On September 28th, 2009, Francois Tremblay, a former propertarian anarchist, wrote a blog piece to showcase what he currently sees to be the inexorable problems resulting from a defence of property rights. In doing so, he quotes extensively from a piece written over thirty-four years ago by capitalism-advocate Walter Block.
In reading Mr. Tremblay’s post, I could not help but to think of how vulgar libertarianism facilitates vulgar socialism and vice versa. (For those unfamiliar with the terms vulgar libertarianism and vulgar socialism, deﬁnitions will be provided below, coupled with examples and analyses.)
The Block piece from which Mr. Tremblay quotes was originally published in 1975 in The Libertarian Forum VIII, no. 9. Dr. Block’s article, dealing speciﬁcally with certain ideological problems he found in the Women’s Liberation movement, does a ﬁne job of inadvertently exemplifying the stigmergic problems of vulgar libertarianism, so I shall start there. It’s not the simple fact that Block challenges currents within the Women’s Liberation movement that makes his comments of a vulgar stripe, of course, since such challenges need not challenge the validity of the movement as a whole. Indeed, otherwise good movements should be challenged by radicals who wish to improve said movements by radicalising them. Instead, the problem is the result of a misunderstanding of the nature and proper constraints of property.
Writes Dr. Block,
It [the pinching that takes place between a secretary and her or his boss] is not a coercive action like the pinching that takes place in the public sphere because it is part of a package deal: the secretary agrees to all aspects of the job when she agrees to accept the job and especially when she agrees to keep the job (p. 6).
My gut reaction here is to say that Dr. Block is wrong.1
And he was wrong, that is, unless he was describing a scenario in which the employment contract speciﬁcally allocates to the boss the luxury of pinching or a scenario in which the boss and her employee have mutually agreed to have the sort of relationship where pinching is permissible.2
If this is not what Block was implying, if instead Block was implying that all workers—by sheer virtue of being employees—have de facto agreed to being pinched by their employers, then Block was wrong, and his position was actually in deﬁance of true property rights. After all, the woman owns her own body, and does not cease being a self-owner simply because she chooses to seek employment from another human being (i.e., to trade on a voluntary basis the fruits of her labour for something for which she has greater subjective value, e.g., a generally-accepted medium of exchange). If the employer pinches the employee without the employee having explicitly consented to being pinched, then the employer has usurped from the employee control over the employee’s private property, speciﬁcally her physical body, and the employee has every right to sue her employer for such usurpation.
To prevent the employee from issuing such a suit would be just as liberticidal and anti-propertarian as to prevent the employer from ﬁring her employee at any time.
Dr. Block’s insistence here that employers have a de facto “right” to pinch their employees appears to be an illustrative example of what we call vulgar libertarianism. Vulgar libertarianism is the tendency to see any business-related relationship or institution as de facto just or good.3 Here, Block assumed that if the pinching takes place on private property, it is necessarily consensual by virtue of that fact alone. While Block was correct to note the differences between private pinching and public pinching, and to point out that the private sector has systemic incentives to eliminate social ills in a way that the government sector does not, he made the irrational jump to concluding that private pinching is somehow not a violation of self-ownership.
It is important that we note the differences between libertarianism and vulgar libertarianism. While the former is the consistent application of the non-aggression axiom and, by extension, a defence of all justly-acquired, scarce property, the latter is an inadvertent confusion within the libertarian movement between the true free market and the semi-, pseudo-, and un-free markets prevalent under statism. While it certainly appears true that society has tended to prosper more greatly under state capitalism than under state socialism, nevertheless the libertarian rejects both systems, and conﬁdently predicts that the greatest prosperity the masses can achieve would be achieved under what Rothbard called free-market capitalism or what Spangler calls free-market socialism.
Continued Dr. Block,
There is a serious problem with considering pinching or sexual molestation in a privately owned ofﬁce or store to be coercive. If an action is really and truly coercive, it ought to be outlawed. But if pinching and sexual molestation are outlawed in private places, this violates the rights of those who voluntarily wish to engage in such practices.
