Facebook is useful for many things. For example: seeing new pictures of cats, sharing vacation photos, using hate speech to insult your friends, and so forth. It is not very good for meaningful dialogue with strangers, however. Looking at any anarchist or anarcho-madlibs group on Facebook is a good example of this. Groups do have their value though. One such value is finding out what other anarchists think, and more often than not this takes the form of AnCap versus AnCom arguments. They can’t be called debates, since debates actually have a purpose and usually don’t involve various synonyms for homosexuality. In such arguments, I often see that AnComs have a differing view of property and what property really is.

To many AnComs, property is theft. To learn more about one AnCom’s position on that topic, see the link at the bottom. To sum it up, there are two forms of property: personal property and private property. The distinction is arbitrary to the best of my knowledge, and seems based on Enlightenment-era and post-Enlightenment-era social ideals. One ideal, for example, is that interest is theft (see: Proudhon). Another is that capitalists steal the value of laborers. These ideals are not what this work is about; I am concerned chiefly with property here.

It is my hope that we can do away with such labels as AnCap and AnCom, and simply embrace the word anarchist together. After all, our chief objective in the present moment is to abolish the state. What happens after that is for people living in liberty to decide for themselves. One way we can come together is to examine our differences. I personally think that anarchists really do agree on property, but unfortunately vague thinking has made it appear otherwise.

The topic of property is one such instance of vague thinking. The distinction between personal and private property is illusory; both are products of homesteading. AnComs claim to be against homesteading (in general) and yet, their own beliefs require homesteading. I think the rejection of homesteading comes from the generally-held belief in the labor theory of value. This theory of value was refuted shortly after its spreading-forth by Adam Smith by numerous economists and indeed, few hold it to be true today (as far as economists go). Two economists who refuted it in its own era were Jean-Baptiste Say and Claude Frédéric Bastiat; the former taking a more utility-based theory and the latter taking something of a Proto-Austrian subjective theory. And yet even other thinkers like Marx did not hold to the labor theory of value. Marx wrote:

Lastly nothing can have value, without being an object of utility. If the thing is useless, so is the labour contained in it; the labour does not count as labour, and therefore creates no value.

It is Claude Frédéric Bastiat, however, who I want to remark further upon. In his Economic Harmonies, Bastiat explodes the labor theory of value. One passage from that work follows below:

I take a stroll along the seashore. A stroke of good luck puts a superb diamond into my hand. I have come into possession of a considerable amount of value. Why? Am I going to contribute something great to humanity? Have I toiled long and arduously? Neither the one nor the other. Why, then, does the diamond have such value? Because the person to whom I give it believes that I am rendering him a great service, all the greater because many rich people would like to have it, and I alone can render it. Their judgment is open to question, granted. It is based on vanity and love of display, granted again. But the judgment exists in the mind of a man ready to act in accordance with it, and that is enough.

Bastiat clearly understood that value does not rely upon labor, but rather upon the beliefs of those who are engaged in exchange. By toiling away in a mine, the miner does not add value to the diamonds extracted. By working upon the diamond, the jeweler doesn’t add value to it either. It is the belief, the subjective discernment, in the mind of those involved in the exchange that dictates the price. In this same section, Bastiat demolishes the arguments of the utility theory of value too, so I recommend the reader check out his work for more refutations and detailed pieces.

What does this have to do with property? Bastiat, and others like him, held to the homesteading principle. This principle seems most associated with Locke, and is discussed briefly here:

According to John Locke’s theory of appropriation — which was the standard theory in Bastiat’s circle… — one owns a piece of land if and insofar as one has transformed it by one’s actions. In exchanging this land on the market, then, one surrenders one’s past actions — that is, speaking now with Bastiat, one’s past services — for a price, which is itself of necessity either an action or a past action mixed with some natural resource. Thus we see that Bastiat’s value theory is nothing but a consistent application of the Lockean insistence on the relationship between property and human action to economic theory.

As we have already discussed, labor does not create value. But by mixing his labor with natural resources, man acquires property. This is what an AnCom may call “private property” as opposed to “personal property”, but I don’t think the AnCom truly believes this. For instance, consider the communist phrase of “Labor is Entitled to All it Creates”. If labor is entitled to the products of it, then how is it so? It is through homesteading. If not, then it must be property by fiat, and I don’t think any anarchist could truly believe that. If a man tills the soil of his farm and thus owns the produce of it, it must occur through the principle of homesteading. This is because he owns himself and thereby owns his labor, and through his labor owns the products of it. As Locke said in Section 27 of his Second Treatise of Civil Government:

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. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property

And in Section 28:

He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. No body can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? or when he boiled? or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? and it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right.

How could any anarchist deny these words to be true? If a man does not own property, then he cannot own his own labor. If he works and yet the fruits of his work are owned by another, then he must be owned by another, for his labor is owned by another. If this is true, then he must not own himself and thereby is a slave. But if he does own himself, then he owns his labor. If he owns his labor, he owns what he produces or could even sell a certain portion of his labor in exchange for another good or service. How can it be otherwise, if he owns himself?

Another notable thinker, Lysander Spooner, puts it another way. He frames property as a natural right. In his Trial By Jury, he explains this principle:

Children learn many principles of natural law at a very early age. For example: they learn that when one child has picked up an apple or a flower, it is his, and that his associates must not take it from him against his will. They also learn that if he voluntarily exchange his apple or flower with a playmate, for some other article of desire, he has thereby surrendered his right to it, and must not reclaim it. These are fundamental principles of natural law, which govern most of the greatest interests of individuals and society; yet children learn them earlier than they learn that three and three are six, or five and five, ten.

Property is a natural right, and hence its place in the trifecta of human rights alongside liberty and life. If a man does not own property, then he cannot own himself. What right, then, does he have to life? If he does not own himself, how can he have the right to liberty? If a man does not own himself, then his liberty is determined by fiat. If a man does not own himself, then his life is determined by fiat. Who makes such fiats? A state must. After all, the state is the institution of the political means (read: the institution of coercion and plunder). Whether it be by committee, dictator, or majority rule, only the institution of violence could enforce these fiats. It is because of this that I doubt that any anarchist could be opposed to property, for it would make them supporters of statehood.

I leave the reader with a short selection of Lysander Spooner, from Natural Law, The Science Of Justice, to sum up the importance of the recognition of property as natural right:

If there be in nature such a principle as justice, such a principle as honesty, such principles as we describe by the words mine and thine, such principles as men’s natural rights of person and property, then we have an immutable and universal law; a law that we can learn, as we learn any other science; a law that is paramount to, and excludes, every thing that conflicts with it; a law that tells us what is just and what is unjust, what is honest
and what is dishonest, what things are mine and what things are thine, what are my rights of person and property and what are your rights of person and property, and where is the boundary between each and all of my rights of person and property. And this law is the paramount law, and the same law, over all the world, at all times, and for all peoples: and will he the same paramount and only law, at all times, and for all peoples, so long as man shall live upon the earth.

Further Readings: