The Spirit of Dialectical Libertarianism

The Spirit of Dialectical Libertarianism
Rejoinder to Shawn Wilbur by Kevin Carson

At the outset, before going on to dismiss the “usual” criticisms of occupancy-and-use, Shawn raises some far less common questions of his own — very much in the spirit of dialectical libertarianism — about how the character of an occupancy-and-use system would be conditioned by other aspects of the larger system in which it was embedded.

It is hard to talk about the viability of land tenure systems in a vacuum, particularly in a modern context where “land,” even in the broadest sense of natural resources, is arguably less dominant among the factors of production than it has been in other eras. If we were to survey the various reforms championed by Tucker over his career, we might pick something like Josiah Warren’s cost principle as one more amenable to consideration alone, while occupancy-and-use, mutual banking and some others are both more interdependent and more dependent on particular conditions for their efficacy. It is also hard to judge the various proposals without situating them either as transitional reforms or systems for “after the revolution” (however we might conceptualize revolutionary change.) All of this means that 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. For example, as a transitional mechanism, some combination of occupancy-and-use and mutual banking on the William B. Greene model might produce a particularly robust system, within which the members of a particular mutual credit organization would have a strong interest in protecting the occupation rights on other members and trading partners. And we would expect this particular combination of institutions to produce something much more like stable, conventional ownership, complete with property registries and whatever property insurance was necessary to protect the mutual associations against unforeseen accidents. On the other hand, where the cost principle held sway — or even the more general notion that individuals should carry their own costs — we might at least find fewer incentives to shape the community through land-tenure rules. This dependency on local factors will, of course, also apply to all of the potential alternatives. It’s not hard to imagine communities within which competition for particular locations would have a strong influence on the potential success or failure of large portions of the population, and some form of land-value taxation would be a logical reform, as well as others where the specific distribution of locations and occupations would make land rent a negligible factor.

All excellent points. Starting with Warren’s version of the cost principle, I have serious doubts as to its practicality. As the formal basis for a pricing system governing all exchanges within a community, it strikes me as the sort of thing that could only be adopted as a bylaw governing exchange within a relatively small, close-knit and self-selected community. Otherwise it would be essentially unenforceable — short of actual community sanction of the sort we identify with judicial enforcement of laws — in cases where the action of market participants in response to mismatches of supply and demand resulted in prices fluctuating above or below cost. Not only would I oppose such a constant and intrusive second-guessing of the daily incidents of the exchange process in and of itself, but the formal application of the cost principle as the basis for setting the prices of all goods and services would destroy the most important function of market prices: Information.

No less a figure than Friedrich Engels explained the wrong-headedness of a labor-based pricing system, in his Introduction to Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy. Although the normal price of reproducible goods — the value toward which actual prices at any given time are gravitating even as they fluctuate around it — is determined by cost, prices must be free to fluctuate above and below this level in order to inform producers of the social demand for their products, and to establish the normal amount of social labor necessary for the production of a given commodity. So the deviation of price from value at any given time is actually the driving mechanism of the law of cost, rather than a violation of it.

….[C]ontinual deviations of the prices of commodities from their values are the necessary condition in and through which the value of the commodities as such can come into existence. Only through the fluctuations of competition, and consequently of commodity prices, does the law of value of commodity production assert itself and the determination of the value of the commodity by the socially necessary labour time become a reality…. To desire, in a society of producers who exchange their commodities, to establish the determination of value by labour time, by forbidding competition to establish this determination of value through pressure on prices in the only way it can be established, is therefore merely to prove that… one has adopted the usual utopian disdain of economic laws.

….Only through the undervaluation or overvaluation of products is it forcibly brought home to the individual commodity producers what society requires or does not require and in what amounts.

By eliminating this informational function of prices, a community would make it necessary to adopt some other mechanism — an automated system of warehouse receipts, or the endless committee meetings required to set production levels under Parecon — to serve the same function of determining where resources were needed and directing them there. More intrusive still.

The beauty of Greene’s theory of the money monopoly, J.K. Ingalls’s land doctrine, and Benjamin Tucker’s synthesis of them was that they achieved the spirit of Warren’s cost principle by working with economic principles rather than against them. The problem is not temporary deviations from the law of cost — short term entrepreneurial profits or losses — but long-term deviations from it as a result of state-enforced artificial scarcities or monopolies, by which rents to landlords and capitalists become a source of class income and a permanent structural feature of the economy. What matters is that prices are free to fluctuate around an average value based on cost, without any artificial impediment.

What Greene, Ingalls and Tucker showed was that there was no need to impose the “cost principle” through any set of rules. Simply eliminate state-enforced monopolies and restraints on competition in the supply of land and capital, and market competition would drive average prices to a level centered on the cost principle. The market price system itself would destroy usury and monopoly rent and secure labor its full product.

