Category Archives: Anti-capitalism/usury/STV

Mixing one’s labor does not prove property rights!

A common justification for property rights given to us is that one deserves to acquire property by “mixing one’s labor” with natural resources. It is this “mixing” which magically turns a resource from a property. This formulation comes to us from John Locke:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

I’ve already debunked self-ownership, so I won’t say anything further on Locke’s false assumption that “every man has a property in his own person.” Also note what we now call the Lockean proviso, “enough and as good,” which is another point of contention. But this entry is not about either of these things, so I will merely mention them here.

What concerns me is more specifically the belief that mixing one’s labor is a sufficient condition for turning a resource into property, from something small and consumed such as an apple to an entire piece of land:

As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of, so much is his property. He by his labour does, as it were, inclose it from the common.

Locke believed that the proviso ensured that no one would be deprived because there has to still be “enough and as good” for everyone else. But even that is besides the point. The point here is, what is this magical transmutation that turns a piece of land into property?

In Qu’est-ce que la Propriété?, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon debunks the concept of property. He specifically refutes the argument that property is the result of mixing one’s labor:

I maintain that the possessor is paid for his trouble and industry in his doubled crop, but that he acquires no right to the land. “Let the laborer have the fruits of his labor.” Very good; but I do not understand that property in products carries with it property in raw material. Does the skill of the fisherman, who on the same coast can catch more fish than his fellows, make him proprietor of the fishing-grounds? Can the expertness of a hunter ever be regarded as a property-title to a game-forest?…

To change possession into property, something is needed besides labor, without which a man would cease to be proprietor as soon as he ceased to be a laborer. Now, the law bases property upon immemorial, unquestionable possession; that is, prescription. Labor is only the sensible sign, the physical act, by which occupation is manifested. If, then, the cultivator remains proprietor after he has ceased to labor and produce; if his possession, first conceded, then tolerated, finally becomes inalienable, — it happens by permission of the civil law, and by virtue of the principle of occupancy.

He also argues that if the principle that labor-mixing led to property was valid, it could only lead to equality of property:

Admit, however, that labor gives a right of property in material. Why is not this principle universal? Why is the benefit of this pretended law confined to a few and denied to the mass of laborers?…

If the laborer, who adds to the value of a thing, has a right of property in it, he who maintains this value acquires the same right. For what is maintenance? It is incessant addition, — continuous creation. What is it to cultivate? It is to give the soil its value every year; it is, by annually renewed creation, to prevent the diminution or destruction of the value of a piece of land. Admitting, then, that property is rational and legitimate, — admitting that rent is equitable and just, — I say that he who cultivates acquires property by as good a title as he who clears, or he who improves; and that every time a tenant pays his rent, he obtains a fraction of property in the land entrusted to his care, the denominator of which is equal to the proportion of rent paid. Unless you admit this, you fall into absolutism and tyranny; you recognize class privileges; you sanction slavery.

Obviously libsocs do not dispute that a person owns the product of their labor, but disagree that one can claim a piece of land as property and thus demand rent from anyone else deciding to mix their labor with that land. Proudhon makes clear that the reality of land ownership has no relation with labor-mixing, since one can own a piece of land and stop laboring on it, either by sitting on it or by hiring others to do it instead. This leads to rent and the inherent contradictions of “property.”

Proudhon was talking about the cultivation of land, but this rebuttal of labor-mixing applies to capitalist work contracts as well. From ethicist Brian Zamulinski:

Now, suppose that two people work together. Although it may be difficult, if not impossible, to determine the shares of the two in the product in practice, if people acquire property by mixing their labour with things, it must be the case that each owns a share proportional to the labour performed that actually went into the product. Otherwise, one is appropriating the property of the other.

If one of the two is the employee of the other, the problem is that the share that the employee receives will be determined not by the amount of labour he contributes but by competition with other potential employees, assuming that there is freedom of contract. Occasionally, he will receive proportionally more than he should but other times, he will receive proportionally less. The latter outcome will occur far more frequently than the former. Either way, the employee will almost never get what he deserves in light of the labour-mixing theory of property acquisition. It will be a fortunate accident if he does.

Zamulinski goes on to rightly point out that the end product of capitalist work contracts is incompatible with labor-mixing theory, and that in order to make any sense of their own position, capitalists must logically abandon labor-mixing as their justification for property. In this he again joins Proudhon. I don’t know if Zamulinski believes there is any valid justification for property, but Proudhon definitely did not, at least at the time he wrote Qu’est-ce que la Propriété? (his opinions did change quite a bit as his thought evolved).

No such thing as market failure?

