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The relation between the non-aggression principle and property rights: a response to Division by Zer0


There was an interesting exchange recently between a left-libertarian (I think that’s what he is) who goes by Divide by Zer0, and anarcho-libertarian Stefan Molyneaux. “dbzer0″ argued against property rights and the non-aggression principle in his post Why the Non-Aggression Principle is useless as a moral guideline. Molyneux replied on Youtube; dbzer0 replied in Responding to Stefan Molyneux: “Theft of time”, NAP, and common sense.

Molyneux’s response is good, though I might quibble about some of his metaphor usage–saying that stealing someone’s improved/transformed property is a theft of the “time” he put into improving/transforming the item. Such metaphors can be helpful to picturing and really grokking the nature of the crime. But one has to be careful not to take this particular metaphor too literally, as it lead to various confusions that result from the labor theory of value, which has itself partly corrupted even Lockean and classical liberal thought, not to mention the errors of Marxism, and can lead to the confused idea of intellectual property.1

I think dbzer0′s criticism is unfounded, but it is based on some confusions about the nature of libertarianism and the interrelationship between the non-aggression principle and property rights. This confusion is understandable as even many libertarians mangle this.

Many libertarians focus on the non-aggression principle as the essence of our political philosophy. Ayn Rand formulated a version of it in Atlas Shrugged: “So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate — do you hear me? No man may start — the use of physical force against others.”2 Some, such as Rothbard, have even called it the non-aggression “axiom”:

The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. This may be called the ‘nonaggression axiom.’ ‘Aggression’ is defined as the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.3

Now the word “axiom” has different meanings (see wikipedia axiom entry). In math and logic it can refer to an assumed starting point, such as the presuppositions of Euclidean geometry;4 or, as Rand uses the term, to truths that are self-evident because denying the claim leads to self-contradiction. Ayn Rand usedthe word “axiom” in this way:

An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.

In this sense, Rand’s “axioms” resemble Misesian/Kantian “apriori” concepts the denial of which leads to self-contradiction.5 For this reason alone, it’s better to refer to the non-aggression principle instead of the non-aggression axiom.

Another reason is that it’s not clear that “non-aggression” is really the most fundamental libertarian principle. In fact, I think it’s not. I think the libertarian conception of property rights is more fundamental than aggression. If I use force to take an apple from your hand, is it aggression? Is it trespass? Well, that depends on who owns the apple. If it is my apple, and you have just stolen it from me, then it is not trespass. If it is your apple, then it is trespass, or aggression. Classifying an action as aggression or not requires knowing who owns what.

Confusion has arisen, I believe, because of failure to treat separately self-ownership and ownership of external objects. Self-ownership means one owns one’s body. As Hoppe writes, “Every person is the private (exclusive) owner of his own physical body.”6 And as I have written previously, “each person is prima facie the owner of his own body.”7 Why prima facie? Because these rights can be alienated or forfeited by committing aggression.8 Though some object to the notion of self-ownership on the grounds that it is incoherent or implies religious or mystical views, this objection is without foundation. The body is a scarce resource, and to avoid conflict over its use, either the person whose body it is owns it, or someone else does. The choice is self-ownership, versus other-ownership, i.e. slavery. The quintessential libertarian view is self-ownership. And this common sense, natural, intuitive notion is not new or hard to appreciate. As Richard Overton wrote in 1646, in An arrow Against all Tyrants: “To every individuals in nature, is given an individual property by nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any ; for every one as he is himself, so he hath a selfe propriety, else he not be himselfe”. And Locke, in 1690: “Though the Earth, and all inferior Creatures be common to all Men, yet every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself.”9

When we speak of interpersonal conflict between human agents, that is, interpersonal violence involving their bodies, the idea of “aggression” and “self-ownership” express the same idea. To oppose the “initiation of force”, to oppose aggression, is merely another way of stating self-ownership. They each directly imply the other. This is one things dbzer0 glimpses.

But, as noted previously, when we speak of externally owned resources, a theory of property becomes primary. One first has to identify who the owner of a good is, to determine whether an action attempting to causally control the object is aggression, or just the exercise of ownership. In the case of the body, the agent, the person, himself, is the default owner of the body, so the answer is immediate and obvious (assuming he is not an aggressor). This is why in the case of interpersonal conflict, it makes sense to describe the libertarian anti-slavery, self-ownership principle by saying we oppose “initiation of force” or “aggression” (as Rand does in Galt’s speech).

And this is also why people get tripped up when they try to use the “initiation of force” language to describe why trespass–use of someone’s (non-bodily) property without their consent–is aggression. And again, this is what dbzer0 senses in his criticism of the coherence of treating external property the same as bodily-property.

