There’s a call at the Center for a Stateless Society for responses to a document on “Land Tenure and Anarchic Common Law,” which “which synthesizes remarks by Kevin Carson, Brad Spangler, and Gary Chartier.” The basic argument is that “occupancy and use” and “Lockean” (non-proviso neo-lockean) theories differ primarily over the question of abandonment of “justly acquired” property. The assumption is that the theories are in something like agreement on “just acquisition” because both employ a homesteading mechanism.
It’s the sort of thing that first makes me want to say: “Property is theft!” I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions about abandonment issues, and defended versions of “occupancy and use” very open to summer homes and various other petty bourgeois deviations—provided owners carry their own costs. I would hope that a free society would mean more options—even more luxuries—rather than less.
But there’s no getting around the difficulties of that question of “just acquisition.”
As I’ve observed before, the Lockean theory of property—the full theory, that is, with provisos intact—is, whatever you think about Locke’s ultimate intentions, a rather elegant system. It shows its age, certainly, reflecting an economic relationship between human beings and natural resources that is certainly not the norm more than three centuries later, as well as a view of the nature of “nature” that’s pretty hopelessly out of date. But, in general, it seems to me that it’s a pretty darn good start towards a just property theory.
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. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.
There’s nothing flashy, or too complicated here. There’s an individual, with a “property in his own person”—a relation we generally call “self-ownership”—and there is nature—largely a passive element available to the uses active agents, and “inferior.” (To the extent that Lockean property theory incorporates assumptions about land use, those assumptions are likely to be more simply “environmentalist” than “ecological” in character. But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit…) The human actor is a coherent and evolving force and/or bundle of projects, and it appropriates nature by incorporating resources into its projects, subjecting them to its forces. “Property,” in Locke’s scheme, refers in turn to the the relation of the human actor to itself, to its effects, and to the elements it incorporates. There’s a clear sense in Locke’s prose that there is a chain of connections here, based initially on the property posited in the “person” of the actor (which “no body has any right to but himself”), and extending out by steps. “Every man has a property in his person,” so “we may say” that “the labour of his body, and the work of his hands”are “properly his.” And then some other resource can be considered appropriated because, by “mixing” those things that “we may say” are his, he has “joined to it something that is his own.” “Property” appears to be “something” (vague as that is, it’s the word Locke himself used at key points in his account) that radiates out from the property of the person, to property in the products and efforts of the person, and then to property in the resources incorporated in the the products and transformed by the efforts of the person (provided the provisos are met.) While the general model is of an expanding envelope of exclusive personhood, it seems pretty clear that the actual relations, and thus the associated rights, of property are not identical at every remove from that initial “person with property in themselves.” There are causes and effects, persons that are proper to themselves by definition and things that become proper to them by extension.
When modern propertarians talk about “self-ownership” as the basis of “property,” a lot of this has a tendency to just go out the window—or at least take some very odd turns. Tibor Machan, for instance, starts his “Self-Ownership & the Lockean Proviso” with the provocative claim that “self-ownership—or in Locke’s terms “property in his own person”—is justified only if we leave “enough and as good” for others of ourselves.” By treating “self-ownership” as if it must be derived from the same mechanisms of extension as the appropriation of resources, Machan produces an apparent paradox, but it’s one which has to badly backfire on any property theory. If self-ownership has to be derived from homesteading, and homesteading works because of self-ownership, then there are some pretty obvious problems. Machan’s little scandal doesn’t actually come off very well. Roderick Long’s “Land-Locked,” written in response to Kevin Carson, is a lot more sensitive to these sorts of problems, but may not entirely escape them. Roderick nicely demonstrates that the notion of nature as a “common patrimony” cannot be derived from some originary homesteading of nature by humanity. Clearly, nature is not in fact the joint property of humanity. As I suggested elsewhere, the notion of an “original mixing” might well also be fatal to individual property. The problem is that, when it comes to principles of just appropriation, it isn’t clear that individual self-ownership carries us any farther forward than the premise of a common patrimony. In fact, there has been incorporation of resources, but whether that appropriation is most justly understood as individual or collective probably really is a question that “the principle of self-ownership alone” cannot decide for us. And it’s not really these questions of what has actually been homesteaded that are at stake. I don’t think anyone believes that Locke, or Kevin Carson, is trying to claim an original homesteading. We don’t say that natural resources are not destined for the use of the individual, on the grounds that the individual has not used them yet. On the contrary, another good scholar I happen to disagree with, Gary Chartier, considers the position that “there are no just property rights, because it is wrong for anyone to claim to control any part of the material world” a position “no reasonable person would endorse,” which would render “orderly, purposeful action in the world impossible.” I’m not certain that “orderly, purposeful action” depends on rights, but it seems to me that most of the Lockean and/or natural rights propertarians are unlikely to contest the notion that something other than an already accomplished homesteading is at stake in whatever rights to appropriate we eventually derive or discover.
One way or another, it seems, we’ve got to do the trick of moving from the fact of self-ownership to a right of appropriation, and the determination of what constitutes “just appropriation” has to wait on the results.
And there’s nothing terribly easy about that. Without recourse to a God who bequeathed nature to humanity in common, we have to look for something in the nature of human being, or in self-ownership, that authorizes us to talk about rights to appropriate anything in particular. Thomas Skidmore, in The Rights of Man to Property, thought he had derived a natural right to property that was individual, inalienable and roughly equal, but ultimately impracticable outside of a fairly extensive social consensus. The “agrarian” result is much like communism. And, of course, plenty of anarchists have opted for communism. Indeed, from the death of Proudhon onward, the vast majority of anarchists have responded to the difficulties associated with the just appropriation of land and other natural resources by embracing the collective management of these things. (For those who want to immediately interject something about “the tragedy of the commons,” I can only gesture to the actually existing tragedy of state-capitalist resource management and suggest a little reading in ecological science. For those quick to talk about “marxist” influence… well, Hell, anarchist collectivism was as strongly influenced by the Belgian “rational socialists,” guys like Jean-Guillaume-César-Alexandre-Hippolyte (baron de Colins), as it was by Marx in that regard. But they made the influences their own, in any case.) Proudhon learned to stop worrying and love property (a little bit, anyway) precisely because he identified it first with “the sum of its abuses,” and then, ultimately, with absolutism and despotism.
My own interest in Locke’s theory is that it seems to make something of an end-run around this problem of the right of appropriation—at least when the main proviso remains intact. If property is essentially non-rivalrous—if our “good draught” really leaves “the whole river,” or enough of it so that natural processes will replenish it—then here’s some real ground for agreement, at least in terms of the basic justice of the appropriation. Of course, the notion of non-rivalrous property runs against the grain of contemporary propertarian theory, but it seems to be right there in Locke—and it seems like a much more promising place to look for substantive agreement with left anarchism than in a debate about abandonment.