As for the specifics of Greene’s mutual banking proposals, while I still see them as serving a useful niche in a free economy, I attach considerably less importance to them than I did (say) when I was writing Studies in Mutualist Political Economy. Given the implosion of capital outlays required to undertake production in a growing share of fields, thanks to advances in cheap micro-manufacturing tools, coupled with the possibilities of advancing non-negligible amounts of credit under the guise of a mutual credit-clearing system like Greco’s, I see Greene’s mutual banks as playing a much more modest role than I once did in a post-capitalist freed market.

I do see, however, occupancy-and-use tenure — or even the freeing up of vacant land under non-Proviso Lockeanism — as interacting with the abolition of other monopolies (“intellectual property,” zoning restrictions on home-based enterprise, restrictions on vernacular self-built housing, etc.) in a mutually reinforcing way, with a cumulative effect far more beneficial to the average person than any one taken alone.

Having raised these original objections of his own, Shawn goes on to note that in cases where occupancy-and-use is “an appropriate solution, in harmony both with local needs and with other institutions, the usual objections seem like quibbles.”

As Kevin has repeatedly emphasized, all land tenure schemes will be what Proudhon called “approximations,” attempted solutions to particular problems, which will undoubtedly combine success and failure among their effects. What that means is that hopefully the form of the solutions will be driven by the real nature of the problems — the very thing that critics of occupancy-and-use always seem to imagine won’t be done. So, for example, a solution to the problem of “absentee ownership” should be driven by the problem that the phrase designates, not, as is so often the case in our debates, by what we imagine the phrase itself must commit us to. “Occupancy-and-use” is shorthand, not a magic formula, so if too great fidelity to some interpretation of the phrase seems to deprive us of practices that seem harmless or beneficial, we should naturally reexamine what principle we are following or what concrete consequences we are pursuing. To respond to one common quibble, there’s nothing about solving the problem of homelessness that naturally commits us to abolishing hotels, or even equitable rental agreements. New property conventions ought to appear as an opportunity to explore new social relations and new living arrangements. If our general principle is that individuals ought to have some ownership in the real property where they are most individually invested, there is no reason that we should assume that will be a domicile, rather than a workplace or a recreational site. There is also no reason to assume that, given other opportunities, individuals will invest in the ways that a regime of “private property” has encouraged. A more mobile culture could be a less secure one, or it could simply involve additional freedoms.

Although Shawn is largely dismissive of Lockean criticisms of occupancy-and-use from the contemporary American libertarian mainstream, he also expresses — in a very dense paragraph — skepticism as to the ability of the various property theories to get along. When I say this is a dense paragraph, I mean there’s a lot packed in here; Shawn brings up a number of different issues — some of them as throwaway clauses within a sentence — and they need to be unpacked.

First, the exact words of his topic sentence are “I am, in the end, considerably less certain than Kevin that the various principled positions on property are likely to converge — at least as a result of their principles.” Now, if we take “converge” in the usual sense of becoming more like one another than they are at present, or of their current areas of disagreement becoming less pronounced over time, I’m not sure that I expressed any degree of certainty in that regard myself. I see them at present sharing some common principles, like labor as the standard for appropriation, and (arguably) differing in practical terms more in degree than in kind when it comes to constructive abandonment. But the differences are real, and I have no reason to believe they’ll be smoothed over in any kind of ecumenical spirit. What I do believe is that they can peacefully coexist as the rule systems of different local communities within a larger panarchy, that the communities will at least recognize each other’s different standards de facto and most likely in an explicit body of comity law arising from adjudication of disputes. And I think that’s pretty much the same thing Shawn believes, as reflected in his stated belief at the end of the paragraph that “in practice, it is likely that anarchists and other sorts of less thoroughgoing anti-authoritarians might well come to terms, but I expect that the cause would be material interests and a commitment to libertarian values of one sort or another, as opposed to commitment to principles of property.”

The most intriguing “throwaway clause” is at the beginning of a sentence: “Even if I was willing to grant the indispensability of ‘property rules’ of some sort….” I repeat that I can’t imagine a society without a set of rules governing priority of access to scarce physical goods, which is the broad definition of “property” I used in my article. Shawn, a Proudhon scholar of the first rank, argues convincingly that neither Proudhon’s principle of possession nor that of property which he adopted later in life, qualified as “property” in my sense of a legally binding set of rules. Even so, I remain unconvinced that any actual society could exist on a stable basis without some such set of rules — which Shawn seems to implicitly acknowledge himself in proceeding to examine how such a set of rules could emerge through mutual consent in a “gift economy of property.”

He goes on to question the areas of overlap between the various property theories, arguing that the Proviso and non-Proviso Lockeans have “almost diametrically opposed notions of the nature of ‘property,'” and that communist distinctions between “personal” and “private” property hardly overlap at all with individualist and mutualist distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate property rights.

