For a long time, anarchists and libertarians have mockingly characterized the stereotypical liberal goo-goo response to any vision of a stateless society as “But what about the rooaaads?” But now a couple of libertarians — at least that’s what they call themselves — have made that phrase their own. In response to the seemingly self-evident proposition, from a libertarian standpoint, that people should be able to move freely from place to place regardless of imaginary lines drawn by states on a map, Hans Hermann Hoppe and Lew Rockwell — the gray eminences of the paleo-libertarian world — cry out “But what about the rooaaads?”
In a Mises Circle talk earlier this month (Open Borders Are an Assault on Private Property), appropriately enough in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s stomping grounds, Rockwell restated an argument earlier formulated by Hoppe:
What we believe in are private property rights. No one has “freedom of speech” on my property, since I set the rules, and in the last resort I can expel someone. He can say whatever he likes on his own property, and on the property of anyone who cares to listen to him, but not on mine.
The same principle holds for freedom of movement. Libertarians do not believe in any such principle in the abstract. I do not have the right to wander into your house…. As with “freedom of speech,” private property is the relevant factor here. I can move onto any property I myself own or whose owner wishes to have me. I cannot simply go wherever I like.
From here Rockwell continues to elaborate on an argument whose basic assumptions are — I say without equivocation — mind-numbingly stupid.
Now if all the parcels of land in the whole world were privately owned, the solution to the so-called immigration problem would be evident. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that there would be no immigration problem in the first place. Everyone moving somewhere new would have to have the consent of the owner of that place.
But this starting assumption is nonsense. As both Franz Oppenheimer and Albert Jay Nock argued, the land of the entire world will never be universally privately appropriated by legitimate means.* The only way in which every single parcel of land can come under private ownership is through what Oppenheimer called “political appropriation” and Nock called “law-made property.” And it’s no coincidence, as both of them argued, that universal appropriation of the land is a prerequisite for economic exploitation. Only when people are cut off from the possibility of homesteading and subsisting on previously vacant land, and employers are thereby protected against competition from the possibility of self-employment, is it possible to force people to accept employment on whatever disadvantageous terms the property owners see fit to offer.
That says something right there about the kind of people whose wet dream is an entire world without an unowned place to stand on, without some property owner’s permission.
Rockwell also quotes Rothbard to the same effect, from Decomposing the Nation State:
If every piece of land in a country were owned by some person, group, or corporation, this would mean that no person could enter unless invited to enter and allowed to rent or purchase property. A totally privatized country would be as closed as the particular property owners desire. It seems clear, then, that the regime of open borders that exists de facto in the U.S. and Western Europe really amounts to a compulsory opening by the central state, the state in charge of all streets and public land areas, and does not genuinely reflect the wishes of the proprietors.
(This is the same Rothbard who, in less reactionary and morally repugnant days, denounced what he called feudal property and the engrossment of vacant land). From The Ethics of Liberty:
THUS, THERE ARE TWO types of ethically invalid land titles: “feudalism,” in which there is continuing aggression by titleholders of land against peasants engaged in transforming the soil; and land-engrossing, where arbitrary claims to virgin land are used to keep first-transformers out of that land. We may call both of these aggressions “land monopoly” — not in the sense that some one person or group owns all the land in society, but in the sense that arbitrary privileges to land ownership are asserted in both cases, clashing with the libertarian rule of non-ownership of land except by actual transformers, their heirs, and their assigns.
And I repeat, there is no possible way by which every single parcel of land can ever become privately owned except by engrossment.
Anyway, to continue: But in “the current situation,” Rockwell laments,
immigrants have access to public roads, public transportation, public buildings, and so on. Combine this with the state’s other curtailments of private property rights, and the result is artificial demographic shifts that would not occur in a free market. Property owners are forced to associate and do business with individuals they might otherwise avoid.
“In order to make sense of all this and reach the appropriate libertarian conclusion,” Rockwell continues, “we have to look more closely at what public property really is and who, if anyone, can be said to be its true owner.”
Certainly we cannot say public property is owned by the government, since government may not legitimately own anything. Government acquires its property by force, usually via the intermediary of taxation. A libertarian cannot accept that kind of property acquisition as morally legitimate, since it involves the initiation of force (the extraction of tax dollars) on innocent people. Hence government’s pretended property titles are illegitimate.
