Montreal, June 15, 2012 • No 301


François-René Rideau is a French cybernetician now living in the US. He owns and Liberty, as it is and writes on Cybernethics.



Thou Shall Not Steal,
Not Even from the State


by François-René Rideau


          I am often disappointed by how some "left-libertarians," as they sometimes call themselves, follow Murray Rothbard in his most ill-inspired dalliances: at the same time that they claim to defend individual property rights, they support socialists, communists and collectivist anarchists who attempt to seize ownership of state assets in the name of some collective. As Brad Spangler, such a "left-libertarian" activist, writes:


MONTREAL STUDENT MOVEMENT: There's an old radical saying that rather than being content with the prospect of a whole loaf, let alone half a loaf, we want the whole damned bakery.

My sincere suggestion is that the students in Montreal and elsewhere shift from protesting tuition increases carried out in the name of "austerity" and, instead, make an offer direct to the taxpayers.

That offer is this—let the students and faculty manage the universities as cooperatives funded with voluntary subscriptions and tuition they set rather than taxes involuntarily looted from other producers by (and for the benefit of) the political class.

If cuts must be made, let the students decide where to make cuts—by recognizing the schools as naturally being their own rightful joint property rather than government property.

The state "provides" nothing. Everything it has is stolen. One does not rob when taking anything away from the state.

In short, demand voluntary socialism via the people's own privatization.

Rothbard made almost exactly the same point long ago which I am making now. Confiscation and the Homestead Principle (podcast).

          This is so disconnected from both libertarianism and reality that it's hard to know where to begin commenting on such a statement. In summary, some consumers of a service blatantly demand the wholesale robbery of the provider to their profit, and Brad approves, citing "old radicals" (i.e., Stalinist communists), as a justifying authority, together with an article by Rothbard that justifies stealing from thieves and from there seizing government property.

          "People's own privatization," despite Brad's claims to the contrary, is but a glorified word for robbery. Just because the current property holder has an invalid title doesn't automatically qualify the first rival claimant as a good guy with a valid title. Or does it?

          If we accept that the second thief becomes a legitimate owner, then it's a great way to launder usurped wealth and power! Since Hitler has no rights in his totalitarian dominion over Germany and confiscation of the property of Jews and opponents, does that mean that Stalin is entitled to seize said dominion and property, and is suddenly made a legitimate owner because he took it all from an usurper? In that vein, I suppose George W. Bush's wars were justified because Saddam Hussein was illegitimate; each and every politician and bureaucrat in every country is justified in spending taxpayers' money as he pleases, because the money was already robbed by low-level tax-collecting goons, and robbed again by the higher-level apparatchiks; and each and every mafia don is justified in the wealth he confiscated out of the ill-begotten gains of his underlings.

          Finally, asset forfeiture laws, instead of being maligned by libertarians, should be applauded, and when a first group of violent cops is found to have unjustly confiscated wealth, then a second group of peaceful cops can legitimately claim it as its own after taking it from the first group. Somehow, I find the consequences of such an argument repulsive, and I don't believe Brad or any libertarian would stand by it.

          Maybe then Rothbard's argument doesn't make the second thief a legitimate owner, but instead one to which the same argument applies, and so on, so that by induction, the next thief will be justified, and the next one, etc. Thus the stolen property becomes fuel to legitimize an eternal cycle of violence and robbery. Worse, as more and more wealth becomes touched by thieves, every piece of property slowly becomes tainted by theft, until in the end all is fair game for all to steal, and the notion of property rights soon enough becomes extinct. This hardly counts as a property rights argument; quite the opposite, it's a negation of property rights, the essence of what libertarianism stands for. Frankly, I'd rather see all stolen property be destroyed and ill-acquired buildings burnt to the ground, than let it all become the justification for eternal violence, or worse, some destructive green slime that turns everything it touches into more green slime. Happily, that need not be.

