All Property is Theft

We have heard property rights be dismissed by the catchy phrase that all property is theft.

We have not heard it said from whom the thieves took it.

Those who voice this phrase may be libertarian or leftwing or anarchist or totalitarian from some non-mainstream variation of these schools of thought.

Such would deny a man the right to the fruits of his own labor; or to prevent the copying on his intellectual property; or to prevent trespass on land inherited from his forebears; or to prevent trespass on land pioneered from the wilderness, and made fruitful; and some would deny all of these by denying property rights altogether.

Property is defined as the exclusive right to use and enjoy land, goods, services or anything of value.

Exclusive means that the owner retains the right to exclude others from use of the goods or services, trespass on the land, or, in the case of intellectual property, unauthorized copying for use or resale. The only way to exclude others from goods and services, land and intellectual property they wish to use, occupy or copy is by coercion.

It is for this purpose that governments are instituted among men.

Perhaps civilized life is perpetuated for the sake of the good life, for the comforts and comradery of communal life, art and literature; but it is to preserve life from violence that tribal custom is formalized into recited law or written law, and held as sacrosanct. It is no coincidence that all ancient peoples held their laws to have come from divine sources.

If, for example, the immortal nymph Egeria writing Numa’s tablets of law is not literally true, it is true mythically, in that Roman people treated those laws as sacred, just as we do our laws, and all men, civilized or nomadic, literate or not.

It is to desecrate such laws that the anarchist or totalitarian calls the moral legitimacy of property rights, hence all rights, into question.

All forms of libertarian wish to curtail the authority of the government to use coercion; all forms of leftwinger wish to expand that authority, and hence to curtail the right of landowners and tradesmen to own land, goods, or services.

The anarchist wishes to abolish government coercion; the totalitarian wishes to make it absolute. Hence it is vary rare to find an overlap of all these camps, but such a thing can be found in arguments undermining the moral foundations of property rights.

Once such overlap is the argument that no use of coercion to exclude others from the use of your property is morally justified. This argument comes in several mutations: some apply it solely to real property, others to goods and not to services, others to intellectual property.

The favored summation of this argument is to say that property is theft.

Taken literally, the argument that property rights should not be enforced, or not be protected from theft because ‘all property is theft’, is self-defeating.

If all property is stolen, then there is no one to return it to; no one has any more legitimate right to any property than anyone one else. If all men are thieves, then there are no innocent men.

Even if all property were held in common, the ‘ownership’ by the community (according to this argument) would be no more legitimate than the ‘ownership’ of any chance passer-by, and the community officers, or the community as a whole, would be ‘thieves’, since they would use force to prevent a random passer-by, for example, from clearing and draining land in a public park, removing crops or timber, or chopping down the pillars of a public building to use for fire-kindling, and so on.

In reality, every good and service has only finite utility.  The same patch of ground cannot be used both for hunting, farming, logging, ranching, be flooded to form a lake, and, at the same time, be strip-mined. The trees either remain, or they are cut down; either the swamp is drained or not; either the land is fenced-in or not.

Hence, if the property serves any use of any one at all, the property cannot serve (with equal utility) the mutually exclusive other uses to which all others might wish to put it. The mere act of using property, by itself, excludes other uses.  The only way to have no exclusivity of use would be to forbid any use of any property. But, even then, whoever fences all property away and prevents its use, excludes other uses, and is therefore the owner, and, if he enforces his claim by violence, according to this logic, he is therefore a thief.

The argument runs that property is ‘theft’ because someone defending the fruits of his own labor from attempts by pirates to despoil him uses violence in his own unprovoked self-defense. Since the defender and the invader both use violence, neither has any legitimate right to the property.

Logically, if an innocent man defending the fruit of his labor from pirates has no more right than the pirates do to use force, then either all uses of force are legitimate, or none are. The first result leads to an endless war of all against all, and even pirates will not be able to combine, since they must fight to death over the division of the spoils. The second result leads to disarmed pacifism, which cannot even appeal to a court of law for its protection; this is the paradise wolves dream of, one where unguarded lambs have driven their sheepdogs away.