What tortured logic! This is like saying, “If rape is wrong, then we should outlaw sex. But if sex is outlawed, this violates the rights of those who voluntarily wish to engage in such practices.”
Of course, the reality is that voluntary sex, unlike rape, should be completely legal precisely because it is voluntary, unlike rape.
Or, “If injecting unsuspecting victims with a drug is wrong, then drugs should be outlawed. But if drugs are outlawed, this violates the rights of those who voluntarily wish to use them.”
Of course, the reality is that voluntary drug use, unlike forcibly injecting people with heroin against their will, should be completely legal precisely because it is voluntary, unlike forcible injection.
In other words, one does not have to prohibit voluntary pinching (or even voluntary sex) within the workplace to prohibit unconsensual pinching. It is beyond me how Block ever came to such a silly conclusion. (At least he realised the virtue in retracting this insanity.)
“The proof,” Block continues,
of the voluntary nature of an act in a private place is that the person endangered (the woman, in the cases we have been considering) has no claim whatsoever to the private place in question, the ofﬁce or the store. If she continues to patronize or work at a place where she is molested, it can only be voluntary.
This is the same irrationality that leads some people to believe that the state is somehow “really voluntary.” They say, “You choose not to move somewhere else, therefore you have consented to abiding by the laws of the area.”
Dr. Block would probably reply by correctly pointing out that there is a massive difference between the state and a private, voluntary institution like the free-market ﬁrm. But a violation of property rights does not cease to be a violation of property rights simply because it takes place on another person’s property!
Let us imagine a scenario where radical libertarians have made sweeping victories, and the roads are, ﬁnally, all privately owned. In some cases, the roads may be owned by private ﬁrms. In some cases, they may be co-owned by the residents of the local community in the form of shares. Whatever the case may be, there is no state ownership, control, or subsidisation of the streets.
Let’s imagine that Smith, who has permission from the owners of Baker Street, goes walking one night down the street and gets murdered by Robinson. Let’s also say that Robinson is not caught, and thus is not forced to pay restitution for his crime to the family of his victim.
Would this mean that anyone else who traverses Baker Street has agreed to allow others to kill her or him merely by virtue of the fact that she or he has chosen to walk a street where another (Robinson) has been murdered? Of course not!
Nor would we say that a woman who has been raped on Baker Street has agreed to all further sexual encounters she may have on the street simply by virtue of the fact that she continues to use that street in order to get home.
The only possible exception to this is in the scenario in which the owners of Baker Street have made it perfectly clear to all of their patrons that the street is to be a domain in which people may live out the Hobbesian war of all against all. Only then could it be said that Smith has agreed to being raped, murdered, or otherwise victimised while traversing Baker Street. But in any situation where this condition has not been clearly made in advance, it can be nothing but irrational to assume that the victim has “consented” to being victimised!
Let us consider the issue of murder within the home. If Smith is a guest of Robinson and is standing in Robinson’s home, does Robinson have a right to pull out a gun and simply shoot Smith at will? Absolutely not.
Robinson does have the right to expel Smith from her (Robinson’s) property, and to brandish her gun if necessary to perform the expulsion. But Robinson has only the right to use as much force as is necessary to perform the expulsion; she does not have any right to use excessive force, i.e., force above and beyond that which is necessary to encourage Smith to leave. Since shooting Smith in the head is almost always unnecessary, she therefore only has the right to do this if she feels that she (or her family, or other guests) are actually endangered by Smith. (This use of force does not, in my opinion, violate the non-aggression axiom because it is a defensive use of force.)
Robinson may also shoot Smith if Smith explicitly consents. Perhaps Smith wishes to commit suicide, but cannot bring himself to shooting himself. Thus, he has come to his friend Robinson requesting that she assist him in his suicide. She is no criminal, in accordance with natural law, for providing such assistance.4
Yet these appear to be the only instances in which one may use this sort of force. One does not have a right to simply shoot one’s guests, at least not in accordance with natural law. In a true anarchy where the common legal institutions recognise the supremacy of natural law, one has the right to do whatever one wants except for those actions that would violate the equal rights of others, and since one’s guest remains a self-owner even when she or her invites said guest onto her or his property, the property owner’s property rights clearly cannot extend to a “right” to alienate the property rights of her or his guests.