The concept of market failure divides the two kinds of capitalists, the extremist capitalists (free market fanatics) and the moderate capitalists (or as they like to call themselves, the “progressives”). “Progressives” (a code-word for moderate capitalists) vaguely understand that the free market is suspicious, although they couldn’t tell you why beyond “because there are poor people and somebody’s responsible.” They believe that markets usually work but that they can experience periods of failure which are caused by monopolies or some other lack of competition, the free rider problem, externalities, lax “property rights,” and so on. Extremists, on the other hand, don’t believe in market failure; they do believe that lax “property rights” are bad for business, but that such a cause is not part of the market proper.

I should probably specify that I am using the term “markets” in the same way capitalists do, as an economic system where supply and prices are mostly fixed by giant corporations.

Why don’t they believe that there can be such a thing as market failure? Extremists believe that markets always “work,” and they determine that they “work” based on a view of trade in a vacuum. They posit a situation where a person X buys something from a person Y, person X having decided that ey would benefit from buying the object at that price, and person Y having decided that ey would benefit from selling the object at that price. The conclusion is that any trade is necessarily to the advantage of both parties, since value-judgment is subjective and they both subjectively believe they have gained from the exchange.

Obviously there is a great deal wrong with this picture. For one thing, value-judgment is not subjective and therefore one cannot conclude that a person’s opinion of their interests necessarily proves that they are acting in their own interests, since people can be mistaken about what’s in their interests. There is no clear reason to believe why our beliefs about our own interests must be infallible, which is the logical consequence of believing that value-judgments are subjective.

But by far the most important, you could say all-encompassing, problem with this scenario is that it posits that trade exists in a contextless vacuum. In reality, person X and person Y operate under pre-existing conditions which force them to a certain extent to act in certain ways. In reality, price is not determined by dialogue between two people, but usually by organizations of disproportionate power compared to any individual. In reality, a person’s value-judgments are distorted by the pressures operating on one’s life.

Let’s take one random, innocuous example, like a person deciding what kind of vegetables to buy at the grocery store. The price was not set by a dialogue, but by a group of people setting price points in accordance with policies enacted by their superiors. The “choice” of the customer is not based on some abstract comparison of preferences between that amount of money and the product, but is mediated by one’s economic status. It is also dependent on what stores are available to the consumer (if ey lives in a food desert, for example), on how much cooking one has the time to do, on dietary or ethical restrictions. Finally, the whole system is contingent upon the nature of the food supply, what the stores put on their shelves, marketing and consumerism, the exploitation of the workers involved in the food supply, the application of mass murder (e.g. the Chiquita Death Squads, the massacres involved in extracting the fuel that is used to transport the produce), and so on.

Taken to its logical extent, the context of any given trade is the totality of everyone’s work and of all relations between people, at the individual and the geo-political level. If you want to be poetic, you could say that any exchange embodies the entire world.

Let’s move on to a logical consequence of exploiting food for profit, which is starvation. According to the capitalist narratives, people deserve to starve because they don’t contribute enough value to the market through their labor. Of course this is completely false from an ethical standpoint: no one deserves to starve; but it is also false from a factual standpoint. In general, we observe that the return people get on their labor is not dependent on the value they contribute, but rather on education. People who work hard, who extract the resources upon which we all depend, make less. People involved in less demanding work requiring a high level of education, which can only be attained through privileged families or crumbs given by the privileged, make more.

I have argued so far that the narrative presented by capitalists to justify the contradiction of market failure is invalid, but I still don’t subscribe to the concept of market failure. To understand why, you simply have to examine what this term “market failure” implies. The word “failure” implies that there is such a thing as a “successful market” or “well-functioning market.” The extremist position is that markets are always well-functioning, the moderate position is that markets are well-functioning most of the time, and my position is that markets are never well-functioning.

The very nature of a market can be expressed succinctly as “profits before people.” The primary drive for economic activity is to generate as much surplus value as possible, and that our economic units are set up and structured with this goal as sole standard. And because in a capitalist society money is power and money is status, workers likewise value money over other people. As a consequence, modern capitalist markets are inherently, and virulently, anti-egalitarian to the point of slavery, mass murder and torture.

I have seen the objection that, while profit is important, it’s not the only objective one can have in a market. I don’t dispute that, but extensive practical experience around the world teaches us that any economic unit set up along socialist lines will rapidly drown or forever teeter on the brink of drowning. Acting ethically costs extra money, and extra costs cut into surplus value, which affects the viability of any business. The only way to flourish is to compromise. This is not, I think, particular to capitalism: I expect that trying to go counter to the values of a local economic system, whatever it is, would be very difficult; I imagine a giant capitalist corporation would fare very poorly in a society where economic equality is mandated and enforced.