I don’t see the divergence in the Lockean camp in nearly such stark terms. The requirement for appropriation by actual alteration or use, common to both camps, strikes me as motivated by the same basic principle — the unique moral status of land as a finite good not created by human labor — as the Proviso. I agree that the line the communists draw between legitimate and illegitimate property is considerably different from that drawn by the various more-or-less market-friendly anarchists coming from a more liberal tradition. That’s why I limited my remarks on the communists to a statement of why their system required property rules of a sort, and devoted most of my article to examining the practical differences between the market-oriented systems (mutualist, Georgist and Lockean).

I entirely agree with Shawn’s aside on the value of returning to first principles and recovering Ingalls himself (perhaps along with Skidmore) rather than Tucker’s schematized version of him. For that matter, if I’d been aiming at a lengthier scholarly treatment of occupancy-and-use I’d have gone back to the radical land theories of Godwin and Paine.

Aside from the points of contention between us in this debate, Shawn’s exegesis of Proudhon in the last two pages or so of his response is one of the most remarkable things I’ve read, and certainly cements his preeminence as a Proudhon scholar. I would recommend it to anyone seeking an account of the evolution of Proudhon’s thought on possession and property.

For the most part I lack the background to comment on it, and its bearing on the theories of property I’m more familiar with is something to be digested over a much longer time-frame than that allocated to this symposium.

But I will say this: At least as I read him, Shawn comes very close to reconstituting a system of possession based on labor appropriation, but arguing from something (at least functionally) very much like egoist premises. And I think that his egoist principles (for want of a better term) do much of the same work as the moral assumptions of Locke and the other labor appropriationists.

Let’s take a look at the two key paragraphs:

There are places where Proudhon described property as a “free gift” of society. Strictly speaking, of course, Proudhon would had to have acknowledged that it was a gift that society had no right to give up. According to his critique, even society cannot be a proprietor … In a truly anarchic space, outside the legal order and beyond the realm of permissions and prohibitions, there seems to be no principle that can legitimate individual appropriation directly. And in a world filled with unity-collectivities, what is proper to each of us is mixed up with the potential property of everyone else. Conflict seems inevitable …

If we are to find a social order that more closely resembles emergent harmony them armed piece or open war, what are we to do? If we cannot take, then perhaps we can give. We know the value and the virtues of individual property, as did Proudhon. If we are unable to secure it for ourselves as a matter of individual appropriation, then perhaps we can grant it to one another as a matter of gift or cession, not of a property that we individually own, but of claims that we might otherwise make on one another? Imagine the basis of this new property not as appropriation but as mutual extrication. Some of the steps would resemble familiar propertarian notions. First, perhaps, mutual release would yield a variety of “self-ownership.” Then, the familiar “personal property” in items of more intimate attachment or use. Beyond that, real property on the basis of occupancy-and-use. Then, perhaps, a sphere of alienable goods and a recognition of exchange — based, like the other steps on a mutual willingness not to interfere with one another’s activities.

I attach all sorts of qualifications to my use of the word egoism because explicit philosophical egoism carries all sorts of metaphysical (or rather, anti-metaphysical) baggage I would hardly feel safe attributing to him. But in functional terms, the process by which his individuals, all confronting each other as equals, negotiate a set of rules with equal liberty as a working basis, is a lot like the process by which assorted egoisms result in emergent orders that seem quite solidaritarian to the naked eye despite the lack of spooks like natural law assumptions.

And when I say Shawn’s functional egoism “does much of the same work” as the assumptions of Locke and the other labor appropriationists, I mean this: We have a bunch of people confronting each other as equals, related to one another in some ongoing social collectivity, in an initially unowned world they didn’t make, with a finite amount of land to go around, trying to make up as fair a set of rules as possible to determine who gets what. That sounds very much like the situational context against which Locke formulated mixing one’s labor with the land as the standard for legitimately appropriating it from an unowned state. It also sounds like the theoretical starting position of the other labor appropriationists and, for that matter, the communists.

So I’m entirely willing to reframe my position along these lines. Here we are, a bunch of individuals, none of us with a claim of authority over another, in a world we didn’t make with a finite supply of resources, looking for a set of rules by which we can get along. As a first order of business, we agree not to interfere with each other’s ownership of self, and then to relinquish our mutual claims to interfere with someone taking possession of some share of unused land and putting it into use. Beyond that, some rules we decide on might result in a more agreeable state of affairs, others less so.

I for one would prefer conditioning the relinqishment of claims to interfere on some reasonable degree of ongoing use. But so long as we all agree on nobody with an armed force at their back fencing off vacant land they’re not using and charging tribute to access it — something I don’t think would have ever emerged from free agreement in a society of equals anywhere in the world — then whatever we decide on as equals is good enough for me.

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