Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Part I: The Aggressor-Owner Duality and Restraints On Property


The non-aggression principle is pretty well accepted by anarchists/voluntaryists of all stripes, on the right or the left.  Let's just assume it's unassailable in certain circles.  But there is much disagreement over property rights.  To name just a few issues, should a society based on the non-aggression principle recognize public (collectively owned)  property? Intangible (e.g., "intellectual") property? Voluntary indentured servitude?  What are the limits of private property and how do property rights arise?  These are difficult issues, and it's only right that so much controversy exists over them.

Moral precepts underlying the limits and sources of property rights beyond an individual's ownership of her own body suffer from a certain lack of universal acceptance.  The homesteading and fruit of your own labor precepts are useful, but lacking in certain ways.  For example, the homesteading precept is quite friendly to accrual of monarchies over vast territories, having really nothing to say about monopolization of resources by accumulation.  Taken to its logical extreme, an absolute monarchy subverts the non-aggression principle by making everybody else a serf or criminal trespasser of the property rights held by the monarch.  In addition, there can be disagreement about what it means to homestead.  For its part, the fruit of one's own labor precept runs into difficult problems when the meaning of "fruit" and "labor" are examined closely.  In complex societies with division of labor, the extent of the fruits of one's own labor is not so clear, for example.  Furthermore, the precept fails when the labor is a form of aggression, or depends on conditions created by exercise of aggression in some way, or when property is not produced by labor.

What additional moral precepts might be applied to the origination, extent and enforcement of property rights without departing from the voluntaryist paradigm?  The history of human societies includes cycles of oppression and prosperity arising out of a struggle between aggressors and producers or victims.  Perhaps it is not so absurd to conceive of an Aggressor-Owner Duality in society as a sort of Yin-Yang balance, which when out of balance causes suffering.  If we seek a society in which less human suffering occurs, perhaps thinking about ways to harmonize proper defensive use of aggression and ownership in a stable balance may provide useful moral insights into property rights.

For the purpose of this essay, aggression is defined as the application of coercion or deceit, without regard to whether the application is morally justified.  Coercion includes force or the threat of force, and deceit includes theft or fraud.  As used in this essay, property applies to anything about which a claim of ownership is made, regardless of whether the claim is morally justified.  These may be broader than conventional definitions, so please pay attention.

There are at least two kinds of duality models, opposite pairs and complementary pairs.  In an opposite duality, extinguishing one of the pair causes the other to predominate.  The Light-Darkness Duality is an example.  Extinguishing light causes darkness to dominate, and vice-versa.  When either side of an opposite duality dominates (that is, a prior balance of the elements changes), the utility of the duality suffers.  For example, too much light can impair sight just as too much darkness, at least until the instrument of vision adapts to the change.  In a complementary duality, extinguishing one of the pair extinguishes the other.   The Male-Female Duality is an example.  Extinguishing the Female destroys the Male, and vice-versa.  The predominance of one complement is by necessity unsustainable, and therefore temporary.

In the Aggressor-Owner duality, neither side of the duality can exist without the other; each motivates the other.  The duality is therefore of a complementary type.  This duality can exist in two opposite modes, in an enlightened mode and in an unenlightened (unbalanced) mode.  In the unbalanced mode, it might be called the Oppressor-Victim duality.  In the unbalanced duality, coercion (force and the threat of force), deceit (e.g., theft or fraud), or both are used by oppressors to plunder whatever can be taken from victims.  In the enlightened mode, aggression is used only to defend justified property rights, and no unjustified claims of property are made. 

The Aggressor-Owner Duality in the unbalanced mode can be regarded as a pathology of society, because it causes avoidable suffering.  To cure the pathology, balance the polarities.  The Aggressor must renounce and forsake improper aggression: coercion, theft and deceit for any unjustified reason.  The Owner must not make any inappropriate claim of ownership.  Both restraints are equally necessary for the duality to operate in an enlightened state. 

When the unbalanced mode of the duality predominates, society as a whole is weakened, the creation of wealth is diminished, and suffering increases for most members of the society.  Nonetheless the continuance of the society depends on the victims producing more than necessary to sustain their own existence, and permitting the oppressors to take the surplus by aggression.  Conversely the oppressors must restrain themselves from taking more than what is surplus from the victims, or else suffer a diminution in the productive capacity of the victim class.  In the unbalanced mode the victims are owned, for all practical purposes if not openly, as property by the aggressors.  As such, owners are making property claims that are unjustified and socially deleterious.   Even if the aggressor class restrains itself to stealing the surplus, production of wealth by the society is less than it could be.  The aggressors are too busy aggressing to produce anything of value, and the victims are robbed of incentive to produce any surplus, except what must be done to avoid the lash, real or metaphorical.

Let's assume that the greatest good is obtained when a society is operating in an enlightened state.  Most owners and most aggressors are better off; only a few may be worse off.  A society reaches an enlightened state when a predominate majority of its members recognizes economically effective limits on aggression and on property rights.  In Parts II and III of this series, I'll suggest some limits on aggression and property, respectively.