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I’ve been trying to understand how an anarchic society would be initiated, but the two main ideas- anarcho-communism and anarcho-capitalism- not only contradict each other, but seem to be riddled with contradictions themselves.

According to anarcho-communism, land and natural resources cannot become anyone’s “private property” because in order to claim a chunk of land, that land must be stolen from others. For example, suppose I come across some land, cut down some trees, and build a house. Communism says that neither the land my house sits on, nor the trees I cut, nor the home I built can be considered my private property because I have stolen the plot of land and trees from the community.

According to anarcho-capitalism the land and natural resources can become my property through “homesteading”. So if I come across land, cut some trees and build a house, I have mixed my labor with the land. Therefore the house, the trees I cut, and (somehow) all the trees/grass/dirt occupying the land that I mix my labor with becomes my private property to either trade, sell, or deny to others.

The problem I have with anarcho-communism is I don’t have the right to do with my labor whatever I wish. If I build a picture frame out of trees that belong to everyone, including me, and someone wishes to trade their labor for mine, neither of us have the right to do so.

The problem I have with anarcho-capitalism is the fact that all currently owned land is indeed stolen and protected by government force, so nobody rightfully deserves what they currently have. This means we would need to abolish all current land ownership and start over. However, once we begin seeking our own land, there is no way to set real parameters of how far my “private property” extends. The proposals I’ve heard are not very convincing to me. Some have suggested a fence around the parameter is enough, while others say I can only own as far as my labor extends.

However, if I find a forest and plan to cut down all the trees for my log company, then how much of the forest can I deny to others so that they do not cut down “my” trees? Usually the answer (for almost everything in anarcho-capitalism) is a private insurance company who seems to act exactly like a government.

In an anarcho-capitalist society, how can land and natural resources become “private property” without forcibly denying these commodities from others?

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Since I am more familiar with the philosophy of anarcho-capitalism, I will answer with respect to that philosophy; others can elaborate on the theory of anarcho-communism.


Property as a right of exclusion: First of all, it is necessary to understand what a "property right" is. Ownership of a piece of property entails a right of exclusion with respect to that property, which means that you have the prerogative to use it, but others need your permission to use it, and you may exclude them if you wish. Hence, if I own a pencil, that means I have the prerogative to use that pencil, and I can exclude you from using my pencil if I don't want you to use it. Effective ownership of property means that you must be allowed to use force to enforce your right if necessary. Hence, if you try to take my pencil by force, I am allowed to use (proportionate) force to prevent this. Since property ownership is a right of use and exclusion, a property right necessarily entails the ability to "forcibly deny that commodity to others". If this ability is absent, there is no effective ownership.

Any theory of prerogatives with respect to property must have a theory of initial acquisition, but also a theory of what forms of property transfer are allowed/disallowed, and what happens in the event of an illegitimate transfer of property (e.g., theft). You are correct that the rules of initial acquisition under anarcho-capitalism is via the theory of "homesteading". Your account of homesteading a house from unowned lands, trees, etc., is correct.


What happens in the event of theft? In addition to having a theory of initial acquisition, anarcho-capitalism must also have a theory for what to do when there is an illegitimate transfer of property (e.g., theft). In this case, the owner of property has a right to defend the property from theft, and has a right in personum against the thief if the property is stolen. In the event that stolen property is transferred to an innocent buyer, the situation in regard to the property right in rem becomes more complicated. Here there is an argument between two contrary principles that have emerged in common law and equity:

  • Nemo dat rule: This principle holds that "no one gives what he doesn't have", which in the context of stolen property means that the thief cannot transfer a right he does not have to a new buyer, and so ownership of the property remains with the original owner (and the innocent buyer does not get legitimate title);

  • Bona-fide purchaser for value without notice: A common exception to the nemo dat rule has been made where the new buyer of property is judged to be innocent of any wrongdoing. In cases where the new buyer is a bona fide purchaser of the stolen property, and had no notice of the theft, he is judged to take valid title to the property. In this case the initial owner loses the right-of-ownership in rem, but retains a right in personum to sue the thief for damages. Whether a buyer is considered to have "notice" of a conflicting property claim will depend on the circumstances, but in the absence of a registration system (e.g., for land titles), notice will generally require actual knowledge (or reckless suspicion) of the theft.