          For one person is missing from this entire pseudo-propertarian argument: the victim. Property rights are not a fragile label giving an eternal license to steal when tainted; they are a persistent mark, and require the property to be returned to its legitimate owner or his heirs, however many hands have touched it since it was stolen. Whoever assumes the property of some assets must assume the associated debts and liabilities, too; that includes the duty of returning any tainted portion of such assets to a previous legitimate owner they were stolen from, or existing heirs, when identified. In the absence of identified owners or heirs, the assets may be held in escrow, but cannot be considered forfeited until a long enough time has passed to extinguish any expectation of demonstrable legitimate claim, though not so long a time for the good to perish, which would be waste. Even then, it is an extremely bad incentive to ascribe the unclaimed assets to those who recovered it from the thieves, rather than to some uncontroversial charities (as much as can be), preferably ones benefitting the general pool of victims of same or similar thieves.

          Spangler adds: “I advocate property rights. Leaving public universities in the hands of the state is not an example of freeing the market.” I wonder where respect for property rights fits in Brad's mind. Allowing the first-come robber to seize universities is hardly freeing the market either. Each and every settled piece of property has existing owners. Abolishing the State is returning that property to its lawful owners, it isn't giving it to a new State made of petty robbers. Not that a big organized State will let itself be overrun by petty robbers, anyway; and still, if somehow that big State imploded, petty robbers seeing their violent claims unopposed would not be less of a State than the former big State, just a heap of pettier ones.

          Besides, the current collectivist robbers that Spangler supports are explicitly not challenging taxes and a State to forcefully collect them to fund this university; quite the contrary, and despite Spangler's wet dreams, they are advocates of a bigger State more forcefully extracting wealth from the public to hand it to them newcomers at the game of communist usurpation. Indeed, if somehow the protestors wanted the voluntary funding of a university, without tax money but rather through tuitions and donations, they wouldn't need to protest at all, for they can already do that: it's called a private university. (Certainly, the barriers to entry to starting a university could be lowered, but all the protesters I've interacted with insisted on the State control of higher education through forcefully imposed regulations, standards and licensing.) So it is naïve at best of Spangler to give such sympathetic advice to the protesters as to how they could make libertarian (sort of) demands instead of their current communist ones; he might with no less effect give sympathetic advice directly to the current State bureaucrats on how they could behave like libertarians rather than statists.

          I am left to infer that the socialist leaders of this whiny bunch appeal to our "left" libertarian friends out of what could be called "vulgar collectivism": just because he believes they're saying magic words such as "people" or "cooperatives," which evoke some sacred sentiments, and otherwise posing as enemies of the Establishment, Brad sides with them. Yet, whatever fantasies Brad and other “left libertarians” may have about what "cooperatives" could possibly be, as opposed to the arguably miserable failures that were all previous attempts at large-scale cooperatives, the one and only system that would be condoned by the most impudent loud-mouthed claimants in the bunch would be precisely the giving away of power to the most impudent loud-mouthed claimants in the bunch. They could call it a "commune" or "cooperative" all they like, and say it is "run by the people" and "for the people," the precedent followed and set would once again be that a self-anointed "avant-garde of the proletariat" can speak in the name of the masses and go on to rob the masses and impose their will over other students, teachers, parents, taxpayers, etc.

          And of course, if these protesters somehow got some or all of what they wanted from the government, that would make them part of the Establishment that lives off stolen goods, rather than liberators returning the stolen goods to the victims. It is sadly not a new thing, and we've seen this communism at work before. In the end, the "left" libertarians are indeed "left-wing" in the ease with which they fall victim to the demagoguery of alleged egalitarianism.

          Granting ownership rights to the loudest claimant is a most counter-productive way of fighting the Establishment. More than that: the Establishment already has the loudest mouth, by definition. By the dubious principle of "Homesteading" as proposed by Spangler after Rothbard and Hess, these State properties are already being homesteaded—by the very people most hated by Spangler et al.: the State bureaucrats. These people already occupy and make productive the resources at stake and defend them, forcefully, against rival claimants. Any rule that would grant ownership to current occupants, far from expropriating the Establishment from the resources it grabbed, would only make their ownership of it more complete, to the increased detriment of their current victims (again, the main missing party in that pseudo-libertarian argument).

