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Saturday, June 04, 2011

Lockean Original Acquisition


“For central to Nozick’s account is the thesis that all legitimate entitlements can be traced to legitimate acts of original acquisition. But, if that is so, there are in fact very few, and in some large areas of the world no, legitimate entitlements. The property-owners of the modern world are not the legitimate heirs of Lockean individuals who performed quasi-Lockean… acts of original acquisition; they are the inheritors of those who, for example, stole and used violence to steal the common lands of England from the common people, vast tracts of North America from the American Indian, much of Ireland from this Irisih, and Prussia from the original non-German Prussians. This is the historical reality ideologically concealed behind any Lockean thesis.” -- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue

So if libertarians who make the "mingle one's labor with the land" argument take it seriously, what they ought to be doing right now is calling for the most massive property re-distribution program ever seen in history. How about it: are you game for that?

38 comments:

  1. Well, for what it's worth, the (Rothbardian) call for re-distribution, while large, may not be as massive as you're assuming:

    "Overthrow of existing property title only becomes legitimate if the victims or their heirs can present an authenticated, demonstrable, and specific claim to the property. Failing such conditions, existing landowners possess a fully moral right to their property." - Rothbard, 'Justice and Property Rights' (Page 121 of Property In A Humane Economy)

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  2. I thought this was a point Rothbard explicitly addressed, either in Ethics of Liberty or For a New Liberty (they get mixed together in my head). I'm not saying Rothbard was right, but he was aware of the problem.

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  3. In order to take that principle seriously, it is only necessary to condemn the original transfer as wrong. The reductio ad absurdum has force only against those who would make the labor principle the sole means of acquiring legitimate title to material things.

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  4. Libertarians have long acknowledged this criticism, and the argument against redistribution is usually that it would be too messy and create more problems, or that deontological libertarian grounds for rectification are contingent upon 1. an existing party A (ie. not a 12th century aristocrat) committing injustice against B, and 2. B's consent to rectification.

    Interestingly, Pjotr Kropotkin (an anarcho-communist) also said that forceful overthrow of existing property was futile, since all that was needed to make the owning classes less powerful was to improve the lives of the non-owning classes above the bare sustenance level (I don't remember how he proposed to do so, but I presume he meant mutual aid and refusing to acknowledge privilege).

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  5. This is dealt with in so many places in the literature that it's hard to know whether you are joking or trying to be a pot-shot pedant without a point.

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  6. "Libertarians have long acknowledged this criticism, and the argument against redistribution is usually that it would be too messy and create more problems..."

    Right, an answer which totally vitiates the "natural rights" defense of property. Property is a social arrangement which may or may not be respected based on whether it does or does not promote the goals of a society.

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  7. Come on folks, think about it... "Oh, you may be able to reclaim the property we stole from you.. IF you have a valid claim registered in the registration system we set up after we stole all of you land from you!"

    Yes, Daniel, this is "dealt with" "in the literature" -- the literature that exists to justify theft, like Locke's juvenile philosophy.

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  8. An interesting question, indeed. For the most part, I've usually thought of it in, oddly enough, Randian terms.

    Rand's take on inherited wealth was that those who are competent will lose theirs anyway.

    My take on land has generally been that in the absence of the rest of the existing web of privilege and subsidy, land would over time be abandoned, actually or constructively, by those who don't meet the Lockean test, and re-homesteaded by those who actually work it.

    But I could be wrong.

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  9. Well, that's quite good, Tom. But note that you've totally abandoned the usual Locke/Nozick/Rothbard justification for property rights in making this excellent point.

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  10. "Right, an answer which totally vitiates the 'natural rights' defense of property. Property is a social arrangement which may or may not be respected based on whether it does or does not promote the goals of a society."

    Lockean homesteading theory simply states that a person, having mixed his labor with unowned resources, thereby acquires title to it. From this it follows that it cannot rightfully be taken from him: but it does not follow that, if it is taken from him, his descendants can claim it after (say) 800 years. That would be true only if the Lockean principle were the sole principle of natural justice.