While these two principles are in opposition, I think it is fair to say that most anarcho-capitalists are supportive of the latter principle, that an innocent buyer obtains valid ownership of property. Hence, if you steal my pencil, I retain ownership of it, and I have a right to recover it. However, if you steal my pencil and then sell it to John (who is a bona fide purchaser without notice of my prior property claim), I lose ownership of the pencil (to John), but I can still sue you (the thief) for compensation. In this case, John has legitimate ownership of the pencil, notwithstanding the fact that it did not come to him through an unbroken chain of legitimate transfers.


The Proudhon objection ("property is theft"): The objection you make to anarcho-capitalism is that "all currently owned land is stolen" and you allege that this would invalidate all ownership claims, and require us to "start over". (I will call this the Proudhon objection after its most famous expositor.) This is not a correct exposition of what happens when there is land-theft in a chain of property transfers under anarcho-capitalism. As with the theft of the pencil above, if there is a case of land-theft then the owner of the land has a right against the thief, but if the thief later transfers that land to a bona fide purchaser without notice, the ownership right in rem may be lost. As stated above, this will depend on the applied principle of transfer, but most anarcho-capitalists have considerable sympathy for the principle that an innocent buyer takes valid title of stolen property. Hence, under this view, it is not correct to conclude that all land titles are invalid, merely because they may have involved past theft.

It is certainly true that many land titles trace through a series of transfers where there has been past theft (murder, etc.) in history. This is the point Proudhon makes in his objection to property in land. Under anarcho-capitalist philosophy, this is resolved by the doctrine of allowing the innocent buyer to take legitimate title, with the initial owner retaining a right in personum against the thief. Application of this principle to land-ownership claims based on historical acts of theft means that most land ownership claims would remain valid.

  • Thanks for the answer. I’ve accepted this because I’m certain it’s the correct answer, but I’m not so sure I’m on board with it. My problem isn’t so much the farmer or entrepreneur who purchased a few hundred acres with his wealth, but those who have already abused the system through crony capitalism. Also, how would businesses that sell natural resources work? Like the log company example- may we claim large parcels of land, or are we only entitled to what we can mix our labor with fast enough? – anonymouswho May 23 '18 at 12:03
  • As to the crony capitalism, anarcho-capitalism precludes coercive state intervention to favour businesses, which would preclude the kinds of policies (licensing monopolies, industry subsidies, regulatory capture, etc.) that create these opportunities in the first place. As to what to do with previous baddies who have got special privileges before the anarcho-capitalist revolution, that is a tough one, and there is no definitive answer (since trying to correct past injustices without creating new ones is hard). – Ben May 23 '18 at 15:29
  • Claiming large parcels of land is also tricky, since there can be reasonable disagreement on how much "homesteading" is necessary to get you how much land. However, many economists take the view that even if land is wrongly owned at a point in time (e.g., based on erroneous application of homesteading rules), free trade will mean that it will tend to be traded to efficient owners in the longer-term anyway (a phenomenon that is discussed by Ronald Coase). – Ben May 23 '18 at 15:31
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I think the answer to your question is "it can't".

"Private property" as an idea can only really exist as much as it can be enforced by a government or some more powerful person/group of people. In the case of modern society, the government.

One of the principles of anarcho-capitalism is that it's voluntary and self-sustaining. A social contract between all members of the society is created such that all members respect the existence of property considered 'private' and 'owned' such that a market can exist and cause the society to flourish.