This bring us back to Tremblay, whose position appears to exemplify a certain vulgar socialism. Where a vulgar libertarian may assume that property ownership gives one a perverse and totalitarian control over all persons who tread upon one’s property, Mr. Tremblay appears to make the opposite mistake, assuming property itself is perverse and totalitarian. In fact, we can see that Tremblay makes this mistake by assuming the same property conditions that are assumed by the vulgar libertarians.
Mr. Tremblay writes,
NOTE to all the ancaps who are itching to reply that “sexual harassment is a form of aggression and is simply wrong”: that’s exactly our point. Capitalist property theory allows any form of injustice as long as it’s done “on one’s property.”
I do not know in what sense Mr. Tremblay is using the term “capitalist” here. If capitalism is to be deﬁned as that mercantilist system of corporate privilege which can only exist as a product of the visible ﬁst of the state, then all libertarians, including anarcho-“capitalists,” are opposed to capitalism. Contrariwise, if one deﬁnes “capitalism” as being synonymous with the free market, then all libertarians, even free-market anarcho-syndicalists and “anti-capitalist” mutualists, are “capitalists.” But perhaps Mr. Tremblay is using the term in its most basic and value-free sense: a system where one or more person own and may trade ownership of the means of production.
If Mr. Tremblay is using this value-free deﬁnition, then he is incorrect to assume that there is any such thing as a “capitalist property theory.” And if he is using one of the two value-laden deﬁnitions I describe here, then he would be well-advised to deﬁne which deﬁnition he is using, for one’s conclusions may very well be contingent upon which deﬁnition is employed.
I’ll simply assume that Tremblay intends to refer to the Rothbardian property theory, which is of course founded on the vitally-important homesteading principle, ﬁrst developed by John Locke. Rothbard holds that one cannot own a plot of land merely by claiming ownership over it. Nor can one own a fenced-off plot of land merely by placing a fence around it. One can only come to own a plot of land through “mixing one’s labour with the soil,” and as such, when one erects a fence without doing anything to the land that has been fenced off, one can only justly claim ownership of the land directly beneath the fence itself. This is the Rothbardian property theory.
Rothbard demonstrates quite effectively just how egalitarian his theory of property is in volume one of his Conceived in Liberty (1975).5 Rothbard describes the situation of the evil Virginia Company, which was granted exclusive and authoriarian power by the Crown, granting large tracks of land to privileged elites, elites who in turn would never have been able to maintain dominion over the large tracks if they had been conﬁned by the homesteading principle. Instead of acquiring and accumulating land through the just means of homesteading and voluntary trade, these elites used labour from slaves and indentured servants to maintain illegitimate control over lands to which they had no right whatsoever.
Assuming Mr. Tremblay indeed did mean to reference the Rothbardian theory of property, let us analyse whether his claim is accurate. Does such a theory of property allow “any form of injustice as long as it’s done ‘on one’s property’”? As I have already explained above, it does not. What I do not believe I have yet sufﬁciently explained is precisely why it does not.
The short answer is this: the law of non-contradiction. If I have a right to justly-acquired scarce property that I have either homesteaded myself or that I have acquired through voluntary trade from someone else who has justly-acquired it, it can only be the case that I have this right if and because I justly own my own body and the fruits of my labour. I cannot justly own any external property if I do not own my own body and the fruits of my labour for, without these prerequisites, how could I ever come to own other things?
Yet, if we live in a universe where the law of non-contradiction is active and real, in a universe in which two contradictory facts cannot both be true, then for a human like me to have a natural right to self-ownership, it must also be the case that other humans also have the same, equal right to self-ownership. The reason my property ownership cannot justify my murder of you is that our mutual self-ownership is a natural prerequisite to either of us owning any external property in the ﬁrst place. To murder you, even if the murder takes place on my property, I must believe that self-ownership is some sort of ﬁction, and if I do believe it is some sort of ﬁction, it stands to reason that I cannot accurately be described as someone who believes in any property rights whatsoever.