"'People's own privatization,' despite Brad's claims to the contrary, is but a glorified word for robbery. Just because the current property holder has an invalid title doesn't automatically qualify the first rival claimant as a good guy with a valid title. Or does it?"

          Maybe instead, Spangler, after Kevin Carson and other collectivist anarchists, has very high standards for what it means to homestead land (or property in general), and a very low standard for accepting newcomers as new owners against the claims of previous occupants. I have questioned at length this approach in the past (see for instance my comments on another blog: if these standards mean that you lose rights to any property any time that you stop watching it personally, then it's not much of a property right approach. Are you forfeiting part or all of your property if you invite some people in? If some people move in without your permission? If you go on a trip? If you visit your family? Visit a doctor? Go to the market? Shop at a store (assuming there are any left)? What if you stop watching your belongings while in the bathroom? What if you fall asleep? Can you still claim your property five seconds after it's been seized by newcomers? Five minutes? Hours? Days? Weeks? Months? Years? Decades?

          If somehow any greedy newcomer can seize the property of previous legitimate owners, then this spells the economic death of the society that adopts such standards for the involuntary transfer of ownership, as no one will take pains to create, build, grow, develop, trade, or otherwise produce anything, for that thing would as soon be taken away by the first-come greedy claimant, specialized in looting producers. Unless some loophole is quickly found in such standards and massively exploited, this society will soon be overrun by neighbours with less absurd laws, who will defend their property against the claims of these anti-propertarians, no doubt under complaints by would-be looters that their defence is "violent" and "aggressive." In any case, such rules would imply a considerable regression as compared to the already quite imperfect respect for property rights in current western societies.

          Rothbard may have been a great philosopher, economist and historian, but he was far from infallible, and often ventured with miserable results into fields in which he wasn't qualified. In practical politics especially, whether domestic or international, his tentative alliances led him nowhere except to condone criminals and unsavoury people on both sides of the political spectrum. Contra Rothbard, I will thus paraphrase one of my favourite authors:

It is no crime to be ignorant of politics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a "dismal science." But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on political subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.

          Of course, the original author of the quote is Rothbard himself, although he was discussing economics, not politics.

          Politics is the science of force. Force follows its own laws. The study of force certainly isn't completely unrelated to the study of law, in which Rothbard excelled; but it is nevertheless quite distinct. (I briefly discussed this relationship in my essay Capitalism is the Institution of Ethics.) And so any applicable solution to abolishing monopoly mismanagement of resources should take into account the balance and dynamics of existing forces, and offer a way out that is a win-win proposition to all the existing parties that will partake, and a win-lose proposition for said parties against those that won't. You cannot wish away the costs of politicking and then claim you have an economical solution; you cannot side with some political group and suppose its opposition will magically disappear (if it disappears, it will be through murder); you cannot support violence without expecting a retaliatory escalation of violence.

          Now, in all his political endeavours, Rothbard's basic stance has been that the United States government is his first and greatest enemy—which is correct—and he therefore supported any enemy of his enemy as his friend—which is absurd. The czar may have been the first enemy of the Russians he dominated, but in a rivalry between the czar and the Bolsheviks, the latter were hardly the friends of the people, and as tens of millions discovered to their dismay, were several orders of magnitudes more murderous and oppressive a regime than the one that preceded it. Similarly, the US government may be an evil exploiter, but its violent enemies can be a worse threat if they win, and even when they don't, their violent actions cause the situation to become more violent rather than less so. Sometimes, it is better to recognize that you have no dogs in the fight; and sometimes even, it is indeed better to help quickly put to death the rabid dog rather than let it either win or infect the other one.

          As such, for instance, Rothbard's infamous praise of the Vietnam communists as enemies of the US government is particularly disingenuous. Rothbard is no authority at all in the realm of politics. In the particular piece linked to by Brad Spangler, he is naive at best in his praise of Tito's policies as an improvement over not just the Stalinist status quo (which they may well be in this particular case; though one should be wary of praising his policies in general, for as a whole they have led his country to civil war), but also the American status quo (which is demonstrably absurd, whichever way you measure things).