If you ask me, this is a fairy tale. Not only could this kind of system only possibly work in very close knit and small communities, it assumes so much about the inherent goodness of people. In this way, it is flawed in exactly the same way as anarcho-communism. I don't see self-regulating systems like this as practical because although I maybe agree that cooperation of the group is good in the long run, this won't ever stop humans from seeing short term gain and aiming for that instead.

If we imagine that members of our society were not governed in the way they are, I think it would be much harder to see a controlled population that isn't committing theft and entering what is basically tribal warfare because, in a situation like that, there is so much short term gain that can be made through these kinds of activities EVEN though most people probably understand that peacefully organising society is better in the long run and for future generations. But this simply isn't a time frame that human beings are capable of thinking complexly within.

So you either have to find some way of enforcing the existence of your property privately by doing something like paying armed guards some of the produce from crops grown on your land etc... or you just have to hope that the community at large will respect the privacy of the land.

In both cases, immense trust is involved. In the first case, you have to trust that your armed guards aren't going to overthrow your homestead and take all of the produce for themselves (since this is equally easy and they get paid more) and in the second case, you have to hope that the people in your community care about the long run enough to respect your private property. Even though you may not have obtained it in a way that is really that fair.

These are the dangers of pretty much all anarcho systems and this is why I don't think they would work. They place too much trust in the individual which I don't think is deserved.

  • Thanks for the answer. I agree that the problems you present are valid and most certainly possible in an anarchic society, but those problems are not a huge concern to me. Surely the death toll of small, tribal warfare will never amount to what government sanctioned warfare has caused. The problem I have with a society under government is too much trust is placed in government, which they have always proven they don’t deserve. So my question isn’t really about why this system might fail, but the most logical way in which each person’s individual rights are retained. – anonymouswho May 18 '18 at 8:37
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    Thanks. But yeah, the reason I pointed out these problems is because I think they are problems for retaining individual rights. It seems difficult to talk about having a 'right' to something when we have no reason to believe that some 'higher' (not supernatural) power or the community in general will agree that you have that right. And, like I said, agreement and self-policing among groups of humans is a pretty weak foundation to build a society which entails 'rights' on. I.e. I don't think there is a coherent way to talk about retaining individual 'rights' in these systems. – Joe Lee-Doktor May 18 '18 at 9:24
  • I agree that anarchy would not be some sort of utopian society where everyone holds hands, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about the problems of government, and I cannot fathom how anything could be worse than our current situation. Currently, we have a “higher” power that does not agree that I have certain rights, and they use the money they forcibly take from me to obtain weapons that are meant to threaten me from doing what I wish to do. They may also use those weapons to force me to kill other humans in war. Surely an anarchic society would be better than that. – anonymouswho May 18 '18 at 9:46
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    They also do agree you have certain rights. You may believe you have different rights in which case you can fight for them politically. It's all part of the trade off. You deal with having some rights not always respected in return for having other more fundamental rights (to not be murdered or stolen from) eternally protected. If you really don't like it, consider living in the wild. And that's not a "if you don't like it then leave" argument. I think that if you really believe that trading the basic protection that society offers you away is a good idea, you're mistaken. – Joe Lee-Doktor May 18 '18 at 16:37
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    Especially since, like I said, an anarcho society cannot do a good job of protecting any rights. If rights are what you're concerned about, what we have now is the best bet. All the rights you want may not be protected but many are. compared to an anarchic society where non are. – Joe Lee-Doktor May 18 '18 at 16:38
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Private property may be the most difficult subject concerning anarchy. I would like to propose what I believe to be a new idea about how an anarchic society might function.

It’s true that without the threat of force, land and natural resources cannot possibly become private property. Neither anarcho-communist nor anarcho-capitalist deny this. So it is also true that the moment government is abolished, it is up to every person to decide what is rightfully theirs, as there will be no system to govern property lines.