Note that I am not making any argument about efficiency here, or trying to argue that capitalism represents efficiency and that socialism represents fairness (although I do think the latter is true). Competition as a driving principle is extremely wasteful, and capitalism is no exception to this rule:

Many goods and services once made in the US and western Europe for those markets are now produced elsewhere and transported back to them. That wastes resources spent on the costly relocation and consequent return transportation. The pollution (of air, sea and soil) associated with vast transportation networks – and the eventual cleaning up of that pollution – only enlarges that waste.

The factories, offices and stores abandoned by departing capitalist corporations increase the waste of resources and of workers’ lives. In the surrounding communities, tax bases eroded by capitalists’ departures mean reduced social services, public spaces, and qualities of life for all but the richest. Those vast wastes of resources and damages to lives offset whatever small efficiency gains corporate relocations only sometimes achieve…

Efficiency did not and does not deliver what its supporters claim. That is because efficiency was not and is not what drives capitalists’ decisions. The structure of a capitalist economy – exclusive power in the hands of major shareholders and boards of directors, competitions, tensions, and unequal resources among enterprises, shareholders, directors, managers, and workers – drives the decisions made by shareholders and directors. Those decisions primarily advance capitalists’ interests in greater profits, growth and market shares.

Within the totalizing worldview of the free market extremists, the free market is the ultimate solution to everything. These just so stories usually rely on a misunderstanding of the Tragedy of the Commons mixed in with starry-eyed fantasies about the intentions of business owners (i.e. that they pursue some other objective than profit). So we get told, despite all the contrary evidence of history, that the market can magically solve the problem of bigotry because there’ll always be some corporation ready to snag workers who are discriminated against and to offer them better working conditions, since corporations compete against each other for workers. The market can also solve environmental issues because corporations have an interest in maintaining natural resources, unlike non-market societies, where people just try to get as much money out of the resource before it’s depleted by everyone else (which actually sounds more like the way capitalism deals with natural resources than anything else that has ever existed in history).

From the extremist perspective, we have never had a free market because of State intervention, and this is a regrettable fact. From the moderate perspective, we have a free market but that freedom must be balanced with the needs of the State. Both positions are predicated on the error of believing that the market and the State have contrary aims. But the State is the handmaiden of the power elite, which is mostly composed of market leaders and policy leaders; their aims are not, on the whole, contrary. Political conflicts are almost alwasy between ultra-conservative and moderate conservative factions of the power elite (for more on this, see Who Rules America? by G. William Domhoff).

A free market, in the sense of a market being completely unregulated, has never existed and will never exist, since it would collapse into itself in short order. All modern large-scale markets crucially depend upon the infrastructure, the subsidies, the laws (including “property rights”) and the indoctrination provided by the State. This applies as much to the most abstract financial transactions as to two individuals exchanging an object for money, but obviously to the former to a much, much greater extent.

Cheerful submission to one’s enemies.


Above: Cheerful submission to one’s enemies.

People who have an attitude, not of humiliated submission, but of cheerful, willing submission, represent a strange puzzle which doesn’t seem to fit human behavior. But we know it does happen. Black slaves took sides with their master against other masters, and had lively arguments about it. Kidnapping victims can experience Stockholm’s Syndrome. So it’s not entirely unknown, but these situations are rather extreme.

But in the past decades it seems that we are seeing a surge in cheerful submission from people who are not in extreme situations at all, but rather in every day life. Two examples which come to my mind are the Tea Party and funfeminism. Despite being politically distant, these two movements have a lot in common.

1. Complete and utter failure to identify the enemy.

The Tea Party and funfeminists are absolutely unable to identify their real enemies, the people who do them harm or wish to do them harm. Instead, they point to straw men opponents: the Tea Party rails against poor people and “immigrants,” who have little to no power in our society, instead of the CEOs and other economic agents who seek to exploit them; funfeminism rails against radfem and other ideologies that are against female exploitation, instead of attacking the men who seek to objectify them. In short, my enemies are my friends.

[Pornography icon Jenna] Jameson comes to a very different conclusion than Farley. She writes, “Though watching porn may seem degrading to some women, the fact is that it’s one of the few jobs for women where you can get to a certain level, look around, and feel so powerful, not just in the work environment but as a sexual being. So, fuck Gloria Steinem.” One has to wonder how she puts it together this way. If she feels so powerful as a sexual being, why can’t she watch her own sex scenes? If her work environment is so satisfying, why does she say that if she had a daughter, she would lock her in the house before she’d let her get involved in the sex industry? Why does she refer to her vagina as a “ding-ding”? I’m not sure any of this is Gloria Steinem’s fault.
Female Chauvinist Pigs, p183

In some cases, the very concept of exploitation and objectification is so outlandish or passé to them that they could not recognize any oppression anyway; in general I find that this incapacity of connecting actions with ethics is true of any status quo ideology, not just those two (indeed they must disconnect the two if they are to rationalize their beliefs at all).

