His principle of use determining ownership leaves no basis for opposing any theft, so long as the thief uses what he has stolen.

What Carson is actually opposed to is not violent appropriation of land — indeed, as we have seen, that is precisely what he advocates whenever he thinks it is "just." What he is actually opposed to is merely the case in which the thief does not use what he has stolen—the leading example being when the thief settles down to become a landlord collecting rent on land that others use.

But, of course, Carson is equally opposed to someone who is not a thief also not using his own property. Non-use is alleged justification for legitimate property being seized, and, as I've shown, not just land but also homes and apartments, and by implication, automobiles, clothing, and everything else that is not being used by its owner.

I cannot help but suspect that what Carson is actually opposed to is not at all force, fraud, or actual injustice in the history of mankind but the existence of large inequalities of wealth and income, whatever their basis. The idle wealth of the rich is what he has in mind for seizure and subsequent use by the poor, who would allegedly be its rightful owners by virtue of the mere fact of their use of what they had stolen.

Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to address further the problems connected with violent seizures of land in the past and explain why they are irrelevant to the present and do not justify programs of redistributionist "land reform." For those who may be interested, I have already written on this subject in my book Capitalism, on pp. 317-322.

For now what it is essential to understand is that Carson's "Mutualism" is a philosophy that urges theft.

 

This article is copyright © 2006, by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute it electronically and in print, other than as part of a book and provided that mention of the author's web site www.capitalism.net is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved. George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics.

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