The mistake lies in thinking property rights in one’s body are acquired in the same way and for the same reasons as property rights in external resources. Though they are linked, and though self-ownership is in a sense more fundamental, they are not the same. But it is a confusion to think of the basis of self-ownership as the same as the basis for ownership of external objects. We are used to thinking of Lockean homesteading–original appropriation, or initial use–as the basis for ownership of the latter. Thinking that all ownership must be of the same character and even origin, the assumption is also made that we own our bodies because we were the first users of our bodies. We try to fit self-ownership into the same framework we use to justify rights to inanimate, external objects.

As I explain in What Libertarianism Is, ownership of one’s body, and ownership of external objects, do have something in common, but it is not “first use.” It is rather that in each case, the resource in question is assigned to the person with the best link to the resource so as to avoid conflict and permit peaceful, productive use of the resource in question. This analysis draws on that the pioneering work of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in his monumental treatise A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism (esp. chs. 1, 2, 7). The institution of property arises only because of the fundamental fact of scarcity, or rivalrousness, in the world. This makes violent conflict over the use of various scarce resources–Misesian means to action–possible. For those living in society who prefer peace, prosperity, and productive use of resources instead of violent conflict, it is obvious that it is desirable to assign an owner to each such contestable resource. These resources include our bodies, and other means we use in action to causally bring about our ends. Such rules, to suffice as social rules, must be objective and fair to ever be accepted by individuals and as an improvement over a world of might makes right. Thus, the search among civilized people in society is always for objective (what Hoppe calls intersubjectively ascertainable) property assignment rules. Human bodies and other resources share in common that they are both scarce resources, and property rules are needed for each.

In the case of one’s body, the libertarian position is simply that each person is the prima facie owner of his body–not because he first used it, but because he has a better claim to it, because he has an objective link to his body: namely, his ability to directly control it, not to mention the intimate connection between each “person” or “agent” in a legal personality sense, and “his” body. It is not first use that matters here; otherwise each person would be a slave of, owned by, his mother, who had the first use. It is not “appropriation” or homesteading, since the act of homesteading property presupposes features that are simply not present in the case of body-ownership. Consider: for A to homestead an object, A already has to have and own his body; and the object is previously unowned. That is, to be a homesteader presupposes one is already a self-owner. For this reason it makes no sense to speak of homesteading one’s body and becoming a self-owner that way.

So, in my view, and in the Hoppean framework (which extends and builds on that of Mises and Rothbard), all ownership is based on the fundamental fact of scarcity, and the consequent possibility of conflict. Property in one’s body is based on the fact that each person has the best link to his body, because of his direct control over his body. Property in external objects is based on Lockean homesteading, where first use, or original appropriation (“embordering,” as Hoppe refers to it), serves as the link between agent and resource. (And the reason first use gives the first user a better link to the resource is because ownership is based on the prior-later distinction, as Hoppe explains; if the first user did not have a better claim than the second claimant, who is a latecomer with respect to him, then the second claimant would not have a better claim than a third claimant, i.e., property rights evaporate and we have only possession and might makes right, which is contrary to the entire endeavor of property allocation rules in the first place.)

But once this relationship between assignment of body rights, and of rights to previously unowned resources, is understood, along with their connection to the libertarian project of finding objectively fair rules that permit peace, prosperity, and productive, conflict-free use of resources, the confusion of what it means to “initiate force” against someone by stepping on their land disappears.

With this perspective, we can see that criticism such as that leveled by dbzer0 is simply mired in confusion. To address just a few of his comments:

“Anarcho”-Capitalists, and assorted propertarians very frequently cite the Non-Aggression principle or Zero Aggression principle (Commonly called NAP or ZAP) as a core tenet of their ideology.

First, I think it’s better, as a rule, to call ourselves anarcho-libertarians than anarcho-capitalists. Not that I agree with condemnations of “capitalism” by modern left-libertarians (I agree with their criticism of crony-capitalism, but not with the capitalist aspect of the type of advanced economic order that would doubtlessly arise in a free society), but capitalism only describes one part of the economy of a free society. Second, the scare-quotes around “anarcho” imply doubt as to whether anarcho-libertarians are genuine anarchists. To the contrary; I would say that all consistent, principled libertarians are anarchist; and any genuine anarchist has to be a libertarian–if you are not a libertarian then you are in favor of abrogations of property rights that invariably require institutional force, i.e. a state. Third, dbzer0 here assumes the NAP is the “core tenet” of libertarianism; yet as I have explained, the NAP is merely a compressed way of re-stating self-ownership, and in the case of external property it is indeed a dependent concept on the more fundamental concept of the libertarian-Lockean first-use-first-own property rights allocation rule.

