The “gift economy of property” was the accidental outcome of a kind of thought experiment. I admire libertarian property theory for its ambitious attempts to trace out the various implications of “property,” but sometimes feel that the “all rights are property rights” crowd are a little too certain at the outset what “all rights” must look like. If nothing else, the most careful “one right” system is a precarious enterprise, since misidentifying that right, or misunderstanding its aspects and implications, is a kind of error that will almost inevitably snowball. But, taken generally, the notion that property is the basis of rights and liberties makes pretty good sense: it is little more than a restatement of the principle of “natural rights,” an assumption that human rights and liberties ought to arise from, or at least closely connect to, whatever is proper to the existence of human beings. And all of those criticism from social anarchist and early socialist circles had convinced me of the need to at least begin by taking things generally and working through things deliberately.
I made an early attempt to work out a notion of “self-ownership” which did not seem question-begging to me, looking for a construction in which it seemed useful to say “I am myself” and “I own myself,” without shifting terms, and without simply imposing the notion of ownership as legal control on the self. My concerns, and my more recent conclusions, are probably best expressed in “Responses on mutualist property theory: Self-ownership,” but my initial conclusion was that an awful lot of the accounts I was reading of self-ownership most places were, if not fundamentally self-defeating, at least seriously fraught with difficulties.
As I was simultaneously delving deep into Proudhon’s works and exploring other theories, the thing that seemed clear to me was that “property” remained, to some extent at least, not a liberty or a right, but simply a problem which we lacked clear criteria to deal with. It seemed to me that I was at a place in my elaboration of property theory where I had to say that none of the contenders had much more to offer than more or less convincing arguments from predicted consequences—with prediction being a hazardous business across the divide of whatever other transformations might bring us within reach of any sort of anarchism. So, in order to come up with any sort of anarchistic principle for dealing with those conflicts of “mine” and “thine” which seem inevitable, it seemed necessary either
- To discover some more or less “natural” principle, which would reveal to us the nature of our rights and liberties; or
- To invent some practice or establish some convention which would be sufficiently unobjectionable that a lot of other details could just be set aside.
In short, we either had to understand our present situation differently, and adjust our behavior accordingly, or find a means to claim property without a priori permission. Locke’s original theory, with the provisos intact, seemed to me—and still seems to me—a relatively elegant attempt to achieve the second sort of solution to our problem, but even the provisos have been subject to plausible interpretations that pull in essentially opposite directions, with regard to key questions like just consumption of appropriation of natural resources. As much as I have drawn from Locke’s work, it has always left me with critical questions unanswered.
And, of course, staking out a theoretical claim on proviso-lockean territory is an almost sure-fire way not to be taken seriously by anyone—whether it’s a question of social anarchists, neo-lockean market anarchists, or the common-sense “possessitarians” who will settle all the details “after the revolution.” The fact that my argument has had certain resonances with Georgism has been a mixed blessing, since I don’t accept the logic of land-value taxation.
In any event, it was after some significant attempts to simply find “property” in some principle of natural law, or take it according to some generalizable principle—without much success—that I noticed all that Proudhon had to say about property and “free gifts,” that I began to explore the notion that perhaps we could give property to one another.