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Ownership & the Use of Force

September 3rd, 2011

By way of a rather lengthy example, this article at Anarchism.net discusses the difference between barter trade and capitalism, in order to arrive at the conclusion that some anarchist approximation of “capitalism” is AOK.

Since all these things are directly derived from the simple barter situation and no force is added it cannot be any less ethical or moral than the original situation. If you find this development ethically offensive you are not considering the actions or behavior of the people involved–you only take the results into account. If you want to guarantee a certain result or rules of conduct in a society you will have to rely on the use of force. Relying on force simply cannot be anarchist.

I think the idea is that the fisherman never “owned” the boat in the same sense that the capitalist “owns” the factory, or the plot of land, etc. Rather, he simply used it and possessed it, and in that regard he had some superior claims to it. But he didn’t own it, and further, even if he had made it with his own two hands he still would not have “owned” it.

Therefore the force is added when he attempts to prevent someone else from using it even while he no longer has any interest in using it.

This follows from the left-Anarchist position that “ownership” is wrong per se because it implies absolute control, which implies (and justifies) hierarchy/power imbalances. Since the consequences are undesirable, one ought also oppose the concepts of “ownership” and “property” which are inseparable.

I’m not necessarily endorsing this statement, but I think I understand it. Or am I completely missing the point?

I’m just not convinced that this philosophy isn’t simply a dogmatic, knee-jerk reaction to historical abuse. Likewise I am not at all convinced that in a free society with genuine community (a concept so foreign to most people that I will not attempt to define it here – maybe another time) such abuses would be the exception rather than the rule.

 

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  • mike says on: September 4, 2011 at 2:09 pm

     

    “Therefore the force is added when he attempts to prevent someone else from using it even while he no longer has any interest in using it.”

    Well wouldn’t you have a good reason to prevent someone you don’t know and trust from, say, “using” your house while you were out at work? Or taking your car for a spin round the block for a laugh? Hey, you weren’t using either one at the time.

    • David Z says on: September 5, 2011 at 3:07 pm

       

      Hi Mike,

      I think this objection is a straw man.

      Possession (on the basis of use) usually extends beyond immediate use. The farthest left-Anarchists will even concede this although note that there are or would be different community standards for different items, so the underlying principle (that possession is not limited to immediate use) applies to homes and autos and laptop computers, apples, toothbrushes, boxer shorts, and fields left fallow for a season or two, etc.

      Even in today’s legal code we see remnants of old common law; the standards for establishing abandonment of a home are greater than for establishing abandonment of a vehicle, which are greater than the standards for establishing abandonment of the $20 bill you find on the park bench, etc., so the idea of varying standards for varying items is not so far-fetched.

      TL;DR just because you’re not sitting in your living room watching TV does not imply that you are no longer using (i.e., have abandoned) your house.

      Contrast this with the fisherman example in the linked allegory; it’s a very different scenario which calls for a different standard/interpretation. No?

  • mike says on: September 6, 2011 at 1:11 am

     

    So the fisherman abandons the boat, but wants to use force to prevent other people from using it?

    It’s not clear to me where that occurs in the exposition you link to. Or are you adding that into the mix as a thought experiment?

    “Since the consequences are undesirable, one ought also oppose the concepts of “ownership” and “property” which are inseparable.”

    It’s not clear to me why power imbalances per se are “undesirable” (except to those with little power), so long as there is no violation of the non-aggression principle. A given individual’s lack of power (e.g. of the baker’s son to buy the boat without the financial help of the old fisherman), may be undesirable both for himself and for others, but this lack of power is contingent rather than immutable and can therefore be alleviated through investment.

    It’s also not clear to me that the contrasting notion of a “power balance” (i.e. equality in the power bestowed by possessions) is internally coherent since the desired resources (boats, wagons etc) are by their nature, scarce goods. Competing claims to these resources must be resolved somehow – either by a standing social recognition of individual property rights (which results in power imbalances), or by some means of collective decision-making, e.g. voting. But how would collective decision-making bring about the relevant sense of “power balance”?

    • David Z says on: September 6, 2011 at 9:30 am

       

      This is essentially the argument, as I understand it.

      So the fisherman abandons the boat, but wants to use force to prevent other people from using it?

      I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with it, so if you want to debate it, you’ll need to find someone else. I’m just trying to figure out whether my understanding of this argument is accurate.

      It’s not clear to me why power imbalances per se are “undesirable”

      I struggle with this too. It seems to be a rather dogmatic position.

    • David Z says on: September 6, 2011 at 9:33 am

       

      A given individual’s lack of power (e.g. of the baker’s son to buy the boat without the financial help of the old fisherman),

      But at least as far as this example is concerned, the kid doesn’t need the fisherman’s financial help, all he really needs is for the fisherman (who is retired comfortably) to let him use the boat.

      But your point about how to resolve competing claims, e.g., if there is more than one person interested in using the boat, is duly noted!

  • mike says on: September 6, 2011 at 10:51 am

     

    “I struggle with this too.”

    It may be that people who object to power disparities per se do so after having taken the claim that property rights override all other rights without the appropriate amount of Na+. Property rights are self-limiting in their intersection with one another. The appearance of giant corporations nurtured and protected by the State may be an empirical story easily (mis)rendered as a criticism of property rights per se.

    “…the kid doesn’t need the fisherman’s financial help, all he really needs is for the fisherman (who is retired comfortably) to let him use the boat.”

    Assuming it’s still sea-worthy, and of a size that will let him compete (and so on) … yes. Of course the old man allowing the baker’s son to use the boat for free does not pose any sort of problem. If the old man refuses, then he presumably has a reason to do so – even if it’s just unreasonable spite. The argument is then either an argument over the justness of the old man’s reasons, or whether the old man’s reasons – however unjust – ought to be tolerated (and by whom).

    But as you say, you don’t want to debate it, so let’s leave it there.

    • David Z says on: September 6, 2011 at 12:27 pm

       

      The appearance of giant corporations nurtured and protected by the State may be an empirical story easily (mis)rendered as a criticism of property rights per se.

      Indeed, I lean more towards this (your) interpretation. I think there is a fair amount of misinterpretation of historical fact regarding the nature and origin of property but this is present on both sides (for example the right tend to ignore/forget about the enclosures, and other usurpations of communally held property, etc.). I also think there is a bit of dogmatic knee-jerk opposition to all property as a form of hierarchy. I’ve yet to read a truly compelling argument for this position, the nearest I find is something like, “Well property enables exploitation”, when what they probably mean (but do not establish/prove) is that “Property necessitates exploitation”.

      If the old man refuses, then he presumably has a reason to do so

      Ahhh, but the question is not whether he has reason but whether he has right to do so? :)

      They would say he has no such right, because he never “owned” the boat in the first place, he simply occupied and used it, and when he stops occupying/using it, then he has no superior claim to anyone who intends to put it to productive use.

      Thanks as always for the chat!

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