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Occupancy and Use: Potential Applications and Possible Shortcomings

Introducing the November 2015 Mutual Exchange Symposium
Discourse on Occupancy and Use: Potential Applications and Possible Shortcomings

“It’s a shame there’s even a need to say this, but ‘property’ is a word that’s used by different people to mean different things,” reckons Kevin Carson in his opening salvo. Carson’s statement neatly summarizes C4SS’s November 2015 Mutual Exchange Symposium.

Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s effort to achieve mutual understanding through exchange. This month we will explore the vast intellectual landscape of meaning people apply to “property.” A highly contentious word in the history of political philosophy, especially in anarchist intellectual circles, “property” deserves extensive, robust, and honest dialogue for any worthwhile understanding. And so C4SS presents our Discourse on Occupancy and Use: Potential Applications and Possible Shortcomings, featuring our own Kevin Carson, William Gillis and Jason Lee Byas, as well as guest authors Shawn Wilbur, Fred Foldvary, William Schnack, and Robert Kirchner.

What do we mean by “property”? Do all social systems have it? What role does it play in the reigning social system? What would a property regime of “occupancy and use” look like? How would it function and be enforced? Is it philosophically sound or practically stable? How does it compare to alternative theories of property, such as Lockeanism and Neo-Lockeanism that emphasize “labor-mixing,” or Georgism, that emphasizes the special nature of land? Is there reason to think a free society would have “occupancy and use” property norms? If so, is that preferable?

C4SS will publish an essay every other day starting on November 8th by a diverse range of thinkers exploring the above questions. In the tradition of Benjamin Tucker, Josiah Warren, and Joshua K. Ingalls, C4SS Senior Fellow and Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory, Kevin Carson, begins our dialogue by defending the view that, “not only must land be occupied and put into use to be legitimately appropriated, but continued occupancy is required to maintain ownership (with obvious common-sense exceptions for traveling, letting some land periodically lie fallow, and the like),” while also maintaining a pluralist view, acknowledging the potential for decentralized creativity and alternative property regimes in a free society. Carson also acknowledges the Georgist analysis of rent, but instead of proposing a land value tax, Carson asserts “that opening up vacant land, together with eliminating subsidies to sprawl, will reduce the amount of differential rent to acceptable levels.” Carson also tries to find common ground with the Lockeans, concluding, “Lockean and mutualist property are ‘the same thing … with different parameters’ for the length of time necessary to establish abandonment.”

In response to Carson, fellow Tucker-influenced anarchist, Shawn Wilbur, offers some “Neo-Proudhonian” remarks, where he diverges from Carson on “the basic issue of the indispensability of property rules.” Wilbur and Carson nonetheless find common ground on the Ingalls/Tucker “occupancy and use” doctrine, though Wilbur stresses the context in which the property regime operates, noting “the most ardent, but serious advocate of occupancy-and-use ought to be able to imagine scenarios in which it was not a solution to the most pressing problems, where it was not particularly compatible with other solutions, or where the demand for other institutions would specifically shape the way that it was implemented.” Wilbur goes further and offers his own unique, Proudhonian-influenced “gift economy of property” theory, based on “mutual extrication” instead of appropriation.

In a contribution that offers less critique and more contemplation, Robert Kirchner raises a number of hard questions for the “occupancy and use” advocate, which he includes himself among. How could matters of abandonment and stickiness really be solved in a local, decentralized legal system? How exactly are property boundaries to be determined? What about the transfer of land or the death of a landowner if the only requirement is strict occupancy and use? Kirchner displays fundamental disagreement with Carson regarding the compatibility of mutualist and Lockean property norms, citing the absentee landlord as the mechanism for “the concentration of wealth, for the subversion of a freed-market society and the return to rule by a rentier class,” thereby deeply questioning “the property ‘right’ of a Lockean absentee landlord/lady.”

