The libertarians part 1: Who are the thieves ?

A cardinal difference between communism and capitalism can be found in their definitions of efficiency. One could summarize it thusly:

  • Capitalism deems it inefficient if those who are more productive do not gain a larger share of wealth.
  • Communism deems it inefficient if a nation produces enough for all it's citizens to have their basic needs met but this does not happen because a few have a disproportionately large share of that production.

There's a bit of a fundamental goal difference prevalent in those definitions. Communism believes the economy should serve the people and the people one another. Capitalism believes nothing and nobody should serve anybody else (nor any tangible purpose)  it should just exist. 

Usually when left and right libertarians debate there's a lot of circular arguing without any real progress – fundamentally because so many core definitions are at odds in their views – the above example is a good one.  In this series of posts I'll be looking at some of these definitional differences and how they lead to the difference in the views of left and right libertarians, and why I side with the left.

Property is theft

Contrary to popular opinion this quote is not communist or Marxist in origin but came from Proudhom in the paper that first gave us the word "libertarian". Right libertarianism wouldn't arise until several centuries later, primarily in the USA and mostly under the influence of Rand. To left libertarians this line promulgates the deep paradox inherent in modern property systems – all that is owned today is only owned because it was stolen. Right libertarians have a different view – that property was created, by setlers working the land and such.  

For this reason many left libertarians declare that only land "in use" is ownable and only as long as it remains so – when it is no longer used it should be accessible to the next potential user rather than laying in waste. Left libertarians decry the inefficiency of a society where so many children sleep on pavements besides buildings that have been standing empty for years.  Right libertarians write long articles about how this entire line of thinking is nothing more than an excuse to steal the hard-earned property of others. My personal opinion is that it would be better for social stability over-all to recognize private property when it refers to single dwellings but differentiate in the case of mass-dwellings.

So who is right ?

The answer comes from a rather odd next question: is right of conquest a valid right of property (it was held so in every culture in the world until very recently after all) ? 

If you say "yes":

Well then the take-over of unused land by the destitute is a legitimate form of conquest, at least as legitimate in practical terms as any other. 

If you say "no":

Well then the current "owners" of the land have no legitimate claim to it. 


I should back all this up. This is where right libertarians are simply and basically lying about the facts of history. Property was never, ever created by setllers working the land. Trace back all the property in the world from current owner to first title deed and you'll find that before that deed was issued it was obtained by conquest: that is it was taken by force from the previous owner. In many cases those previous owners did not have deeds or paperwork, they were often collectivist societies. These traces are hard to do in Europe since in some cases you're tracing back to the ancient Roman conquests, but in the USA and the entire developing world it's quite easy: the land that people "own" was stolen by violent force from it's previous owners within the last three centuries.  This is why the ANC has a land-reform program – and it's out of trying to preserve the economy that they choose to do it on a voluntary-seller basis, they are giving the land back to the descendents of those it was stolen from.  That works in the rural areas, it doesn't work so well in major urban centers – even if those urban centers were built on such land.

The tricky bit is proving who did own the land before.  Right libertarians avoid the question by stating that property was "created" when the land was (recently) worked, if you carefully limit your definition of "property" to the modern title-deeds that almost works but if you have any kind of a respect for justice and indeed the property rights held so sacred by right libertarians you must accept the premise that people who have lived on a piece of land for many generations (perhaps thousands of years) are the only legitimate owners of that land you could recognize. 

So when left libertarians decry the fact that 5% of the world population own 95% of the wealth a big part of why we decry it is because that wealth is generated using land of which the ownership is morally incredibly dubious if not outright illegitimate. When we declare it should be more evenly distributed this is not "mooching" as Rand would put it but a demand for justice. The land was stolen, and then sold on. In any other aspect of human life buying stolen property remains a crime and the ownership remains illegitimate no matter how many times it was sold – if found it is still returned to the true owner. Land should be no different. The USA belongs to Native Americans, South Africa belongs to it's various tribes (not just black but also San and Khoi-Khoin), the fact that these people did not have systems of land ownership when the west got here does not in any way, shape or form justify the suggestion that those who implemented such systems could therefore appropriate the land right out from under them. 

The only land in this country legitimately owned by white people in fact is a particular section of Kwa-Zulu Natal because that was not taken from the Zulu people by force but bought in a mutually agreed contract by the voortrekker's for labour. The violence and warfare that happened after the fact are beside the point – here alone in all of Africa did white people who wanted to live on land where black people had lived for thousands of years recognize their living there as a legitimate property right and tried to BUY the land rather than simply take it by force.

Essentially I'm afraid left libertarians have the right coming and going. The right has to recognize right-of-conquest as valid to claim any legitimacy in the current ownership of land, and then it logically follows that the poor have every right to obtain (or rather: recover) land and property through the same means.  Alternatively if they somehow try to deny it – they must then accept that current ownership is illegitimate and we should enter a long period of mandated land redistribution to return the land to those who own it by rights.

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  • Thedobrev


    • A.J. Venter

      Well it’s a four-part series, succinct as your comment was – it’s nice to know somebody read it :P

  • Perry741

    Like it or not, , from the cellular level, through ‘organisms’
    like grubby little political rats and Mafia goons protecting their turf (by
    means never fair and always foul) to macroeconomics and geopolitics, life
    itself  is a competitive process, not a
    cooperative one.

    Cooperation, which by definition is consensual (in contrast
    to compliance, which can be obtained by coercion) only exists where there is
    mutual benefit, where the self interest of both parties is served.

    When property rights are not respected, there is conflict…when
    demented, wild eyed Vikings go on a rampage of rape and pillage, burning and looting
    (in service of their self-interest) people become quite upset, particularly the
    ones who are emasculated and impaled before having their screaming women
    carried off.

    It is only when property rights are respected, or at least
    when a particular status quo is conceded, and alteration thereof achieved through
    mutually agreed trade to the advantage of both parties, can peace prevail.

    Force is force, whether an individual acts directly against
    others who he reckons hold ‘his’ property, or gets the ‘state’ which holds the
    monopoly upon the use of force to act on his behalf against such others is of
    little consequence in that it precludes peaceful co existence.

    • A.J. Venter

      And that vast majority of historical societies where nobody owned the land, but everybody was free to use it’s resources didn’t ever exist ? The tribes may have warred each other for resources, but they didn’t fight amongst themselves for it. The same system can exist today – just think in terms of a much bigger tribe. In fact cooperation exists in nature where-ever a species can survive better by not competing internally. Packs of herbivores are cooperative, and this even happens interspecies. That’s why giraffes usually graze with zebras. Zebras have stronger noses, Giraffes can see further – together they are safer than either alone. Each eating what they need of the veldt, none being left out. 
      As to humans – well we can see what we are evolved to be by looking at our closest relatives. That would be the Bonobo-chimpanzee. They have so much in common with humans it’s scary – they are intelligent, self-aware and problem-solving… and they really, really like sex. More interestingly – scientists have nicknamed them “the hippies of the forest” which is a remarkably accurate description of their lifestyle. They share everything, they have no concept of “mine” or “yours” and they are perfectly peaceful among themselves. They really DO prefer to make love, not war.

      Even if you ignore all that, you never answered my core point. There are no examples in the world today of property being in the hands of it’s rightful owners. If you truly believe that property rights is the basis of a peaceful society and that taking it by force is never acceptable as you claim – then you should be campaigning for the occupation of unused land just as I am – and as I explained in the text – to restore by justice the property that was stolen to those it was stolen from, and you must then support wealth-redistribution to restore the wealth generated from that stolen property to the people it should have belonged to.

      PS. There are 3 more posts in this series. Do read them.