The ‘Property is Coercive’ Argument

I present some of the ‘property is coercive’ arguments:

“libertarian property rights are ultimately backed by the threat of (individual or state) violence as well,” The Non-Aggression Principle Can’t Be Salvaged — and Isn’t Even a Principle, Julian Sanchez

“Bob Sanders wonders (May 8th) why we would fear Uncle Grady the tax assessor. Surely the answer is: because Uncle Grady’s edicts are ultimately backed up by threats of violence from Uncle Sam,” Everybody Run, Uncle Grady Has a Gun, Roderick Long, http://aaeblog.com/2010/05/10/everybody-run-uncle-grady-has-a-gun/

“property is obviously coercive violence because it involves someone excluding everyone else in the world from some piece of the world without their consent and threatening violence against them if they do not comply with that exclusion.” How the property is coercive violence move functions in the debate, Matt Bruenig, http://mattbruenig.com/2014/01/12/how-the-property-is-coercive-violence-move-functions-in-the-debate/

“What Rousseau brings into focus is that, at the most fundamental level, property rights are coercive and so trigger a requirement of justification to those who are putatively disadvantaged by the property system.” Rousseau’s Challenge to LibertarianismKevin Vallier, http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2013/07/rousseaus-challenge-to-libertarianism/

As everyone knows, the non-aggression principle (NAP) does not exclude all instances of coercion. It permits coercion in response to coercion. Therefore, NAP excludes the initiation of coercion. In addition, NAP excludes threats, meaning the communication of the intention to initiate coercion. These are the two actions excluded by NAP. According to the argument, the initial establishment of any property right (i.e. exclusionary right) constitutes as one of these excluded actions.

Two Senses of Possibility

The argument ultimately rests on the confusion between the two senses of possibility as expressed by Aristotle,

“those things which are actual but also potential, whose actuality is in nature prior to their potentiality, though posterior in time… those things which are not yet actualized, but are pure potentialities.” On Interpretation, Part 13

Precisely Establishing the Excluded Actions

To show this, I present the definition of force from the Merriem-Webster online dictionary,

“violence, compulsion, or constraint exerted upon or against a person or thing”

This is the 3rd sense of the definition, and indubitably is the one referred to in this context. As everyone knows, NAP does not exclude all force, only the initiation of force. The only “things” in this case would be property. Therefore, making these alterations give:

“initial violence, compulsion, or constraint exerted upon or against any persons or property”

For a definition of threat, we may make a simple addition:

“expression of intended initial violence, compulsion, or constraint exerted upon or against any persons or property”

We have now established the specific exclusions by NAP. The error lies in the application of of the term ‘possible.’ Upon a superficial impression, these are the two actions excluded by NAP by the above quotes:

(1) Produce any possibility of initial violence, compulsion, or constraint against any persons or property.

(2) Produce expression of intention to (1)

If these constitute violations, than it would seem they are correct in their argument. However, since there is an ambiguity in the word ‘possibility,’ this actually refers to four different actions, viz:

(1) Produce any pure, non-actualized potential of initial violence, compulsion, or constraint against any persons or property.

(2) Produce expression of intention to (1)

(3) Produce any actuality (present existence) of initial violence, compulsion, or constraint against any persons or property.

(4) Produce expression of intention to (3)

Its now clear that the only actions excluded by NAP are (3) and (4). Furthermore, establishing a property right, or any exclusionary right does not even constitute as (1) and (2) by themselves. The mere potential to do anything is established by a person’s capacity and physical reality. Strictly speaking, if I am in the kitchen chopping a cucumber and a person is standing next to me, I have the capability of murdering them. This is all that is needed to establish possibility. Since all humans are capable of conscious action, the only way to make this impossible would be to render them physically incapable of making this decision. As long as physical, objective reality provides no impediments, the possibility of aggression is necessarily present in everyone.