According to anarcho-capitalist Murray Rothbard:

“The basic axiom of libertarian political theory holds that every man is a self owner, having absolute jurisdiction over his own body. In effect, this means that no one else may justly invade, or aggress against, another's person. It follows then that each person justly owns whatever previously unowned resources he appropriates or "mixes his labor with". From these twin axioms – self-ownership and "homesteading" – stem the justification for the entire system of property rights titles in a free-market society. This system establishes the right of every man to his own person, the right of donation, of bequest (and, concomitantly, the right to receive the bequest or inheritance), and the right of contractual exchange of property titles”

In this proposed system, every man owns whatever he takes into his possession, and it’s expected that the rest of society will respect whatever a man claims. This may be possible to achieve in a small community, but when violent gangs band together to claim large parcels of land as their private property- that satisfies the very definition of government.

I believe Rothbard is correct about mixing our labor with land and natural resources, but I propose to take this a bit farther. First, I will explain how this might work for securing our own homes, and then I will provide a few examples of how society might handle this idea.

HOW TO OBTAIN PRIVATE PROPERTY

If a man owns whatever he labors for, then it would be his own responsibility to mix his labor with as much of the earth as possible before his death. If he cuts a tree, he is now the rightful owner of that tree. He may use the tree to:

  • provide a home or other goods for himself

  • trade for another commodity

  • build valuable goods to sell or deny to others

If he builds a house with that tree, he is the rightful owner of that house and the land which lays the foundation of his home. He may build a shack or occupy his time building a 10 acre mansion, but only his labor is his rightful possession. If he digs into the ground to make a garden, the ground which his labor has touched (so long as his labor remains) is his property. If this man desires privacy, he is free to install a fence around the parameter of land he deems appropriate for his comfort (I believe most people will respect reasonable boundaries). Regardless, the apple tree that sits 10 feet in front of his house belongs to everyone, including him.

HOW TO SETTLE DISPUTES

In a true anarchy, quarrels would be resolved by whoever is involved in the quarrel. The apple tree that sits in front of your home is not your private property, so if I come along to pick an apple from the same tree, you cannot rightfully say “He stole an apple from my tree”. However, your mouth has the capability of saying such things, and if you selfishly wish to keep the entire tree for yourself, your body is certainly capable of trying- so you are free to do so.

Therefore, you can kill me for touching the tree and hope nobody retaliates on my behalf. You can also fight me and hope that strikes enough fear that I don’t return. You can keep watch over the tree, and the moment you see anyone coming, quickly pick all the apples before anyone else has a chance. Or, you could ask me to find another tree, and to respectfully allow you to enjoy the fruits of this tree. I’m sure there are other ways, but the point is, violence is not necessary, nor is it likely to happen among a majority of reasonable people.

On a much larger scale, suppose I find a forest and would like to cut trees for my log company. This will create a system where I must cut as many trees as possible before another log company mixes their labor with the forest and cuts the trees. So two trees next to each other would be fair game to anyone. Of course, hemp would also be unrestricted and freely available for anyone to grow, so there’s really no need to cut down vast amounts of forestland- like what we currently have. Also, since all of nature belongs to everyone and nobody may claim an entire coal mine, we should expect the market for natural commodities to be too cheap for thousands of corporations to bother extracting mass quantities from the earth.

CONCLUSION

In an anarchic society, every person would own whatever natural resources they can physically mix their labor with, and private property will only be within the bounds that their labor extends. As long as nobody else desires to occupy a certain spot, a person can enjoy any part of earth available.

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In an anarcho-capitalist society, how can land and natural resources become “private property” without forcibly denying these commodities from others?

This answer focuses narrowly on the apparent assumption that anarcho-capitalism faces such an issue but anarcho-communism does not.

Private property never disappears. The question arises in anarcho-communism; it is just not recognized. A person standing in the middle of a communally-owned field has a claim to the place where they are peacefully standing. They have a claim that excludes others from that area of land. The claim might not extend any further than the size of the person's feet, but it is a claim nonetheless.

The question of when to recognize such a claim must be answered, regardless of the underlying belief system. If the system recognizes a claim to anything, even the ability to stand in one place, the system must also explain why the claim extends no further.

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