Both cases of ignorance can be explained by games conditions. Tea Partiers are mostly working class stiffs competing for jobs and promotions, and it’s not in their interest to fight against the source of their meager power. Funfeminists, like most non-feminist women, compete for male attention and credibility to the male gaze, and fighting against the need for male attention would go counter to their objective.

2. Misdirected jealousy/admiration.

Misidentification of the enemy entails a misdirection of our emotions. Lying to ourselves is a full time job, and in order to prevent relapse, we necessarily have to reverse the flow of our emotions: our praise must stop going to the praiseworthy and instead go to that which helps us cover up the truth.

Funfems admire women who are amongst the most dispossessed people in our societies (strippers, porn actresses, prostitutes, trafficked children), and refuse to help them on the grounds that helping people is arrogant, while they are jealous of the made-up power of radfem to dictate policy. Tea Partiers are jealous of poor people and “immigrants” for attacking the economy, despite the fact that these people have no power to change the economy.

Even though they seem absurd and irrational on the face of it, these emotional connections serve the main purpose of helping them hide the truth from themselves. Tea Partiers could not hold the party line (no pun intended) if they sympathized with poor people, and funfems could not keep being funfems if they wanted to help “sex workers” instead of admiring them for their “power.” So they have to keep looking away in order to maintain their lie.

3. The enthusiastic pursuit of their own exploitation.

This is mostly a corollary of the previous two points: if they are unable to identify exploitation or objectification done against them, and ally with those who exploit or objectify them, then they will enthusiastically pursue their own exploitation or objectification in the name of their own “freedom.” In short, slavery is freedom.

The word “freedom” is always interesting to analyze. In this case, it means that one can support the dominant paradigm. But this is trivial, since supporting the dominant paradigm will never be opposed by one’s rulers; it is always heterodoxy which needs to be protected and which must be granted the freedom to exist.

One does not need the “freedom” to kowtow to the male gaze, since such “freedom” is by and large accepted (except when it comes to prostitution). One does not need the “freedom” to enter in capitalist work contracts or manufacture profits for one’s bosses, because doing this is expected and encouraged. This is why the “freedom” that these people preach is a pointless dead-end.

4. They want to work the system to effect change.

Because they think and operate within the status quo, funfems and Tea Partiers cannot imagine working outside the system. This would require them to reject their own exploitation which, as I’ve already pointed out, they cannot do because that would expose their lie.

So you get the strange spectacle of self-professed rebels, who take the name of a group which today would be seen as anarchists or worse, trying to elect people to office. You get the strange spectacle of self-styled feminists who promote “feminist” objectification (including so-called “feminist porn”) and promote male violence against women to be the result of a woman’s “choice.”


Obviously there are big differences between funfems and Tea Partiers in other areas; for instance, the former are usually liberals and the latter are usually conservatives (although in both cases they tend to be less authoritarian than their respective political ideologies). But they share the attributes of other people who have right intentions but are unable to identify what is in their interests.

The unholy triad of the little god…


Image from Something Awful.

It is often said that all philosophical discussions eventually reduce themselves to the free will versus determinism debate. The same could be said about political discussions and the concept of self-ownership. But what is not often said is why that should be the case.

The importance of the debates derives from the fact that everything we think or do is at its core thought and done by human beings. This is a fundamental implicit premise of any philosophical reasoning, and the debates just make it explicit. We have two basic options: either human beings are “little gods” that self-generate everything, which means reality takes a back seat to human action, or human beings are engaged in a process of discovery and reality is primordial.

They are all part of what one might call (to borrow a Creationist term) “human exceptionalism,” the delusion that humans are somehow exceptional by being exceptions to natural law. “Mere animals” do not have free will, are not self-owners, do not construct their own morality, but humans do, somehow, in some vague, fuzzy way.

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes—within the limits of endowment and environment—he has made out of himself.
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

I call this mindset “self-generation,” and we can easily see how it applies to the three members of the free will/relativism/self-ownership triad (which I broached on in my earlier entry on free will as an ideological weapon):

* Free will can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate (“choose”) their decisions.
* Relativism can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate their morality.
* Self-ownership can be reformulated as the position that individuals self-generate ethics (“I own myself so I decide what’s right for me to do in society”).

What about God-belief? Some people include it as a primary element of the self-generation mindset, but I don’t think it’s primary. Every sect of Christianity has a different conception of what God is and how to follow God’s (subjective) laws, and which set of beliefs one adopts is purely subjective. Christian belief is relativist because the moral rules one adopts is not based on facts but rather on sectarian preference (not to mention that each sect has as much evidence for their moral position as any other).

