Property Rights Absolutism

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By Anonymous, on Nov 12, 2010

I know the short-hand of slapping labels onto ourselves is probably a bad idea. When someone says "I'm a Democrat" or "I'm a Republican", invariably the mind of the audience is narrowed and what they really hear is "I'm a hippie socialist" or "I'm a war-mongering douchebag".  Still, I guess if I had to choose one of those shorthand terms with which to self-identify, it would be An-cap. Now, luckily (I suppose) not many know what the term means and so it inspires more questions than anything else which is a good thing, but every once in a while someone "in the know" will offer the retort, in one form or another, that I'm one of those "property rights absolutist". Well, I guess I can't argue with that. In my mind, your right to control your mind, body and the product of each is absolute. So too, then, is your right to defend your property. Invariably at this point in the discussion an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum is made that in an an-cap society where property rights were supreme, people could and would be justified in shooting toddlers who wandered onto their property. 

Um, ok. I guess it's conceivable that in a voluntary society the idea of property rights might be carried to the extreme by some members of that society and that the right of property could be used to attempt to justify the murder of an intentional trespasser, an accidental wanderer or even a child, but I think the possible correlation between property rights and child murders is being a bit overstated and distorted. We don't abstain from shooting people because of a lack of respect for property rights. We abstain from shooting each other either because of our personal morality or because it's sort of taboo in our society (unless of course, you're part of the government).The question one must ask ones self is whether or not an entire community would condone such an absolute interpretation of property rights and if not, what the various responses and consequences might be. The property owner can fall into one of two basic categories. He is either a member of the community, actively engaging in trade with his neighbors or he is one who is isolated on his property and meets all his needs himself; that is, he farms his food, produces his clothing, fuel, etc.

 In the former case, it is likely that as part of a voluntary community, or what Hoppe refers to as the covenant community, laws governing the use of violence in defense of property will have been contractually agreed upon. It is possible that an entire community would agree to laws allowing the murder of trespassing children, but not all that plausible. Such a community could not exist for very long for lack of women...and I guess children. More likely, the absolute right of property will be tempered by the necessity of building prosperous communities. 

But what of the rogue who stands at his porch, sniper rifle in hand, picking off children as they step onto his property? What can be done in the absence of a state apparatus where a "wanton respect for property rights" reigns supreme? There are a number of solutions. Ostracism is one answer. If an individual violates the covenant he can be blocked off from all trade and access to or passage through the properties of the other members of the community. In addition, since collective defense would be voluntary, the community could refuse to continue to defend this individual from aggression, leaving him and his property exposed to great danger especially considering the existence of angry family members). It's hard to imagine that any great number of people would be willing to place themselves in such a predicament for the pleasure of protecting his acreage from non-violent trespasses. 

In the latter case, in which the individual is isolated and self sufficient, ostracism might not be as effective a tool, but certainly he will lose his right to the collective defense of his neighbors and be susceptible to attacks on his person and property. For a real world example of how this might play out, look to Somalia and the Xeer

Our critics can of course come up with hypothetical situations in which a child might be harmed or killed as evidence that an-cap, ie,  libertarian theory doesn't address all the problems that exist everywhere in the world, however, given that state governments have been responsible for the murder of millions of children in the 20th and 21st centuries alone, through the use of trade embargoes like this one, or acts of aggression against innocent individuals like this one, or this one, or this one, or this one, their arguments for the state apparatus seem just a weee bit disingenuous, don't you think? Respect for property rights doesn't create bad people. Bad people exist and always will.  Libertarianism isn't a moral panacea. It's our attempt to minimize the horrible effects that bad people can have on us, especially when they wield the ultimate power of the state.