Is property coercion?
I admit it! I’m inspired to write this blog by a discourse I’m having in the comments thread of a blog entry prior to the last one where it was claimed that property is in fact coercion because the claim of ownership is used to justify defensive force should someone without your authorization take or use that which you claimed as your own. Of course, in such view the force used in defense is viewed as initiated force instead and the one who takes or uses property without supposed owner’s approval is being coerced.
I have to say this reminded me of a very recent comic that was done by Dale Everett on Anarchy In Your Head named Property as Theft. It’s meant to be funny, but as usual on AIYH to also make a point. While it’s somewhat fitting though, the property as coercion argument might not be exactly the same as the “property as theft” argument and can become quite sophisticated in that once someone establishes such a claim (s)he can then pose a few disclaimers like “despite it being coercion, it is sensible to allow some of it or else none of the things you acquire and need to use would be safe from simply disappearing because someone took them”, or similar arguments.
Of course, that’s incredibly flawed in my view, if anything then because it reflects quite imprecise thinking. The reasoning for allowing some “property as coercion” is pretty arbitrary and as such subjective. It’s very hard to pose such a disclaimer and claim it as an universal rule that everyone should follow, even if the rule was decided on by the majority of voters. In other words, if your claim is that property is coercion then the best way to stay logically consistent and avoid arbitrary reasoning is to reject all claims of property and indeed allow people to take your things as they see fit. At least if you actually believe coercion is morally reprehensible.
But let’s move on the the core of the issue, the claim itself: “property is coercion”. Let’s define both “property” and “coercion”.
The claim “property is coercion” as well as one that “property is theft” has and usually is made in defiance to the libertarian and voluntaryist belief in self-ownership and absolute property rights as necessary for one to have liberty. In fact many, including myself, would often claim that property is synonymous to liberty.
As a voluntaryist myself I define property as an object being owned. And for an object to be owned someone must make a valid claim of ownership over it. A valid claim of ownership implies a statement of the claim and actions taken to substantiate that claim such as obtaining a statement of the previous owner agreeing to the change of ownership or a proof that no previous owner was found and clearly marking of new property as owned by the new owner (so as to make it clear what exactly is owned).
The process of making something owned is seen as natural since each of the steps of the process can be substantiated by consistent logical rationale supported by empirical evidence. If a claim is never stated or in any way communicated it cannot be expected of anyone to know of it (empirically checked, one does not know what one does not perceive). A claim alone isn’t enough for the process to be complete, however, because anyone could arbitrarily claim what was already claimed, creating a logical conflict. So a claim must be substantiated.
If nobody owned it before, this has to be demonstrated by proving that nobody went through the same process of making the object in question owned, thus the object must not be marked as owned and there must not be any accessible evidence of it being claimed before (empirically checked, again one does not know what one does not perceive, if no evidence is perceived of someone owning before, no assumption of prior ownership can be made). Disputes may arise in case the evidence existed but was never available (and of course in case someone tries to take over property by falsely claiming to be a prior owner), but such disputes would require arbitration by an agreed upon third party preferably specialized for researching prior ownership or knowing someone who is specialized in it.
If the object was owned by someone before then it must be clearly demonstrated that the prior owner agreed to change ownership to the current claimant. This also empirically checks out assuming prior owner used the same process to become a valid owner and because by definition of ownership only he has the right or ability to give it to someone else, for free or for a fee. Every other observable case of property transfer usually involves either open violence or stealth action both of which circumvent consent.
Ownership is defined as exclusive and therefore absolute control over an object claimed as owned. This notion of ownership, at least from a libertarian and voluntaryist perspective comes from the concept of self-ownership which is in fact the source of all ownership.
It must be noted that the object in question can be anything in existence, if anything then simply because anything in existence CAN conceivably be claimed by someone. Therefore a claimant can claim ownership of other people, but can also claim ownership over his own self (his body).
However, making a valid claim of ownership as defined above, over other people, is impossible because one cannot come to possession of somebody elses body before that exact someone else, for he lives in or as that body, that individual. He already has ownership (exclusive and absolute control) over his self before anybody else and cannot help not to have this control. Every time you use your eyes, speak or think you are taking advantage of exclusive control over your self.
This is also empirical because the proof is your very existence as what you are including every act that you undertake in your living.
So all this considered, is property as defined by libertarians and voluntaryist and presented here by me, coercion?
Again, I am speaking from a libertarian and voluntaryist perspective, most of all my own perspective as a voluntaryist. I need not to speak anyhow else since the claim is made against beliefs of people like me.
I define coercion as the use of force or fraud to compel someone to behave or be in a certain way, such as do something or not do something. Force is any act undertaken with the purpose of instilling in someone fear of loss of ones self or any act done against ones self which (s)he did not agree with. Fraud is included in the definition of “coercion” because it is another method of compelling people to do or not do what they otherwise would or wouldn’t, by deliberately making claims that the claimant is fully aware are false in order to make people do something.