So relativism is necessary before we even have a conception of God, at least in Christianity. As other thinkers have noted, relativism and subjectivism go hand in hand; a subjective moral principle is not likely to connect to any standard that transcends the individual point of view (e.g. to exhibit moral realism and not moral relativism).

And the Christian belief in God itself leads to belief in free will and self-ownership. An atheist may still hold such beliefs, but that’s usually because they’re holdovers from Judeo-Christian thought. Still, the possibility of a consistent atheistic adherence to the triad cannot be rejected, which means Christianity cannot be its fundamental basis.

Christianity is relativist in two ways. One is what I’ve already pointed out, that the sects’ moral principles are all equally valid on the sole basis of their supposed adherence to the Bible. The other is in the belief that God created everything, including morality. Whatever God decides is good, is good, regardless of existing facts.

Each element of the triad is dependent on the other two, so disproof of one of them casts serious doubts on the others. To take an easy example, when (not if) free will is conclusively disproven, Austrian economics, which for decades has been a major support for capitalism, will also have been conclusively disproven, since it holds “choice” as its foundation (see the Axiom of Human Action). Likewise, a radical position against self-ownership means that free will is rather unlikely, since self-ownership is predicated on (the self) being in control of one’s body.

In this way, it seems relevant to me that Wikipedia describes the sense of agency as being intertwined with the sense of (self-)ownership:

The “sense of agency” (SA) refers to the subjective awareness that one is initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own volitional actions in the world.[1] It is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that it is me who is presently executing bodily movement(s) or thinking thoughts. In normal, non-pathological experience, the SA is tightly integrated with one’s “sense of ownership” (SO), which is the pre-reflective awareness or implicit sense that one is the owner of an action, movement or thought.

The three concepts all depend on each other for justification, because they represent different interconnected facets of a coherent (if nonsensical) mindset.

I call the triad the “little god” because each of its parts involve giving humans some kind of element that goes beyond the natural world. When we look at the natural world, we come to certain moral or ethical conclusions, such as that genocide is evil. Indeed, most “little god” believers will usually agree with these conclusions. But when we apply the conclusions to their belief systems (for example, genocide in the Bible narratives), they balk and argue that God decided that genocide was good and that’s that. But for this new conclusion to also be true requires there to be something more than the natural world, some supernatural process or entity that can somehow overrides normal morality (in this case, God).

This sort of contradiction does not only apply only to Christianity, but to all forms of relativism. Take for example cultural relativism and its justification of atrocities such as footbinding, female circumcision, suttee or the Inquisition. Academics have an almost endless fountain of justification available to them (for examples, see Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly). And yet equivalent acts, but acts which do not perpetuate the status quo, would be considered atrocious by most, if not all, people.

Suppose, for instance, that gangs of theologians were going around torturing and murdering women, or that parents started chopping off their babies’ ears a few days after their birth. I’m pretty sure that everyone, except the offenders, would be outraged (when the police or jailers do the torturing, on the other hand, we’re not outraged because this maintains the status quo).

In the case of free will, the non-natural element is obvious: for there to be something contra-causal, there must be something non-natural, whether it is a soul or a quantum process in the brain (or some other kind of “pure randomness”).

God himself is said to have complete free will (but also omniscience, however that’s supposed to work), to be the supreme owner, and the ultimate relativist (whatever he says, goes). So he’s a perfect fit for the unholy triad.

The funny thing is that many people engaged in worshipping “little gods” insist that they are being “objective” (others, like New Agers, don’t really care and only want to indulge in their pretend divinity as much as possible). A lot of the demonization and political rationalizations going around actually exist to try to prove that the profound subjectivism of the triad is actually an inexorable law of nature or is based on laws of nature. So you get absurd positions which state that it is a law of nature that there is this domain (the human mind, morality, politics) where there are no laws of nature.

This then provides the opportunity for the “experts” to affirm the absolute truth of the lack of truth, the freedom of tyranny. Self-ownership “proves” voluntaryism, which “proves” capitalism, which “proves” the need for neo-liberalist policies (which crush the lives of the dispossessed around the world). Free will “proves” total personal responsibility, which “proves” the evilness of the dispossessed (poor, “immigrants,” people persecuted by the government, invalids, and so on), which grounds hatred against the dispossessed (for an example, here is an entry from Femanon discussing how this is applied to women). Cultural relativism “proves” the validity of evil cultural practices, which grounds implicit or explicit approval of those practices (said practices being mostly used against the dispossessed).

Another property they share is their chilling effect on scientific inquiry and intellectual curiosity. This is especially true with free will, as its proponents are outright hostile to the examination of the causes of human actions (especially criminal ones). Through voluntaryism, self-ownership blocks awareness of the effects of people’s “voluntary” actions on others. Relativism prevents one from examining the validity of other people’s moral principles and measuring them to ours. In all cases, we are enjoined to stop thinking and stop evaluating. We are invited to cheer for “freedom” and are told that anyone who objects to these magical, contra-causal ideas is against “freedom.” We are told that systemic analysis is intolerant and wrong, that only the individual creative intent matters.