William Schnack characterizes Carson’s views on the “privatization of economic rent” as “right of center on the issue of land.” Instead, Schnack, offers his synthesis termed “geo-mutualist panarchism,” based on the recognition that “a generalized and non-arbitrary set of rules regarding the value of land must be established, and a lease presented to the highest bidder; one’s lease demonstrates right of possession.” Another Georgist, Fred Foldvary, agrees with Carson that “the initial appropriation of unclaimed land is indeed occupation and use,” but contends that “human equality requires the application of the Lockean proviso, that if land of equal quality is not available for free, then occupancy is not sufficient.” For Foldvary, Henry George explains the truly sufficient condition: “payment of rent to the relevant community would be sufficient for justice.” Foldvary also takes the opportunity to distinguish his view from the other participants, explaining Schnack’s “geo-mutualist” synthesis needs more “geo,” and that the answer to Kirchner’s “property boundaries” dilemma can be found in Georgism.

Resident Rothbardian and C4SS Fellow, Jason Lee Byas, agrees with Carson in viewing Lockeanism on a spectrum of “occupancy and use” property norms. Byas lays out his “occupancy-and-use understanding of Lockeanism,” roughly understood as the incorporation of previously unowned physical material into your “ongoing projects,” and asserts its superiority to other theories on the “occupancy and use” spectrum, as well as to other explanations of Lockeanism. Byas is unpersuaded by the Georgist economic arguments, seeing “no reason to treat land as different from any other sort of external object that we might justifiably convert into property.” He further acknowledges some potential disagreement with Carson over the exact meaning of “occupancy and use,” arguing that business owners and landlords could legitimately own their property, just as the vacationer still owns their home. Byas ends by leaving us with some mixed feelings on Carson’s call for pluralism and reminds us that “assuming that there are right or wrong answers to questions like the justice or injustice of rental property, it seems neither likely nor desirable that there will be a patchwork of communities with strong differences on qualitative issues.”

Last but not least, C4SS Senior Fellow and Anarcho-Transhumanist, William Gillis, offers a fresh and resoundingly critical take. For Gillis, the Rothbardians and the Mutualists and the Georgists all bickering about property theory sound “as though each of these systems were politicians or platforms.” Instead of comparing and contrasting “final universal systems,” the answer, instead, lies in focusing “on the means by which such social norms are generated from the bottom up.” Instead of looking at “what property system might finally be settled on,” Gillis wants to look at “how it should emerge.” Ultimately Gillis’s critiques of communistic solutions, Rothbardian solutions, and everything in between, boils down to a failure to account for the fact that “context matters, and what as anarchists we should be doing is encouraging people to think for themselves, to understand and appreciate the dynamics at play.” A more radical understanding means appreciating the meaning of reputation, for it is “our evaluations of other individuals and their evaluations of us,” that are “prior in a deep way to everything else.” Perhaps lost in these complex, abstract, theoretical and meta-theoretical debates about property, Gillis reminds us that “every social norm, every standard, ultimately originates in the détentes between individuals. Society itself is a fabric of social relationships.”

This month’s mutual exchange explores an endlessly complex issue with an infinite number of creative approaches. C4SS hopes to highlight some of the most popular, interesting, and sound approaches to the issue of property, but I believe by the time our symposium has closed, it will have come full circle, confirming our lead essayist’s early observation that “‘property’ is a word that’s used by different people to mean different things.” Nonetheless, I hope you, our readers, are able to gain some valuable understanding from the complex exchange, outlined above, and the resulting conversation among the participants about their initial essays.