It is because Mr. Tremblay has recently adopted a vulgar libertarian view of property that he has recently, and unfortunately, declined into a vulgar socialism.6 And this precisely illustrates my point, that vulgar libertarianism and vulgar socialism fuel each other. The vulgar libertarian sees the vulgar socialist saying “property is theft” and, unthinkingly and uncritically, counters that all property is good. The vulgar socialist sees the vulgar libertarian saying that big business can do no wrong and, unthinkingly and uncritically, attacks all market activity and division of labour. Both sides talk past one another, with neither side making any useful progress.
Above, Block assumed that in order to allow voluntary, consensual pinching to take place, we would need to allow all pinching, including involuntary pinching. Similarly, Tremblay assumes that to oppose involuntary pinching that takes place on private property, we would need to oppose all private property. In both of these cases, I cannot help but to see the conclusions presented as total absurdities. If it is true that all pinching is de facto okay, Block certainly has not proved it, and if it is true that abolition of all property rights to external resources is necessary to protect self-ownership, Tremblay has certainly not failed to prove it, either.
Further, in both cases, reason appears to indicate that both are wrong. It appears to me that reason indicates that a business owner cannot justly claim ownership over her ﬁrm if she does not respect the property rights of the self-owners with whom she interacts. But likewise, it appears to me that reason indicates that if a person has a right to not be pinched, she must naturally have a property right in the scarce matter that constitutes her physical body.7 If this is the case, then it would stand to reason that she also owns the product of her labour, for one’s labour is naturally and indubitably an extension of one’s self. Thus, in the same way that the vulgar libertarian deﬁes her own belief in property rights when using property claims to “validate” violations of the rights of other self-owners, the vulgar socialist likewise deﬁes her own belief in the invalidity of external property claims when she uses notions of individual autonomy in order to argue against any individual control over those things appropriated from the state of nature through one’s labour.
Therefore, both Block (circa 1975) and Tremblay (currently) appear ﬂawed in their analyses.
But, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I have misread Dr. Block or Mr. Tremblay—or both!
8 And I’ll be more than willing to consider arguments to the contrary. In the meantime, all I can say is that I recommend that all libertarians, left and “right,” beware of the lure of vulgar libertarianism and of vulgar socialism alike, for each of them can do nothing good for those who desire liberty, equality, or peace, but instead can only lead to the promulgation of the other. Let all libertarians, left and “right,” unite, rather than allowing our vulgar variants divide us.
—Alexander S. Peak
1 I feel obligated to point out that, according to Mr. Stephen Kinsella, Dr. Block has (I’m happy to say) completely retracted his view on pinching. On Brad Spangler’s blog, Kinsella quotes Block as saying,
“That passage about secretary pinching appeared in the very ﬁrst edition (1976) of Defending the Undefendable. When this error of mine was pointed out to me, I immediately insisted that a new edition be published, and those words were deleted from it and all subsequent editions. Those erroneous words of mine were incompatible with the libertarian non aggression principle, and with everything else I have ever written about that subject.”
2 Of course, even if this is the case, the employee is free under natural law to, at any time, no longer consent to being party to such a relationship—just as married couples under natural law are free to divorce at any time.
Let’s say I make an agreement with my boss that she may pinch me at any time, and a year later I decide I no longer enjoy being pinched by her. I inform her that I no longer consent to being pinched. She may then threaten to take me off her Christmas list, she may threaten to ﬁre me, she may threaten to call all of her friends and tell them I have a small penis—but what she may not do is initiate physical force against me. Thus, if she pinches me again even after I inform her that she may not, then she has aggressed against me, and it is my absolute and undeniable right to sue her for this crime.