Taxation and NAP are Repugnant in Some Instances

Sometimes, libertarian rhetoric is to blame for some misunderstandings. The policy of taxation includes possible violations of NAP only under certain conditions, viz. if the person refuses to pay their taxes. Refusing to pay taxes does not violate NAP. However, this action elicits the violation of NAP by the tax collector. Sequence of events:

A: Requests Money from B

B: Refuses to Give Money to A

A: Threatens B (violation of NAP)

Taxation does not necessarily always violate NAP. For example:

A: Requests Money from B

B: Gives Money to A

No violation of NAP has been committed in this latter scenario. Therefore, when libertarians say taxation is theft, the statement is elliptical. The full statement would be: taxation is theft against those who don’t comply. This is obvious to most people. A supporter of taxation would probably say, “Well that’s the point.” This would show they are ignoring the broader point. Its extremely unlikely that not a single person will refuse taxes. This is a statement of my own personal estimation. I don’t know if it has been statistically verified, but I am guessing it could. If I am correct, the implication of the elliptical statement is justified, because taxation almost always involves the theft of at least one person. Thus, NAP is almost always probably violated.

The Point of Importance

All in all, this argument is obviously a distraction. The real fundamental point libertarians should assert is this: the threatening of B is unnecessary in our society. The demand for the various services provided by government exists. I know at least one person desires these services, viz. me. Since the demand exists (empirically established for at least one person), it follows that people are willing to voluntarily exchange their money for these services (that is simply what the word ‘demand’ means).

One example used in response is the case where a fire protection service refused to service a person’s burning house because they forgot to pay their dues. What is probably missed in this example is the fact that the fire protection service missed out on a grand opportunity. They could have increased their price drastically in response to this person’s drastic increase in demand. This would serve as the consequence for not paying for any fire protection. Under taxation, the consequence would be the person facing punitive action under refusal to pay taxes. Under both systems, the person faces consequences upon refusal to pay for services. Consequences are not immoral, they are necessary for a functioning society. The unavoidable fact is that fires happen sometimes, and they produce undesirable effects. Is it impossible that the natural consequences asserted by the market are better for society? How do the opponent’s demonstrate this when its impossibility has not been empirically established?

The fire protection service, like anyone, has the option of being altruistic under the market. Its even possible that economic incentives would influence them to charitably give their services under certain conditions. Often, these activities make you more popular in the eyes of the general public. More popularity may lead to better business. Ironically, the only system that prevents this altruistic action is under a policy of taxation. It could be argued that government fire fighters are egoistic because they only do their jobs under the incentive of payment. Ultimately, the politicians who hire the fire fighters are egoistic because they only hire them to get reelected (or to avoid any punishment incurred from not hiring them). I recognize it would be naive for me to make this argument. The same naivety applies to those who make the same argument about a free-market policy.

Many would retort, it is never charitable if there is economic incentive. However, there are other incentives besides economic. They fail to realize that any logical definition of charity must have ‘incentive’ as a property. There is no such thing as charitable giving with absolutely no incentive. An incentive is not always outside recognition or physical manifestation. It can merely be a personal concept, e.g. changing your own opinion about yourself or being religious. This alone fulfills the property of incentive.

Of course, many have the propensity to dismiss these arguments once I mentioned the word “libertarian.” There is an obvious cognitive bias among people who respond with a gag reflex once they see this word. Admittedly, this is only my own biased conjecturing. They have predetermined that a system of libertarian law would violate their personal criteria for ethics. Most of them are not aware that it is probably more compatible with any system of ethics ever conceived.

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2 thoughts on “The ‘Property is Coercive’ Argument”

  1. All you’ve shown here is that you don’t get the argument.

    The point is that how you define “aggression” and “theft” depends on your theory of property, ownership, rights, justice, etc.

    If tax revenue is the legitimate property of the state and not of the individual tax payer, then demanding payment of taxes, or enforcing tax payment, is neither aggression nor theft, according to the NAP.

    To argue that taxation is theft you have to argue that tax revenue is not the legitimate property of the state, and is instead the legitimate property of the individual tax payer. There’s no point shouting “aggression” and “theft” at people who don’t agree with your argument and who think that tax revenue is indeed the legitimate property of the state.

    When people argue that property is itself coercive they either mean that:

    (1) There is no fundamental agreement or general consent as to what constitutes legitimate ownership. As such, asserting ownership claims involves using force, and indeed initiating force, against others who don’t necessarily agree with them.

    (2) Initially things are unowned and uncreated by man, such as land, trees, fruit, etc. By claiming to own something which was previously unowed and uncreated by you, you are just saying that you will initiate force against the bodies of anyone who tries to use that thing without your consent. In other words you are just unilaterally appropriating it by means of force. “Labor mixing” and “homesteading” are just theories which attempt to justify this use of force. There is however no God-given law which says that doing a certain action on a previously unowned and uncreated piece of the world gives you the right to use force against the bodies of others.

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