Preliminary Work on the Subject:

  1. Are Hotels Immoral? by Shawn Wilbur
  2. The Gift Economy of Property by Shawn Wilbur
  3. The American Land Question by Joseph Stromberg
  4. English Enclosures and Soviet Collectivization by Joseph Stromberg
  5. From Whence Do Property Titles Arise? by William Gillis
  6. Libertarians for Redistribution by Gary Chartier
  7. Land Tenure and Anarchic Common Law by Gary Chartier
  8. Is Property Theft? by Less Antman
  9. Communal Property: A Libertarian Analysis by Kevin Carson
  10. Power and Property: A Corollary by Grant A. Mincy
  11. Land-Locked: A Critique of Carson on Property Rights by Roderick T. Long
  12. “Dibs!”: Lebensraum and Social Contracts by Ross Kenyon
  13. Four Questions for Amia Srinivasan by Jason Lee Byas
  14. Some Thoughts on the Distinction Between “Economic Freedom” and “Social Freedom” by Jason Lee Byas
  15. One Reason Not to Build the Keystone XL Pipeline: Justice by Jason Lee Byas
  16. On Anarchist Thought Crime and Property Rights by Ryan Calhoun
  17. No Public Access by Grant A. Mincy
  18. Anarchy and the Wrench by Grant A. Mincy
  19. Statist “Private Property” Is Theft by David S. D’Amato
  20. “Public” vs. “Private” Sector by Kevin Carson
  21. The Expropriation Continues by Kevin Carson
  22. Primitive Accumulation: The Process That Keeps Giving, and Giving… by Kevin Carson
  23. Artificial Scarcity and Artificial Abundance: A One-Two Punch by Kevin Carson
  24. For Fake Corporate “Libertarians,” The World’s Just one Big Billy Jack Movie by Kevin Carson
  25. Meet the New Baas, Same as the Old Baas by Kevin Carson
  26. Mandela: New Baas, Same As The Old Baas by Kevin Carson

“Property, Occupancy and Use” C4SS November Mutual Exchange:

  1. Are We All Mutualists? by Kevin Carson
  2. Limiting Conditions and Local Desires by Shawn Wilbur
  3. The Spirit of Dialectical Libertarianism by Kevin Carson
  4. The Most Difficult Aspects of Anarchy by Shawn Wilbur
  5. Proudhon on Land Value Taxation by Shawn Wilbur
  6. Panarchy Flourishes Under Geo-Mutualism by William Schnack
  7. Proudhon on Economic Rent by William Schnack
  8. Geo-Mutualist Depictions of Occupancy-and-Use Fall Flat by Kevin Carson
  9. Geo-Mutualism Offers Inter-Community Dispute-Resolution by William Schnack
  10. Use-and-Occupancy: Practical Issues by Robert Kirchner
  11. Reaffirming Occupancy-and-Use by Kevin Carson
  12. Georgist Occupancy with Rent by Fred Foldvary
  13. Community Land Tax Negates True Ownership by Kevin Carson
  14. Georgist System is Prudential by Fred Foldvary
  15. How Rothbardians Occupy Part of the Occupancy-and-Use Spectrum by Jason Byas
  16. Occupancy-and-Use Reflects Moral Imperatives by Kevin Carson
  17. The Moral Irrelevance of Rent by Jason Byas
  18. Humans Have a Moral Claim on Land and its Resources by Fred Foldvary
  19. The Organic Emergence of Property from Reputation by William Gillis
  20. Geo-mutualism Represents a Middle Ground by William Schnack
  21. Voluntariness Isn’t Enough by Jason Byas
  22. The Attractions of Geo-Mutualism by Robert Kirchner
  23. Land Appraisers Need Not Be Corrupted by Fred Foldvary
  24. Land Allocation Rules are Necessary by Kevin Carson
  25. Radicalism or Rules of Thumb? by William Gillis
  26. Networked and Distributed Communities by Kevin Carson

Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s goal in two senses: We favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to C4SS’s audience.

A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside C4SS, a rejoinder by our lead essayist, and further contributions if need be. C4SS is extremely interested in feedback from our readers. Suggestions and comments are enthusiastically encouraged. If you’re interested in proposing topics and/or authors for our program to pursue, or if you’re interested in participating yourself, please email C4SS’s Mutual Exchange Coordinator, Cory Massimino, at

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