          The privatization that happened in many countries of Eastern Europe as they abandoned communism, however imperfect, at least recognized some sound principles that Rothbard seems to ignore, and that could be systematized: there have been attempts to return property to previous owners in the few cases when they could be identified; sometimes, the new regime identified a class of legitimate creditors of the State (there is a justification for offering compensation to distinguished victims of State oppression, and for considering currently occupied possessions and promises of future welfare payments, if not as ownership titles of said resources, nevertheless as claims of credit against assets to be liquidated). Otherwise, it was recognized that the remaining capital goods should be distributed among the mass of undistinguished victims, the former taxpayers and oppressed subjects of the State.

          One could endlessly argue how much each one should be entitled to as compared to other people; an equal distribution amongst people without a distinguished title is but a good first approximation, and one that is easier than others around which to gather political consensus. Workers and managers in a company were often recognized to have a title to some of its assets, but not all of them (and hopefully, no bigger a share than workers and managers have through stock grants in a typical free-market company); for inasmuch as the capital was provided by taxes and oppression imposed on the population at large, that population has a title to this capital. Basically, as Mencius Moldbug points out, the proper treatment of the State is to declare its bankruptcy and liquidate its assets to the benefit of its victims and other legitimate creditors.

          However, we're far from the point where we can consider the liquidation of the US government, or see it replaced by anything but States. It is one thing to understand to what conclusions our principles should or shouldn't lead us eventually. Another thing is understanding what they tell us about what we can do today, and what they tell us about how best to advance or not to advance them. And so, in the case of stolen wealth, the foremost mantra of the social doctor should still be: First, do no harm. Wealth may have been stolen, but this is no justification for further robbery.

          The second mantra should be: stop the harming. Maybe some universities have been funded through stolen money in the form of government subsidies from taxes; but before you consider changing anything to the current management of said universities, it is more important to stop the continuous theft and abolish those subsidies and taxes. The victims in this case are taxpayers; it is more urgent to stop robbing them than to return their previous taxes to them. As I've argued in a previous essay, it is more urgent to free the slaves than to establish whether and how much slaves or slave-owners should be receiving from whom after the slaves are freed; if the slaves receive no compensation at all, it might well be a sad denial of justice; but this denial of justice is totally secondary compared to the continuing injustice that is the continuation of slavery.

          The third mantra should be: don't let it go to waste. It might not be clear yet to whom to return how much of which stolen assets, but whoever holds them in escrow must not be authorized to spend them away in booze and whores or the bureaucratic equivalent thereof: high salaries for the managers and their protégés, lavish parties, pharaonic buildings, and worst of all, purchasing pseudo-intellectual propagandists of theft to justify more of it. Instead, demand that the money should be well spent. In the case of public universities, that means making sure that the university is as well managed as a private university, that tuitions and donations cover operating costs, that spending is in line with the utility offered to students, that students are being offered classes that lead to actual jobs, that professors are not being hired to spread government propaganda.

          Finally, we must realize that our ideas will not prevail by co-opting the demands of communist agitators and trying to sneak in a few suggestions that are foreign to their very mode of thinking. Our ideas will prevail when we spread them fair and square; when we demonstrate how they work, explain why they work, show why they are right, and gather momentum behind them. That is why we must not expand our energy on negative-sum games of claims and occupations, but build our own parallel structures, including universities, by cultivating positive-sum games of cooperation. We must not make demands and issue slogans, but educate people as to how free markets work, and how they are already abiding by them in their private lives. We must not demand transfer of property to people unrelated to the victims, but always insist on the restoration of the rights of individuals being victimized, and if not on compensation of past wrongs, at least on the end of the brutality. We must not spend away the little capital of goodwill we possess in confrontational situations, but earn more such goodwill the hard way, through education and through example, in mutually advantageous exchanges.