    You seem to be imagining a situation like this: A steals property from X and passes it on to B, who in turn passes it on to C. Yet after the theft, X continues to (peaceably, let us say) claim title to his land, and upon his death leaves it to his heir Y. Y, too, maintains title to the land, and leaves it to his heir Z. Now Z claims the land, and C refuses to turn it over.

    If B and C were both aware of what had happened, and if both were aware of the claims of X and his heirs, then we have a peculiarly black-and-white case. The title should be transferred.

    But suppose instead that X had no clear heir; or that his heirs long ago abandoned any claim to their property. Stipulate further that C has transferred the property to D, who is genuinely ignorant of what happened, and who spends a great deal of money improving the property. D leaves it to E, who leaves it to F, etc. Now what? If Z becomes aware that he is descended from X and might have received (what?) 1/1,000th of the property, is it really disingenuous for a Lockean to reject his claim?

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  11. PSH, I think there are good reasons to leave existing property claims in there place, in general

    But they are not the Lockean nonsense Nozick and Rothbard espouse. As you are admitting here.

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  12. Is Rothbard's position really as "vicious" as you suppose? You interpret "authenticated, demonstrable, and specific claim" to mean "a valid claim registered in the registration system we set up after we stole all of you[r] land from you." But, why? What (non-ideological?) justification do you have for this interpretation?

    If you were honestly trying to make sense of the quote from a neutral standpoint you may try to tease out the original author's interpretation before claiming it was "vicious." This is Rothbard on freeing the slaves in the American South:

    "[J]ustice required not only the immediate freeing of the slaves, but also the immediate turning over to the slaves, again without compensation to the masters, of the plantation lands on which they had worked and sweated."

    This is far from "a big fuck you to anyone who doesn't have written property titles," a point I think you would find glaringly obvious were it not associated with Rothbard.

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  13. "A thousand years" in the past does not a current right make. Yes, there were past atrocities hundreds of years ago, but also all legal codes recognize that occupants at some point become legitimate owners. And the descendants of murderers are not murderers if some statute of limitations exists and sanity calls for one. So again, Gene, you're not being original on your backtracking from libertarianism until you find a nice conservative-Oakeshottian label for yourself.

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  14. Also, Lockeanism is not nonsense but a description of the optimal, the just way of adquiring property. That the world is far from mostly classic liberal/libertarian is not the fault of Lockeans. From that optimal/just we can even have this discussion. Your whole attack on Rothbard relies on the acceptance of it, I hope you notice that much while you engage in the usual circular argument antics.

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  15. Sorry, I was a little hot-headed with some earlier comments.

    "Yes, there were past atrocities hundreds of years ago, but also all legal codes recognize that occupants at some point become legitimate owners."

    Sure, as they should. But there goes Nozick's chain of legitimate acquisition right out the window!

    "Gene, you're not being original on your backtracking from libertarianism until you find a nice conservative-Oakeshottian label for yourself."

    Juan:

    a) That's advancing forward from liberatarianism.
    b) Since I was QUOTING MacIntyre, isn't it pretty obvious I wasn't claiming originality.
    c) "a nice conservative-Oakeshottian label" Huh?

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  16. "From that optimal/just we can even have this discussion. Your whole attack on Rothbard relies on the acceptance of it, I hope you notice that much while you engage in the usual circular argument antics."

    Sorry, I don't understand this bit.

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  17. When Tom Knapp offered the idea of property being "re-homesteaded by those who actually work it" you responded by saying "you've totally abandoned the usual Locke/Nozick/Rothbard justification for property rights in making this excellent point."

    But, has he? In the same paragraph I partially quoted in the first comment, Rothbard explicitly states:

    "[T]he point of the ‘homestead principle’ is that if we don't know what crimes have been committed in acquiring the property in the past, or if we don't know the victims or their heirs, then the current owner becomes the legitimate and just owner on homestead grounds."

    Maybe you have a fantastic response that I cannot anticipate at the moment, but how is Tom's comment an "excellent point" while Rothbard's is "Lockean nonsense"?

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  18. Jeff, recall that the original quote was criticising Nozick, not Rothbard, so it's kind of odd that you think it's personal animus against Rothbard that is moving me here.

    '[T]he point of the ‘homestead principle’ is that if we don't know what crimes have been committed in acquiring the property in the past, or if we don't know the victims or their heirs, then the current owner becomes the legitimate and just owner on homestead grounds.'

