Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Barefoot Bum Critiques Propertarianism

"Larry, the Barefoot Bum" has been refuting propertarianism1. Crudely stated, his thesis is that if you believe taxation is unjust because it implies the initiation of force (coercion by the state), you cannot coherently also defend private property.

  1. To me, what was traditionally called "libertarianism" is anarchism, that is, a kind of communism.


Larry Hamelin said...

Thanks for the links. Am I on the right track?

A said...

I need to read it all a bit more closely, but what I took away from it seemed pretty good.

I'm a little iffy on your use of "subjective"/"objective" vis-a-vis social agreements. When we go from the personal to the interpersonal, I think there is a necessary movement towards the objective. For instance: there's no way to express exactly what you're feeling in a direct way; rather, one must rely upon a socially constituted system of language to piece together elements into an objective sequence that others then need to bring back into the subjective realm to parse. As with any translation across media/systems, there's always some loss of information along the way. So while you can make the objective remark, "I am angry," you can never impart your subjective quale of angriness to your conversation partner in a direct way.

I like the way David Harvey put it when discussing the notion of "value" employed by Marx: "Can you see social relations? Can you actually have iotas or atoms or molecules of social relationships? You can't trace them that way, yet we know that social relationships are objective. There's a social relationship between you and I and you could look at what's going on in the room and say: okay there's a social relationship between teacher and taught. And you can talk about it and it has objective consequences in the grade you get, [etc.,] but you can't actually measure it in terms of atoms, and movement and you can't actually find the molecules floating through the air, from my brain into your brain. ... It's immaterial but objective."

Contracts, I think, would fall into this realm of the objective-yet-immaterial. This is not to say that contracts don't often have directly material representations in ink and paper, but said representations logically presuppose the condition of a contract. Similarly, debts and money are socially constituted forms with an objective character.

I think this is important because U.S.-style libertarians (or, as Robert said, propertarians) I've debated place an enormous emphasis on freedom of contract, and through contracting absentee ownership, while socially constructed, could be said to have its roots in an objective condition.

But again, I'd say I've read thoroughly about a cumulative 50% of everything in all of those links, so maybe you did treat the subject more thoroughly than I noticed. I'll try to return to it at some point, though I must confess that I've spent so much time debating the position that my eyes tend to glaze over a bit when reading the millionth word on it this month.

(Also if you want a real pain in the ass, you should see how Hoppe tried to use Habermas's discourse ethics to allow libertarianism jump the is/ought fence.)

Larry Hamelin said...

Thanks for the feedback.

Keep in mind that the blog is where I think out loud; I rarely have a coherent, well thought-out argument before I start, and only slightly more frequently when I get done.

I'm a little iffy on your use of "subjective"/"objective" vis-a-vis social agreements.

I'm not establishing the subjective/objective distinction to underpin my own political philosophy; indeed, I personally don't think it's that interesting. Instead, I'm trying to understand a specific Libertarian (propertarian) argument as rigorously and charitably as I can manage.

Fundamentally, I'm trying to get to the position that if the Libertarian argument were more strictly objective-based (i.e. if it were to reject the social abstraction of "contracts" as much as it rejects the social abstraction of "taxes", because they are social abstractions), it might be more consistent and justifiable.

I'm taking Eric Frank Russell's story, And Then There Were None, as my template for such an objective-like libertarian/anarchist political philosophy, one that is not as obviously hypocritical and full of special pleading as the standard Libertarian/propertarian argument.

Tao Jonesing said...

Relevant to the discussion, it's worthwhile to mention Pierre-John Proudhon again (which this blog has done before).

I just started reading this book:

Larry Hamelin said...

Proudhon is also available on Proudhon.

Anonymous said...

As the editor of the Proudhon anthology, I should note that some texts are on-line at

An Anarchist FAQ

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks for the comments. Would replacing "subjective" by "intersubjective" still allow the argument against the supposed libertarians distinction between taxation and enforcement of abstract property rights to go through?

Larry Hamelin said...

I don't think changing subjective to intersubjective changes anything in my argument.

I'm not so sure the subjective vs. intersubjective dichotomy is meaningful in this context. It's more meaningful in philosophical theories of mind, where we want to distinguish between private qualia and more publicly negotiated shared beliefs. In a political context, I don't think the distinction matters so much, and I want to highlight the difference between "out there" like trees and rocks) and "in here," in our minds, like agreements and statutes.

The Libertarian argument doesn't depend on denying any particular fact that might be epistemically suspect. They don't say that we cannot know there's a socially constructed agreement legitimatizing taxes; the Libertarians I'm directly addressing seem to say that subjective/intersubjective facts like agreements cannot establish justice, except when it can.

Larry Hamelin said...

... except when they can.

Blissex said...

While interesting, the taxation argument with propertarians can be resolved using purely propertarian arguments.

The main one is that it is entirely false that taxation involves "the initiation of force (coercion by the state)" because paying taxes in any one country is entirely voluntary.

Taxation is purely a voluntary bargain of mutual advantage where a person buys residence in a country by paying mutually agreed membership fees in that country.

If you think that NY membership fees (taxes) don't suit you, move to TX; if you think that USA federal membership fees (taxes) don't suit you, TAKE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY and move to a country that offers you a better bargain.

It is exactly the same argument that propertarians use in employment matters: if you think your employer is treating you badly and underpaying you, stop working for them, as long as you can refuse a deal, there is no coercion. If you think that Wal*mart is not paying you a living wage as a greeter, go work for Bain as a M&A consultant. if you think that USA citizenship membership fees are too high, buy Kuwaiti citizenship.


Larry Hamelin said...

The main one is that it is entirely false that taxation involves "the initiation of force (coercion by the state)" because paying taxes in any one country is entirely voluntary.

Well, yeah. But propertarians, perhaps unsurprisingly, do not find this argument persuasive. They have a number of counter-arguments, all of which seem to involve one sort or another of special pleading. For example, they sometimes argue that they did not explicitly assent to taxation; i.e. they did not physically sign a contract, although they will accept the validity of other kinds of implicit contracts.

I chose to write about one particular instance of special pleading because it seemed to me the most subtle.

After chewing on Libertarian/propertarian arguments since high school (i.e. for more than 30 years) and looking at Christian apologetic arguments for about 10 years, I'm convinced they're all bollocks. I'm now less interested in whether they fail, and more interested in how they fail. I'm also very interested in how the arguments and failures of Libertarian/propertarian seem to resemble those of religious apologists.