So it’s important to keep in mind what these concepts lead us to. Free will leads us to pride, but it also leads to demonization and revenge. Self-ownership leads us to a feeling of control, but it also leads to voluntaryism and free market capitalism. Relativism leads us to tolerance, but it also leads us to genocide. In all cases the negatives are many orders of magnitude more important than the positives.

Contract theory as an attack against human rights


(above: a contract of indentured servitude)

Contract theory is at the center of voluntaryism. This alone should be enough to make it suspect. Strangely, despite its centrality, voluntaryists talk very little about the nitty-gritty of contracts and how they are to be enforced. Molyneux fans blather on and on about defense contracts as a substitute for law, but the enforcement and limitations of such contracts, which raise numerous questions, remain unexamined.

As I’ve pointed out in the case of the child renter argument and Block’s corollary, voluntaryists who uphold contracts as absolute must therefore reject the concept of human rights. This is a very difficult dilemma for them: either they reject human rights or they reject contracts as absolute standard. Voluntaryists fail to give a satisfactory answer to this dilemma, because they know very well that giving up either is the death knell for their beliefs.

Consider the concept of self-ownership, which treats living, thinking bodies as pieces of property. If something is property, then it can be given away or exchanged at will. But this must be done by contract, since any person could otherwise retract their agreement at will, since the person is the body. The contract provides a written binding agreement that continues to exist beyond consent.

The most obvious example would be the constitution of any country. Constitutions bind people who are long dead, and yet they are still assumed to legally hold today, despite the lack of consent from people currently living. The only way to make sense of this contradiction is to assume that citizens are, to some degree, property of the State through the expired agreement of “their” constitution. But this only makes sense to us because we’ve been indoctrinated to believe in self-ownership and in absolute contracts. In no other context would the concept of a constitution make any sense: as Lysander Spooner points out, most contracts we enter into are not this absurd.

Suppose an agreement were entered into, in this form:

We, the people of Boston, agree to maintain a fort on Governor’s Island, to protect ourselves and our posterity against invasion.

This agreement, as an agreement, would clearly bind nobody but the people then existing. Secondly, it would assert no right, power, or disposition, on their part, to compel their “posterity” to maintain such a fort. It would only indicate that the supposed welfare of their posterity was one of the motives that induced the original parties to enter into the agreement.

[T]hese men who claim and exercise this absolute and irresponsible dominion over us, dare not be consistent, and claim either to be our masters, or to own us as property. They say they are only our servants, agents, attorneys, and representatives. But this declaration involves an absurdity, a contradiction. No man can be my servant, agent, attorney, or representative, and be, at the same time, uncontrollable by me, and irresponsible to me for his acts. It is of no importance that I appointed him, and put all power in his hands. If I made him uncontrollable by me, and irresponsible to me, he is no longer my servant, agent, attorney, or representative. If I gave him absolute, irresponsible power over my property, I gave him the property. If I gave him absolute, irresponsible power over myself, I made him my master, and gave myself to him as a slave. And it is of no importance whether I called him master or servant, agent or owner.

Lysander Spooner, The Constitution of No Authority

The notion of a contract, while not by far ideal, is not in itself absurd; the union of contracts and self-ownership is what leads to absurdities. It led to the belief, which has only recently been dispelled, that marriage contracts make uxorial rape logically impossible. It leads to the belief that work contracts make all sorts of attacks against human rights valid, and the belief that the social contract (as instantiated by the Constitution) makes assault and murder valid, although as time goes on, the range of possible attacks gets narrower.

If this reminds you of the way Christians approach the Bible, that’s no coincidence. The more that permissible contracts lag behind social mores, the more incentive there are for legal reforms, just like how religious doctrines get progressively left behind as social mores change. Sexual harassment used to be an accepted (implicit) part of a work contract: nowadays, not so much, because sexism is somewhat more toned down from where it was a hundred years ago. In the case of political crimes, it’s hard to say that there’s really been any progress, and that’s because people still have as much faith in the law and law enforcement as they did a hundred years ago, a faith which is not always extended to corporations.

So contracts-as-ethics is ultimately a subjective standard. The more self-ownership we grant people, the more human rights we imagine them being able to surrender, and the fewer human rights we will see as absolute. The less self-ownership we grant people, the less human rights we imagine them being able to surrender, and the more human rights we will see as absolute.