    But for the things MacIntyre was citing, we DO know what crimes were committed in the past, and we have a pretty good idea who the heirs are! So how is this relevant at all to my post?

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  19. I know the original post mentions Nozick, but my second comment was responding to your reaction of the first Rothbard quote I posted. Your now-deleted comments were splashed with exclamation points, f-bombs, and an absurdly uncharitable interpretation of Rothbard's position, which you labeled as "vicious." I honestly don't know why you would find my suspicion of "personal animus against Rothbard" to be "odd," since it was he you were reacting to in such an admittedly "hot-headed" manner. Plus, you lumped "Locke/Nozick/Rothbard" together on this issue, so Rothbard's connection seems pretty "relevant" even by your own standards.

    Anyway, you react to my second Rothbard quote by asking:
    "[H]ow is this relevant at all to my post?" I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you didn't read the text accompanying the second Rothbard quote I gave. I was using it to show how similar it was to Tom Knapp's idea of re-homesteading property, which you praised as "excellent." My confusion is that there seems to be no clear difference between Tom's "excellent point" and Rothbard's "Lockean nonsense." So, why the difference in judgment?

    Lastly, to the extent that past property crimes and legitimate heirs are known, you're right, there really is no reason why "libertarians who make the 'mingle one's labor with the land' argument" shouldn't be calling for redistribution.

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  20. No, that was not absurdly uncharitable -- it was accurate. If Rothbard *really* believed in his principle, he ought to have recommended turning the US back over to the Indians.

    Rothbard's point is fine in the quote you gave is just dandy, so there is no puzzle that I would like a point that Knapp made that was similar. But it does not relate to the situations I was talking about.

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  21. Gene,

    Do you think the Rothbardian/Lockean/Nozickean conception of mingling labor with land is applicable to nomadic peoples?

    To me it is not, as nomadic peoples are much like a grazing heard of wilderbeasts: They do not really labor the land, they just consume its natural fruits.

    Knowing that many of the American Indians (North) were fairly nomadic, I would say that they did not mingle their labor with the land, so they had no rothbardian property claim back the, and they have no rothbardian property claim now. Surely some do, but the whole of USA should not be turned back to the indians

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  22. "If Rothbard *really* believed in his principle, he ought to have recommended turning the US back over to the Indians."

    Well, to the extent that "victims or their heirs can present an authenticated, demonstrable, and specific claim to the property" it seems he would have agreed. Your interpretation of Rothbard's principle, however, that this claim must be "a valid claim registered in the registration system we set up after we stole all of you[r] land from you" is, yes, "absurdly uncharitable." His support of granting "the plantation lands" to American slaves clearly cuts against this interpretation.

    "Rothbard's point is fine in the quote you gave is just dandy, so there is no puzzle that I would like a point that Knapp made that was similar."

    It seems to me Rothbard's quote about re-homesteading would fall under the category of "Lockean nonsense Nozick and Rothbard espouse", but if you're willing to say it's fine "Lockean nonsense", fair enough. It still doesn't explain your original remark that Tom had "totally abandoned the usual Locke/Nozick/Rothbard justification for property rights" in making his point. This was obviously a careless and false assertion because Rothbard made a "similar" point, which you now admit.

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  23. Gene wrote,

    "Come on folks, think about it... "Oh, you may be able to reclaim the property we stole from you.. IF you have a valid claim registered in the registration system we set up after we stole all of you land from you!""

    Gene, the way you paint it sounds very unjust, unfair and horrible. But you paint it too vividly and exagerate to the point of obscuring the truth.

    First in your imaginary monologue there should be no 'we'. The same people who stole whatever was stolen are not the same people that are going to be making judicial decisions on the property redistribution. You don't even have to be a methodological individualist to agree that this use of the collective "we" is obscuring the reality of the situation to make it sound more injust than it is.

    Secondly when you try to right the wrongs of the past, you always take the risk of creating more wrongs today. In this case it would be giving people property when their claims were fraudulent. It would be silly to completely eliminate one type of error by guaranteeing that the other type will always be made.