Unfortunately, Dr. Block would disagree with us on this matter. He unfortunately believes that voluntary slavery contracts would be enforceable in a free society, despite the fact that Murray Rothbard had repeatedly pointed out that it is impossible for someone to surrender ownership of her or his own body as long as it is attached to the will. If I make a contract with your recording company to record three albums, and I only record two, the Rothbardian position is that I may not be forced to perform the writing of a third album, and that your recording company is only obliged to fulﬁll its end of the bargain once I have fulﬁlled mine. Block, it would appear, believes that I may be justly compelled with force to write and perform songs for a third album. It appears like the consensus is against Dr. Block here—most anarchists and libertarians I have encountered reject the “voluntary slavery contract” thesis.
For some interesting thoughts on contract theory as it relates to the current matter of pinching, see Kinsella’s reply to Spangler’s post.
3 Such tendencies often lead otherwise good libertarians into inadvertently defending conditions resulting from statism or aggression as if those conditions were instead the product of market. The term vulgar libertarian was coined by Kevin Carson. While I do not agree with Carson on everything, I believe his contribution to libertarian thought in critiquing vulgar libertarianism tends to be rather useful.
4 Nevertheless, it cannot be merely assumed that Smith consents to assisted suicide merely by accepting Robinson’s invitation to enter Robinson’s home. Nor, I would argue, can it even be assumed that Smith has consented to assisted suicide at the hands of Robinson by breaking into Robinson’s home. Again, only if Robinson actually feels as though an inhabitant of her home is endangered by Smith—or Smith has explicitly and contractually consented to assisted suicide—may Robinson justly take Smith’s life. For further thoughts on assisted suicide, see my The Intelligent Yet Flawed Jonah Goldberg, 8 July 2008.
5 It must be admitted that Rothbard would never describe himself as an egalitarian, but this seems to be because he deﬁnes egalitarianism to mean the sort of insane, forced “equality” one ﬁnds in Kurt Vonnegut’s great short story, “Harrison Bergeron.”
Dr. Roderick Long makes the excellent point that libertarianism is actually founded on a fundamental belief in equality. Writes Long,
“[W]e must turn from Jefferson to Jefferson’s source, John Locke, who tells us exactly what ‘equality’ in the libertarian sense is: namely, a condition ‘wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another, there being nothing more evident than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another, without subordination or subjection….’
“In short, the equality that Locke and Jefferson speak of is equality in authority: the prohibition of any ‘subordination or subjection’ of one person to another. Since any interference by A with B’s liberty constitutes a subordination or subjection of B to A, the right to liberty follows straightforwardly from the equality of ‘power and jurisdiction’” (Equality: The Unknown Ideal, 29 September 2001).
6 This is not to imply that Mr. Tremblay (or any other vulgar socialist or vulgar libertarian) is a hopeless case, or even that nothing he contributes to libertarian thought is valuable. Rather, I am of the hope that this deviation will be short-lived. For clarity, I do not encourage that anyone treat Mr. Tremblay too hostilely, for such reactionary tendencies are just as likely to lead a libertarian to vulgar libertarianism as they have lead Mr. Tremblay toward vulgar socialism.
7 This point is one that I do not anticipate Mr. Tremblay rejecting. Even if he rejects the rhetoric I use, and claims not to believe in “self-ownership,” it appears clear he does believe in self-ownership as I understand the term, lest he would not have a problem with the unwanted pinching of secretaries in the ﬁrst place. I’ll therefore assume that his anti-propertarianism simply rejects that property which is external to the physical self. What is important here is the following sentence, in which I discuss the implications of self-ownership.
The reason I do not wish to assume that Tremblay rejects self-ownership is that I do not want to run the risk of employing a straw-man argument. If Tremblay actually does reject self-ownership, not just in rhetoric but also in fact, then it would be easy to tear down his argument and show how he cannot possibly defend a prohibition of or opposition to pinching without it. Moreover, if this is actually the case, then Mr. Tremblay would be unable to muster any arguments whatsoever against rape, murder, or even that institutionalisation of aggression we call the state. But people make straw-man arguments all too often, and I am more than willing to give Mr. Tremblay the beneﬁt of the doubt here.
8 I’ll certainly admit that I have not read everything written by either Block or Tremblay, so it is quite possible that they have written other things that, were I aware of these works, I would have written this entire piece in a very different manner.