This may seem counter-intuitive because it goes counter to the capitalist way of thinking, with which we are indoctrinated and therefore seems intuitive. The standard reasoning is that self-ownership is the basis of rights, and that therefore both are proportional. But this is usually an ad hoc rationalization: the more we see people respecting each other, the more we arbitrarily assume that self-ownership is granted. Logically, this makes no sense. Slavery and other attacks on basic rights can only make sense if we first assume that bodies are a kind of thing that can be owned, a property which can be trespassed upon.

Likewise, the marriage contract have supported the enslavement of women for centuries. For more on the relation between marriage contracts and other hierarchical forms of contracts, see The Sexual Contract, by Carole Pateman (I haven’t yet read it, so I won’t comment further).

Voluntaryists sussed out a long time ago that full self-ownership should mean that people can sell themselves into slavery. This conclusion is distressing to most of them, so they have concocted various rationalizations to get around this. But this does not improve the situation, since virtually all attacks on human rights are not outright slavery, but rather degrees of slavery (if we use “slavery” in the more colloquial sense of one person having control over what another says and does). While rejecting slavery contracts, voluntaryists cannot get themselves to reject work contracts or social contracts, demonstrating their failure to grasp the commonality between all these contracts.

Can contracts be a valid means of formalizing agreement? Sure, but we have to introduce issues of consent. Consent cannot exist unless viable alternatives exist as well. Much like we shouldn’t evaluate individuals as if they lived in a social vacuum, or evaluate actions as if they took place in a causal vacuum, a contract can not, and should not, be judged in a vacuum, but rather must be contrasted with the institutions that sustain it. A contract may or may not be valid in itself, but if these institutions do not provide or allow any alternatives, then the contract cannot possibly be justified.

Suppose a group of equals come together and decide on how they are to live. They may decide upon something like a constitution, and this form is not necessarily problematic, as long as every person bound to it consents beforehand. But when such a constitution is applied to people who never consented to it, and provides no other choice, then it cannot be justified (the work contract, on the other hand, is in itself invalid because of its illogical nature).

Values are sacrifices.

All decisions have opportunity costs. Values, since they inform our decisions, therefore have opportunity costs through the decisions they inform. To take a simple example, the fact that I want to sleep when I am tired prevents me from staying up and doing other things. The fact that I value sleep, therefore, entails opportunity costs. Not sleeping would lead to a different outcome, but this outcome is lost because I judge it less desirable.

This may seem blindingly obvious but seems to be lost when we enter the realm of the abstract. Intellectual cowards refuse to confront the act of valuing and its consequences. They act as if values are essentially arbitrary and irrelevant to real life.

In that way, they act like religious people, who distinguish themselves from others by believing in this or that obscure theological principle. To the religious, values are arbitrary and irrelevant to real life. It really makes no difference when baptism should be performed or how much traditional interpretations of the Bible should be trusted. None of these things matter in real life. They just exist to maintain divisions between sects and to preserve a sense of identity within them.

Essentially they believe that professing a value is an issue of personal taste, and that our actions should be “pragmatic.” So they set up a dichotomy between valuing, which is purely in the realm of the imaginary or the personal, and actions to achieve those values, which must be “pragmatic” and be subject to no values, which in practice means that they should be subject to the standards of social success (whatever sells, whatever convinces, whatever can be said in public, no matter how false it is).

We observe this in organizations which supposedly pursue egalitarian ends but which do so in a hierarchical way. That is my main target here, and for good reason: a lot of arguments hinge around it, because practice is the best evidence we have of workability. And most of the time egalitarians don’t even try to prove their point by constructing egalitarian organizations, which shows their lack of commitment.

This also applies in economics. A capitalist organization is by definition one which is optimized for profit-seeking. By definition, a socialist organization cannot be optimized for profit-seeking. To claim that a socialist organization can compete, or should be able to compete, with capitalist organizations in a capitalist economy is to not understand what the terms mean. It is a deficit in understanding. By their very nature, socialist organization cannot outcompete capitalist organizations. To hold the value of equality means to reject the benefits of exploitation, and capitalism is predicated on exploitation. In order to win in capitalism, you must exploit the labor of others in many different forms.

The argument that socialism fails because socialist organizations cannot compete at the same level as capitalist organizations is a tautology: no organization can “succeed” within a given incentive system if it pursues a completely different standard of “success.” So what? That’s as trivial as telling us that a marathon runner will not win the 100m dash. Why should we expect otherwise? A capitalist organization would fail, too, if it had to meet the incentive systems of socialism. I can guarantee you as much.

Does that mean capitalism is inferior? Not in itself, no. All it means is that capitalism, like socialism, implies a certain set of values, and that an incentive system which does not reward those values will present a daunting obstacle. Capitalism is inferior because it operates on the basis of non-human values (like the profit motive and market forces) and causes widespread misery, not because it “works” or doesn’t “work.” Pragmatism is a piss-poor standard of truth. Systemic analysis is a much better standard.