    Moreover, I think a lot of your hatred of the Rothbardian/Nozickean/Lockean position is because you think that if a magic button existed that would right every wrong, these three people wouldn't press it.

    But I think if you asked say Rothbard "Here is a magic button that would restore all property to its rightful owners and take care of all the paper work, will you press it" he would say "yes" and the proceed to press it.

    But when you ask him, "pragmatically, given that no such button exists, how would you handle this" he says what he says in 'Justice and Property Rights', and I think that is a perfectly reasonable thing to say.

    There of course may be other better ways to handle the property distribution than the judicial process implied in Rothbard's essay.

    Note: saying that there should be an avenue for people to try and get back property stolen from their ancestors, doesn't mean the principle kn@ppster suggested stops working along side it.

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  24. Gene,

    You write:

    "you've totally abandoned the usual Locke/Nozick/Rothbard justification for property rights"

    I'm not sure I ever mixed my labor with that justification enough to claim ownership, so I'm in turn not sure that I could be said to have "abandoned" it ;-)

    But seriously: Property in land is one of those questions I've been on the fence about ever since I really began thinking about it.

    I find the Georgist argument not unpersuasive, and one of the things that turned me off to Rothbard was the ham-handed way he attacked the Georgists, then danced around the ring with his fists in the air, claiming victory while having not landed so much as a single solid punch on them.

    But, I'm trying to keep my mind open on that topic.

    I do think that my thinking on transitions may be wishful.

    What everyone wants is a nice, smooth transition curve with minimal trouble -- the state goes away, and as it goes away, past injustices "wash out" because the state was what held them up.

    I think history is more of a "punctuated equilibrium" thing -- every so often the shit hits the fan, and you hope that when the resulting cloud wafts away, things will look better than they did before.

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  25. Jeff, right here Tom states he has never been very comfortable with the Lockean position. And not everything Rothbard said was Lockean.

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  26. "Knowing that many of the American Indians (North) were fairly nomadic, I would say that they did not mingle their labor with the land, so they had no rothbardian property claim back the, and they have no rothbardian property claim now. Surely some do, but the whole of USA should not be turned back to the indians."

    Well, that is something remarkable about Locke's original version: just those very people whom the English landed gentry was busy dispossessing... the English lower classes, the Irish, the Indians... it turns out they didn't have any right to the property after all. The exclusion of the hunting grounds some people have used for a thousand years is an arbitrary way to justify taking their stuff.

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  27. And Avram, believe it or not, the American Indians were humans, not grazing animals. And:

    "Natives of North American began practicing farming approximately 4,000 years ago, late in the Archaic period of North American cultures. Technology had advanced to the point that pottery was becoming common, and the small-scale felling of trees became feasible. Concurrently, the Archaic Indians began using fire in a widespread manner. Intentional burning of vegetation was used to mimic the effects of natural fires that tended to clear forest understories. It made travel easier and facilitated the growth of herbs and berry-producing plants, which were important for both food and medicines.[82]

    "In the Mississippi River valley, Europeans noted Native Americans' managed groves of nut and fruit trees as orchards, not far from villages and towns, in addition to their gardens and agricultural fields. Wildlife competition could be reduced by understory burning. Further away, prescribed burning would have been used in forest and prairie areas." --Wikipedia

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  28. Gene,

    I did not call American Indians animals: I said that in my understanding of the Lockean acquisition principle, nomadic peoples have as much right to land as the trees, rocks and animals that live there, because they do not "work" it. Please refrain from the temptation of depicting the people you are talking to as bigots in the future. To my knowledge I am only a bigot rarely if ever.

    Also, you seem to view the Lockean acquisition principle as just a loophole justification for English imperialism, and historically there may be some truth to it, although I think the philosophy of the time was simply "might makes right" and people weren't interested in anything beyond that, so I do not think your view is any good.

    Now, if one of the nomadic peoples themselves decided to clear some of the hunting ground to farm his cattle or whatever, surely you would agree that if his fellow nomads attacked him for this that their claim to the land would be inferior to his, and that he would have every right to defend his cattle plot.