But neither can we say that public property is unowned. Property in the possession of a thief is not unowned, even if at the moment it does not happen to be held by the rightful owner. The same goes for so-called public property. It was purchased and developed by means of money seized from the taxpayers. They are the true owners.
So the basic idea is that all roads are the “private property” of the majority, who can restrict comings and goings on them at will. This is nonsense on stilts.
First of all, it’s nonsense that all the public rights-of-way along which roads are situated were “stolen” from private owners. Many, perhaps most, of them are what Roderick Long called “public property,” which were collectively homesteaded and existed as a commons from their very beginning. Highway routes in most cases are obvious natural conduits based on the topography of the land, with the same basic paths in common use from time out of mind (dating back to pre-columbian Native trails in North America and Paleolithic times in the Old World). The streets of cities and towns were laid out as a public commons at the time of settlement, by and large, and were never privately owned.
There’s also no obvious foundation for the belief that any such public rights-of-way should necessarily be the collective “private property” of whatever finite grouping of human beings lives in the town in which they lie or the district through which they pass, and that a majority of people in the town or district should therefore have a veto power on who travels along them. In fact, given the ever-changing composition of the population, the only way to have a specified body of owners would be by reference to membership in the community as some kind of legally defined municipal corporation. Hey, let’s bring in mandatory birth certificates and marriage licenses, while we’re at it!
As for the overwhelming majority of land everywhere in the United States, especially west of the Mississippi, most of it was never privately owned before the state engrossed it. The portion that was owned by human beings was mainly the collective property of First Nations tribes. Furthermore, very little of that land has been improved or altered at public expense even after it entered the public domain. So the idea that it should revert to being the “private property” of the people of the United States when the state’s property claims are nullified, or that it should be anything but unowned until it is put to use by somebody actually mixing their labor with it, is also nonsense. And with the possibility of traveling across such land without permission, the Rothbard-Hoppe-Rockwell model of using private ownership of the roads to prevent free movement totally falls apart.
If anything the real case is just the opposite of their argument: There are huge tracts of vacant, undeveloped land held by private title based on engrossment — often as the result of state grants — by big land barons who hold it out of use for speculative reasons. So if anything “illegal aliens” who traverse such land would have a superior right to that of the land engrossers who currently hold title to it.
Perhaps the most inadvertently hilarious part of Rockwell’s diatribe is where he uses — of all things — the Soviet Union as an object lesson on the evils of open borders and too much freedom of movement. You’d think he’d have some professional respect for them, considering his idea of a “libertarian” utopia is a privately administered version of the Soviet internal passport system.
Another odd bit is when Rockwell quotes Hoppe on public accommodation laws as a violation of property owners’ “freedom of association”:
Commercial property owners such as stores, hotels, and restaurants are no longer free to exclude or restrict access as they see fit. Employers can no longer hire or fire who they wish. In the housing market, landlords are no longer free to exclude unwanted tenants. Furthermore, restrictive covenants are compelled to accept members and actions in violation of their very own rules and regulations.
It’s ironic that Hoppe and Rothbard are so oblivious to the similarities between their own position on majority sentiment governing freedom of movement on the public roads, and the common-law basis of the public accommodations provisions in Title II of the Civil Rights Act. The idea, in the English common law, was that innkeepers who hung out their shingles along a common carrier funded by the public were public accommodations, and expected to provide service to the general public without any unreasonable discrimination. But a society in which a majority can legitimately prohibit people they don’t like from using the roads is a society in which the same majority can restrict businesses whose behavior they disapprove of from shipping goods on those same roads, or customers from using those same roads to patronize them.
Hoppe and Rockwell take for granted that the majority social mores governing the use of roads in a post-state society will be determined by white, male, property-owning bigots. But what if the majority of society is instead made up of decent people who would deny access to the public roads to businesses that refuse to serve people of color or LGBT people?
