Some Thoughts on the Limits of Property

One of the last points to integrate into my evolution of support for self-government and natural liberty were the rational limits on property rights. In learning (and still learning) of how far a property claim extends over others, I think I have a deeper appreciation for what a free society might look like and a “harder” objection to the despotic authority of the state.

Typically, when I argued against the state (traditionally a territorially monopolistic and individually non-consensual political organization), I stressed that the property claims of governments were not just. That would be about the extent of my criticism, implying I would support such an organization with the same powers had only its territory been justly acquired. It was a bit of toe dancing on my part. I was not nearly as opposed to the state for the way in which it had initially claimed its authority as I was to the power, per se, the state claimed for itself.

The power that was so destructive, and the one that made all of the state’s other abuses possible, was its claim to have a final monopoly power to sanction the proper use of force. That is the distinguishing mark, in my mind, from any other political organization.

To quote Ayn Rand at length:

The difference between political power and any other kind of social “power,” between a government and any private organization, is the fact that a government holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force. This distinction is so important and so seldom recognized today that I must urge you to keep it in mind. Let me repeat it: a government holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force (emphasis in original work).

No individual or private group or private organization has the legal power to initiate the use of physical force against other individuals or groups and to compel them to act against their own voluntary choice. Only a government holds that power. The nature of governmental action is: coercive action. The nature of political power is: the power to force obedience under threat of physical injury—the threat of property expropriation, imprisonment, or death.

Now, Rand supported an individual’s right to self-defense. She just believed a government must have a legal monopoly to determine when the use of physical force is appropriate, placing coercion under objective law. Without the power to enforce those decisions, government would be impotent to defend rights, according to Rand.

Government is Aggression

With this understanding of what a government is, it is important to recognize that government necessarily goes beyond the bounds of just being coercive; its very existence is an act of initiating coercion and, consequently, committing aggression.

For the sake of argument, had a government acquired and maintained its property claim by voluntary consent and without any hint of duress, government would still be an aggressor. In effect, what the people in government are stating by claiming their unique power is that they intend to use force against anyone who defends the life or property of citizens whose agreement with the government had been broken by the government. So even if the government officials violate the terms of the constitution or any other law and other officials in the government refuse to enforce that violation, private citizens who decide to enforce that agreement themselves, after being turned away by the government, may have force used against them by the very people who violated the constitution or any other law.

A property owner too claims a monopoly on the use of his or her property, but claiming by force that his or her violation of a contract is not reviewable constitutes, at least, an imminent threat of aggression. Why else would someone find it necessary to make such a claim if they were not intent on acting upon it? It would also not be valid to give a party to a contract the ultimate decision-making power to enforce or interpret the agreement themself without an independent party to whom an appeal can be placed. That itself would be a form of voluntary slavery, again making it invalid.

Is This Altogether Unprecedented?

The idea that there are natural limits to property is not unheard of. Most people do not accept John Locke’s monolithic property claim that any infringement of property rights can be used to justify any scope of retaliation the property owner wishes. The Rothbardian view of proportionality has trumped Locke in regards to ethical theory, in general, and justice, in particular.

For the same reason that voluntary slavery is a contradiction in terms, voluntary citizenship under a political government is incompatible with the free will nature of human beings and is, thus, void on its face.


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