    As for the North American Indians being not nomadic. Perhaps so, I do not know much about this. Although I would be surprised to discover that North America was just as densely populated and "homesteaded" as Europe when the first Europeans arrived. Maybe it was. Also, I think that Rothbard, Locke, and Nozick would all agree that to the Indians who did farm the lands, build settlements etc. etc. land should be restored.

    P.S Why didn't you publish my other comment? I made extra effort to not be rude in it and I think it added a few things to the discussion. Maybe not as much as the other more articulate posters but it must have been worth something.

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  29. "I did not call American Indians animals..."

    Sorry, Avram, but you invited the quip (which is what it was) with your poorly chosen analogy. I believe you that that is all it was: so choose better in the future.

    "Also, you seem to view the Lockean acquisition principle as just a loophole justification for English imperialism, and historically there may be some truth to it, although I think the philosophy of the time was simply "might makes right" and people weren't interested in anything beyond that, so I do not think your view is any good."

    So, you have some vague impression of something you heard in high school and from that you come to think my view is not any good?!

    Who, in "the philosophy of the time," ever said that "might makes right"?

    Your other comment: I never saw it. Don't know why.

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  30. "So, you have some vague impression of something you heard in high school and from that you come to think my view is not any good?!"

    No. I was saying that the English didn't really need to justify their imperialism with words: I don't think anyone asked Locke to write his views on property acquisition just so they could go kill the Irish people with a clear conscience.

    I think you were suggesting such a conspiracy when you wrote:

    "Well, that is something remarkable about Locke's original version: just those very people whom the English landed gentry was busy dispossessing... the English lower classes, the Irish, the Indians... it turns out they didn't have any right to the property after all"

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  31. The seventeenth-century English were amongst the mostly intensely religious people the world has ever known -- they certainly DID need to justify these things to themselves!

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  32. Gene,

    I'm generally not comfortable with much at all -- constant re-examination of position in light of newly noticed ideas and all that.

    BUT: The Georgist position is also "Lockean."

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  33. Well, Tom, one could debate endlessly about how close position A is to position B, but George did reach strikingly different conclusions on land ownership than did Locke.

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  34. Gene,

    If I understand George (and Jefferson, and Paine, et. al) correctly, what they are operating on is this part of the Lockean Proviso: "As much and as good for others."

    Without saying that the Georgist "solution" is correct, I would say that subsequent thinkers to Locke had access to more and better information than he did.

    Locke was writing after the discovery of the apparently boundless "New World," but before the population explosion and dramatically increased reliance on commerce between distant points that came with the Industrial Revolution (and, of course, well before the misadventures related to his Australian walkabout and Oceanic Flight 815).

    Land (especially useful land) looked a lot more scarce to George when he wrote Progress and Poverty (1879) than it did to Locke when he wrote the Second Treatise (1689). So I don't find it really surprising that the Proviso language would loom larger in George's eyes than it did in Locke's, or some of Locke's more immediate disciples.

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  35. Okay, if you don't classify the concept of homesteading as "Lockean", I guess we just have an unbridgeable gap in classification. Staying in the field of property rights theory I don't know of any other idea that could be more "Lockean."

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  36. "Okay, if you don't classify the concept of homesteading as "Lockean"..."

    Rothbard was talking about how to get the rights to something in a NON-Lockean way, nopt by homesteading it, but by an initial act of theft that then got lost track of.

    OK? So that's why it ain't Lockean, cause it ain't got nothin' to do with homesteading.

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  37. I would see your point if Rothbard believed current owners have the best claim in this case because pragmatism demands it or God wills it or if he depended on some other reason not related to Locke in any specific way. But, he cited the "homestead principle" and "on homestead grounds" as justification. So, it certainly has somethin' "to do with homesteading."

    I believe this is because the best action, in his view, was to treat messy, untraceable property as effectively unowned, the same way Locke imagined unowned property as his starting point. From there, homesteading was the just acquisition method.

    Of course, Rothbard's idea that current owners would have actually homesteaded all of their property claims is dubious. (I have a strange feeling Ted Turner hasn't mixed his labor with all of his land claims in Montana). But, his method of justifying the ownership in this way was certainly motivated by the basic Lockean principle of homesteading.

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  38. OK, Jeff, I see that. I'm not sure it works, but I can see why it is Lockean.

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