The core of coercion is the violation of someone’s self. If there was no self to violate in the first place the concept of coercion would have no bearing in reality. If an individual did not have self to worry about, there would be no coercion to worry about either. There would be nobody to feel fear, nobody to agree or disagree; to provide consent or protest against what is being done to him or her. But neither of that is true. As observed in the previous section, defining property, self is the core example of property and is completely irrefutable because every claim that was supposed to refute self-ownership requires self ownership to utter.
So is property coercion? Clearly, for coercion to exist property must exist, at least as your own self. While this in itself is telling with regards to the relationship between property and coercion, since the other is obviously dependent on the former, one may claim self-ownership as valid property and ownership over other things as invalid, thus saying that claiming other things as property and defending them is coercion.
But self-ownership implies exclusive and absolute control over your self, your body including your brain, eyes, ears, skin, hands, legs etc. All of these allow you to act and every act has a purpose, something you pursue. Obviously, every act is designed to bring about certain results and those specific results being caused by your acts would not exist if you did not undertake your acts in the first place. Therefore there is a direct causality between the existence of results you created (with your acts) and your self, the thing you own.
The purpose for which you did your acts were those results and this purpose is something that is obviously within you, for which you exist in the moments you acted in pursuit of those results. Bottom line is that if you existed without purpose it would be like existing without acts and if you existed without acting you would be as good as “dead in the water”, an inanimate organism – dead. Also, since as a human being you are self aware your purpose is something that you yourself choose, consciously or unconsciously, if you did not choose yet still acted, you would be like an automaton.
So if someone denies you the results of your actions (s)he is denying you the purpose for which you existed in moments at which you acted in pursuit of that purpose. They are therefore treating you as if you were an inanimate organism. If they however take the results of your actions, results which you produced because you chose so, they would deny you your will, your ability to choose for yourself and thus treating you as an automaton meant to merely produce for the sake of another.
The results spoken of can be anything. Something you created or something you obtained. The results ARE property and considering the above interdependency between your self and the results of your existence as your self, it is an extension of you. Every denial of property as can be seen above is a denial of you as a human being and every act which would take or use what you created or obtained against your will is an act of coercion because, according to the specified definition, it is every act done against your self (you and your property) which you didn’t consent to.
Finally there is the issue of not doing to another what you would not have another do to you. One can say that Joe defending his property is denying Steve who would take it against Joe’s will a result of his own acts and therefore denying Steve’s humanity. But when Steve’s act itself was denying Joe’s humanity, Steve initiated aggression and therefore was the one to be defended against. By this act alone Steve denied Joe what Steve himself had and therefore had Joe deny the same back to the extent necessary to protect his own. In other words, when the human selves come into conflict the natural resolution is towards equilibrium. This too is not an arbitrary statement as it is almost universally observable that humans will defend against an attack and protect what they deem legitimately their own.
The fact that even states, which themselves practice coercion and theft on a regular basis, could not be established without some extent of recognition towards property rights (reflecting the human need for property rights) and the fact that ever since we know of human existence on Earth we know of the concept of trade and therefore property, further validates property as a natural part of being human and coercion as in fact violation of that same property.
Why is coercion morally reprehensible?
Without using any arbitrary reasoning to answer this, simply because I don’t want to be coerced. Therefore it is only those who do not wish to be coerced themselves whom can treat non-coercion as a moral principle. And that’s the only way to logically and empirically explain any sort of a moral principle. You hold something immoral because you do not want it to be done to yourself. I could call this reciprocity and claim that this is a natural law, but since even that would carry a risk of being seen as making arbitrary judgments I’ll just again turn to empirical evidence that shows pretty clearly at least that likelihood of something being done to yourself increases significantly if you do that something to others.
It is known in physics that every action has an equal and opposed reaction. If you hit a wall it will “defend” itself, or react, by putting pressure on your arms and depending on the strength of your own strike, harm it.
And that’s in a nutshell why I find coercion wrong. Of course, the issue of coercion is peculiar in that while believing in non-coercion will have me not coerce others it would also have me defend against coercion done by others some of whom may claim that my act of self-defense is in fact coercing them to act according to my own non-coercion moral. However, if they really believed in coercion as moral then they shouldn’t have any grudge against me defending myself even if they see my defense as coercion. This is why s consistently held moral of non-coercion actually cannot be forced on others.
So to recap, property is not coercion because without property coercion wouldn’t exist either. Coercion IS a violation of property. The reason is the fact that you irrefutably own yourself and therefore your life and your liberty (your actions). Property is merely an inevitable result of the two. Denial of property is a denial of purpose to life and liberty and ultimately the denial of your own self as a human being.
And all of this can be checked for logical consistency and empirical evidence. All it takes is precise thinking (observing things to their most fundamental components rather than taking a merely cursory look and accepting vague and non-exactly defined terms), intellectual honesty (try to keep cognitive biases in check) and an honest look at yourself and reality around you.