In undertaking this explanation, it is perhaps helpful to let the reader (and apparently Sumner) in on the fact that the phrase “property is theft” comes from P.J. Proudhon’s magnum opus What Is Property? I’d love to take credit for such a pithy and correct turn of phrase, but alas I cannot.
Simplified Version of Proudhon’s Argument
In Proudhon’s period, the animating assumption of essentially all works on property was that God created the earth and gave it to mankind in common to use. This was the long-standing Christian view, which was notably reflected in Thomist thought and even received a ringing endorsement from John Locke. The Christianist idea of the common ownership of all of the earth is Proudhon’s starting point.
From there, a question arises: if God initially gave the entire earth to mankind to own in common, then how can you ever have individual property? Or, to borrow a line from Locke, since the earth is given to mankind in common, “it seems to some a very great difficulty, how any one should ever come to have a property in any thing.” The correct answer to this question, reached by Proudhon but not Locke, is that the only way to move from universal common ownership to individual private ownership is through theft. When an individual appropriates pieces of the earth (e.g. land) out of the commons and into private ownership, that individual steals from everyone else. Everyone else’s ownership share in that piece of the earth is taken from them, violently and without their consent.
The reason I bring up the fact that property is theft is because most actually-existing libertarian arguments are premised upon the idea that so-called laissez-faire capitalism is somehow voluntary and liberty-respecting. It is, of course, neither. The institutions that make up laissez-faire capitalism, the institution of private property especially, are imposed involuntarily on populations whether they want them or not. And to the extent that such involuntary impositions are enforced by violently attacking other human beings when they don’t comply, they are liberty-infringing.
This is not a novel point of course. Robert Nozick, an exception in the libertarian sphere, was very explicit about recognizing that the appropriation of property is liberty-destroying. He justifies such brutal attacks on human liberty with his paternalistic non-worsening proviso (that incidentally entails Rawlsian egalitarianism), but we can leave the particulars of that aside here.
Although it’s not novel, raising the point kills the voluntarist (and dare I say libertarian) justification for “libertarian” institutions. This then forces any such institutions to be justified on other grounds. And there aren’t any.
Property Is Theft
Society Has a Right to Seize Ill-Gotten Gains
To the Editor:
“The Court Slows Property Seizures” (editorial, Feb. 27) criticizes the efforts of law enforcement that you describe thus: “The Justice Department wanted to seize the home of a woman in Rumson, N.J., because it was bought with drug money, without giving her a chance to prove that she was an innocent party.”
However, the weight of legal tradition, fairness and logic argue that the gift recipient should not be allowed to keep the profits of the donor’s crime. For centuries, the law has recognized that someone who innocently receives a gift of stolen or embezzled property has a lesser right to that property than the original rightful owner. The reason is that the recipient — no matter how innocent — is given the property at no cost; to forfeit the property is only to surrender a windfall.
Few people would suggest that the original victim should continue to suffer wrongful deprivation so that the gift recipient can continue to benefit.
The same principle underlies this case.