Property is theft. –P.J. Proudhon
Property is Liberty. –P.J. Proudhon
Property is impossible. –P.J. Proudhon
Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. –Ralph Waldo Emerson
Proudhon, by piling up his contradictions this way, was not merely being French; he was trying to indicate that the abstraction “property” covers a variety of phenomena, some pernicious and some beneficial. Let us borrow a device from the semanticists and examine his triad with subscripts attached for maximum clarity.
“Property1 is theft” means that property1, created by the artificial laws of feudal, capitalist, and other authoritarian societies, is based on armed robbery. Land titles, for instance, are clear examples of property1; swords and shot were the original coins of transaction.
“Property2 is liberty” means that property2 that which will be voluntarily honored in a voluntary (anarchist) society, is the foundation of the liberty in that society. The more people’s interests are comingled and confused, as in collectivism, the more they will be stepping on each other’s toes; only when rules of the game declare clearly “This is mine and this is thine,” and the game is voluntarily accepted as worthwhile by all parties to it, can true independence be achieved.
“Property3 is impossible” means that property3 (= property1) creates so much conflict of interest that society is in perpetual undeclared civil war and must eventually devour itself (and properties1 and properties3 as well). In short, Proudhon, in his own way, foresaw the Snafu Principle*. He also forsaw that communism would only perpetuate and aggravate the conflicts, and that anarchy is the only viable alternative to this chaos.
It is not averred, of course, that property2 will come into existence only in a totally voluntary society; many forms of it already exist. The error of most libertarians – especially the followers (!) of the egregious Ayn Rand – is to assume that all property1 is property2. The distinction can be made by any IQ above 70 and is absurdly simple. The test is to ask, of any title of ownership you are asked to accept or which you ask others to accept, “Would this be honored in a free society of rationalists, or does it require the armed might of a State to force people to honor it?” If it be the former, it is property2 and represents liberty; if it be the latter, it is property1 and represents theft.
*The SNAFU Principle is a sociological notion popular among Discordians. In its simplest form, it states that Communication is only possible between equals. In a hierarchy, people inevitably distort the truth when dealing with their superiors, in order to curry favor or escape punishment. As a consequence, said superiors operate from an increasingly distorted view of the world, resulting in bad decisions.
SNAFU itself is a military acronym for “Situation Normal, All Fucked Up”.