But what exactly is the NAP? The specific details might differ depending on the encompassing ideology, but the central point generally seems to be that no human should aggress over another human. This is meant to mean the initial use of coercive force as well as the threat of such.

As argued above, this is a way of restating self-ownership; but in the case of acquired objects, it is a consequence, not primary.

Now, if left to this end, this is not a half-bad principle, basically saying that people shouldn’t attack or threaten to attack others. However at this stage, it is also pretty much unnecessary to be given an explicit existence as a “principle” as the generic principle of freedom already encompasses this (i.e. attacking another person would violate their freedom). Other moral theories, particularly the utilitarian variants already encompass such rules (with stipulation) as a natural consequence of their suggestions.

“Freedom” here is a murky, ill-defined concept. It is the fact that opposing interpersonal, violent, bodily aggression necessarily implies self-ownership, whether anti-propertarians want to use the correct labels, words, and concepts, or not.

But propertarians do not generally leave it at just that but rather try to sneakily expand it by linking it with private property rights. You see, the NAP is frequently derived directly from the Self-Ownership “axiom” and thus the wrongly derived property rights are treated as an extension of the self. Therefore one can then treat violation of private property rights as an act of “initated force”, even though no actual violence or threat of violence has been perpetuated. This is turn is used as a cause to use actual violence or threat of violence on the violator of property rights.

He has somewhat of a point here, as I have explained above; except that it is not “sneaky.” Rather, libertarians who favor self-ownership as well as ownership of homesteaded resources use the word “aggression” to describe not only the former, but the latter, since there are analogies and similarities. But failure to treat body and external resource ownership separately and clearly, in the context of a social theory designed to permit cooperation and productive, conflict-free use of resources, has led to some confusion, which has been adopted, or seized on, by libertarian opponents. (Not that they have any better or more coherent theory in the first place.)

While it’s easy to understand that someone “aggresses” when they steal something from another person (which is why most other moral systems do not require a NAP to label theft as wrong), things get pretty murky when one goes beyond that. Do I “initiate force” when I use a productive machine without paying rent? How about if I pay only enough rent to cover the cost of the machine? Do I “initiate force” when I toil the unused land that is owned by someone else? How about when I trespass?

A given scarce resource that is the subject of a possible contest or conflict–as the machine noted above–has an owner. It is either the worker seizing it, or the homesteader (or his contractual transferee), or the state or some collective. And this is the crux of the matter. No one, even dbzer0, can deny argumentatively the value and desirability of property rules. Argumentation is itself a civilized, conflict-free activity, and arguing about who should get to use the resource is itself a search for fair, universalizable property allocation rules (again: even if the left-libertarian stubbornly abjures the term “property rules,” that is what he is arguing for). So the only real argument people like dbzer0 can have is that they think some property assignment rule other than first-use is more objectively just, that it establishes a better link between claimant and resource. And this, he has not done, or even tried to do. He has sidestepped this problem. The other possible property assignment rules would include some type of communism, a world of everyone-owns-everyone, which, as Rothbard has shown, is of course unethical and unworkable;10 might-makes-right, which is no property rule at all; or some kind of rule, inspired by the deeply flawed labor theory of value and muddled Marxian notions of “exploitation,” that ridiculously rests on the notion that employers/capitalists “exploit” the worker by “stealing” the “social surplus product”–the difference the employer’s revenues and the value of the worker’s labor, i.e. to the extent there is capitalist profit there is exploitation.11 Of course, no coherent property assignment rule can rest on hoary, severely flawed economics and social analysis.

My view is that no non-libertarian property rule can be justified, precisely for the reasons that the libertarian, Lockean property appropriation rule is valid: only it recognizes man’s nature as an acting being that needs to employ external, previously-unowned scarce resources to act productively and successfully. For man to be able to ever use a previously unowned resource at all, much less peacefully or productively, it must be used first. Someone has to be the first to emborder it, transform it, employ it as a means. But those seeking peaceful, conflict-avoiding property assignment rules that permit such productive use of resources cannot deny the right of the first user to use the resource–otherwise it would never be employed at all. I.e., the first user has to have an ownership right. But if the first user has an ownership right, then that means latecomers have a worse claim–and that is, after all, what theft is: A owns a thing; B, a latecomer, takes it from A by violent force. To deny the importance of the prior-later distinction is to obliterate property rules, for anyone can take things from others, even if they come later, meaning we have a war of all against all, and right devolves into might–which is contrary to the very endeavor of searching for civilized norms in the first place.

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