Their basic idea — using “the roads” as a majority lever for controlling the actions and very existence of disapproved minorities — doesn’t just present endless opportunities for abuse. It’s inherently abusive in itself, about as anti-libertarian in spirit as it’s possible to be. It’s bad enough that a couple of self-proclaimed “libertarians” idealize a society in which white, male, property-owning paterfamiliases use their ownership of the roads to engineer a real-life version of The Handmaid’s Tale, where anyone unlike themselves can be excluded for their inability to pass a retinal scan and get a travel pass from the guy in a mansion on a hill who owns all the land in the county. Imagine how it could have been used by Hitler (nobody with gold stars on the German Volk’s roads!) or in the Jim Crow South (any black person on the White Christian Association’s roads without an employer’s pass gets a year in Boss Hogg’s work farm followed by deportation).
Most ridiculous of all is the whining tone of this wretched turd of an article. It makes it clear that the LewRockwell.com crowd’s output is basically the ghost dance of the pathetic, dying demographic they pander to. The thing is filled with self-pitying humble-brags (“It is rather unfashionable to express concern for the rights of property owners”; “it is fashionable in the US to laugh at words of caution about mass immigration”). And to listen to whining about the “deconstruction of our culture” from a man whose culture was imposed on a continent through conquest and genocide is positively vomit-inducing. It’s hard not to picture Lew as Hedley Lamar (“I sure hate to see you like this, boss. Would it make you feel any better if I was to go and shoot them illegal immigrants dead?” “Oh, it might.”).
The fact that these two are so desperate for a pretext, any pretext at all, for excluding brown immigrants from Mexico who might “deconstruct their culture,” that they’d grasp at a straw as idiotic and morally bankrupt as this, tells us all we need to know about “paleo-libertarianism.” It isn’t libertarian at all, but is motivated by an overpowering desire for a society controlled by people who look and think exactly like themselves, where nobody is allowed to do anything people like themselves disapprove of. The needs of their hatred and bigotry are so intense that they have willfully made themselves stupid and embraced an utterly nonsensical argument.
So why go through all the pretense? Why is getting to use the word “libertarian” so important to them, when they hate human freedom and diversity to the very core of their being? Why would they go to so much trouble looking for a legal loophole, any legal loophole, by which they can claim the right to put an entire society under authoritarian lockdown and control the behavior of everyone they disapprove of — but still slap the fraudulent label “libertarian” on their adulterated goods? Come on, guys. Liberty really isn’t your thing. You’d be much, much happier if you stopped deluding yourselves, threw out the Locke and Hayek and started reading Mencius Moldbug. You’d no longer have to manufacture flimsy pretexts for why your desire to be theocratic, neo-feudal, petty despots was technically consistent with libertarian principle. You could stop bullshitting yourselves and everybody else. Go to the Dark Side and get it over with.
Addendum: The feelings I expressed in the last paragraph, as strong as they are, were only intensified when I read another article at LRC by Jack D. Douglas (“America’s Disintegrating Culture,” Nov. 11). In the process of a hell-in-a-handbasket diatribe about the decadence of actually respecting people’s transgender identities, Douglas said: “In living, vigorous cultures people don’t just call someone whatever they want to be called or let them do just whatever they want to do.” And he went on to contrast the undesirable levels of freedom and tolerance at home with America’s “imperialistic and totalitarian” behavior abroad. That pretty much gives away the whole game right there. If this kind of F Scale-breaking authoritarianism is the price of a “living, vigorous culture,” then fuck the culture. When “libertarians” start talking in terms of Volk and Kulture over individual autonomy and agency, and preaching discipline as the cure for “cultural disintegration” and decadence, you can be pretty sure that the word “freedom” in their propaganda is as devoid of substance as “Freiheit” was in that of the Nazis. The Paleos are a cancer on any movement that genuinely respects human liberty and dignity.
*Some raise the question of whether the earth might be completely appropriated by legitimate means in the distant future, through population growth. But the population growth curve is levelling off and will probably be flat or in decline by the end of the century, so at least extrapolating from present trends it seems unlikely that total human occupied and cultivated land will ever approach the majority of all land or swallow up wild nature.
Translations for this article:
- Italian, Quanto Può Cadere in Basso Lew Rockwell?
- Portuguese, A que nível Lew Rockwell está disposto a descer?
Citations to this article:
- Rockwell talk dismantled by antistatists, The clubof.info Blog, 2015-11-17
- Kevin Carson, How Low Can Lew Rockwell Go?: The Case for Open Borders, Attack the System, 2015-11-13
- Kevin Carson, How low can Lew Rockwell go?, Augusta Free Press, 2015-11-18