By this logic, the defender ‘steals’ from the pirates by using force to deter them from carrying off the fruit of his labor as they would; even though, by this same logic, the pirates have no right to prevent him from using any property as he would, his or theirs or anyone’s.

Or perhaps the argument is that the defender originally stole his property from some other person with a clearer right; but, if so, by the terms of this argument, no one has any clearer right. There is no original owner, no original pioneer who claimed unclaimed terrain.

Or perhaps the argument here is that the act of creating something or claiming unclaimed land, in and of itself, makes a man a thief. But his argument bears the same flaw as the last: no matter from whom the so-called ‘thief’ is alleged to have stolen from, that true owner is himself a thief.

If being a thief disqualifies you from protecting your property from additional thieves, those incoming thieves are disqualified from using violence to despoil you, and, likewise, your original victim had no right to resist (since the act of resisting violence disqualifies your right to use it); if, on the other hand, being a thief does not disqualify you from using violence again additional thieves, you may rightfully fend off anyone except the true owner, from whom you took the property, and since, according to the argument here, there are no true owners, your claim to your property is unchallenged; and this conclusion defeats the conclusion of the argument.

One is tempted to wonder, if all property is theft, whether all self-defense is war. When a woman uses a fire-arm to fend off a rapist, she is using violence to draw a distinction between what the rapist may and may not rightfully do. The woman’s body the common property of all passers-by, and by withdrawing her body from common use and reserving it to her own, selfish, individual uses, surely she commits an act of violence that disqualifies her from defending herself.

The error in this ‘all self-defense is war’ argument should be clear: the same error appears in the ‘all property is theft’ argument.

It cannot be overlooked what a presumptuous insult this argument is to all honest men. Have you ever worked a day’s labor in your life, and been paid a wage? Have you ever written a novel, built a bridge, tuned up a car engine, swept a floor, waited on a customer, invested in a portfolio, cured a disease, built a better mousetrap, sowed and reaped a field of crop, caught a fish? According to this argument, by doing any of these things, you are a robber.

But whom have you robbed? To whom can you make reparations?

The point in this argument is that there is no reparation to be made. You are a thief as a babe in arms, receiving stolen goods from your mother; you are a thief every day of your life, and a thief when you labor or consume, improve yourself, or make something for the use and pleasure of your fellow man; pleasing your employers or customers is theft; paying or receiving a wage is theft; even working in isolation is theft; Robinson Crusoe raising crops in an unclaimed field on an undiscovered island is a thief; John Keats sweating blood over every line of any work of genius is a thief.

You cannot pay back your victims because, obviously, there are none; nor can they own any property you might want to give back to them. And, once you have given away all your property, even then you are still a thief, because your labor and your talents still belong to you, and they are property, too.

The point of the argument is to accuse everyone, everywhere, of being a thief, so as to make the accusation meaningless (and, of course, to excuse the thefts contemplated by the accuser).

The point of the accusation is to inflict a causeless and irremovable guilt, in order to excuse the real guilt of real pirates who wish to disarm their victims by a fallacious Tu Quoque. “You are the remote descendent of a Greek immigrant who bought land from a Irishman who bought it for $30 in tobacco from a Red Indian of the Algonquian; but the Algonquin defeated the Lene Lenape in pre-Columbian times and stole their land, therefore your ancestor had no right to buy it; therefore I can take your house, your car, your money that you worked for thirty or forty years to earn. It is true that I am stealing from you, but the man your remote ancestor dealt with dealt with thieves, too, therefore making us all thieves, so therefore you have no basis for your complaint!”

If the argument is not to be taken literally, it seems to be no more than an observation that all states, nations, and tribes, through history, have conquered or been conquered. If so, the argument passes beyond the merely irrelevant and into the land of the silly: Attila the Hun conquered Rome; therefore I can break into my neighbor’s gym locker and take his wallet.

The bloody brutality of history would seem to be an argument favoring the lawful and peaceful resolution of disputes between men, not an excuse to continue the same type of predation on a smaller scale.