I’ve talked about organizations, but the same thing applies to individuals. At the root of this fallacy is the belief that the “end justifies the means.” I discussed how this is part of the manichean worldview. Egalitarians who treat interpersonal relations as a struggle will tend to dissociate means with ends. They will preach cooperation but act competitively.

The opposite of “the end justifies the means” is “practice what you preach,” i.e. honesty instead of hypocrisy. Practicing what you preach is a great deal harder than dropping your principles whenever they become inconvenient, but it’s the only way to bring about what you want. We prefigure the new society, first in the imagination and then in reality, by representing its principles as closely as possible. Selling equality or peace by showing yet another example of hierarchy and competition in action gets us no closer to a peaceful world, because that’s what everyone else is already doing. If hierarchy and competition was the key to an egalitarian and peaceful world, the world would already be egalitarian and peaceful.

You can’t go half-way. If you believe in something, then cherish it and bring more of it into the world. If you don’t believe in something, then don’t bring more of it into the world. Bringing something into the world in the name of its opposite is just retarded.

Answering objections to Intellectual Ownership.


By Nina Paley.

Three years ago, I published an entry about a system of royalties based on socialism, which I called Intellectual Ownership, in contrast to Intellectual Property. In the IO system, content creators receive a small percentage of the sale price of whatever product uses their content (whether it’s a new factory process or a book). If there’s no sale price, there’s no royalty. So IO supports pirating, sharing of information, and so on.

I thought IO would be pretty uncontroversial. Stephen Kinsella published a completely content-less entry against IO, but I just saw this as more of his usual bluster. However, I recently checked his entry again and noticed something new: he told Nina Paley about it, and added her criticisms to his entry. I did not see this part the first time, so he must have added it later on.

Well, I was thrilled that Nina Paley knew about my entry (long-time readers may notice I’ve featured quite a bit of her artwork these past years). She is a known antinatalist and a strong advocate of the sharing of information. I support her completely. So I didn’t really expect her to criticize my position. However, she did, so I want to address this criticism, with all respect to Nina Paley and her tireless work, since unlike Kinsella (who is about as intellectual as a trout with a brain defect) she actually raised some important points.

Here is the relevant part:

As my C4SIF colleague Nina Paley noted to me:

Whaa? How exactly would the ”added cost of the innovation itself” (?) be controlled, enforced, etc.? Looks like it would require a ton of surveillance. … I definitely mind the implication that a surveillance state is a “solution.”

“The only limitation is that the cost-price must be raised by a certain percentage, reflecting the added cost of the innovation itself. In the case of artistic works, this percentage might be up to 1%, but in the case of innovations, it would be a range something like 0.1%-0.01%, the specific percentage in each case depending on how significant the improvement is.”

And who is going to decide “how significant the improvement is”?

The IO system is a system where using other people’s innovations is encouraged, not forbidden. Instead of locking it in with patents and copyrights, it is made available for a small percentage of the sale price. I gave the example of 1% for artistic works (such as the contents of a book) and 0.1% to 0.01% for technical improvements. I freely admit that these percentages were pulled out of my ass, and are only meant as examples. I don’t know what the actual percentages would be in reality.

Paley argues that the implementation of a royalty system such as the one I envision would require a surveillance state. The use of the word “state” is unfortunate here, since I am an Anarchist and don’t believe any economic function should be in the hands of a state. As a libsoc, I believe that such function would, like most institutions in a libsoc society, be undertaken by federated groups of free individuals.

Even if we exclude the “state” issue, Paley also believes that such an institution would entail widespread surveillance. I don’t really understand why this would be the case. After all, we are talking about detecting something that is in mass production or used for mass production, unlike pirating which, in the West, takes place on a small scale. I don’t see how this would entail more surveillance than, say, keeping tabs on work conditions in workplaces or preventing fraud in production and distribution, which are things that we need in any large-scale (i.e. non-face-to-face) economic system.

Paley’s second objection is more potent, although her question is strangely constructed. Answering any question about “who” would ascertain innovation costs presumes a profound knowledge of a global libsoc economy society which does not currently exist; at least I am not aware of any past or present libsoc system where this issue has been raised. In a federated libsoc system, I think that workers’ councils would be interested in resolving these issues in a global manner, perhaps by appointing neutral arbiters who would make these decisions under a set of objective rules.

Presumably Paley is not here asking for names, but rather is asking “how” the innovation costs would be determined, what objective rules would be followed. The issue here is one of relative importance. To a book publisher, the writer is of prime importance: no writer, no book. To the worker on a factory line, the invention of a new robotic arm is important but not nearly as important as the writer is to the publisher. The publisher is very much dependent on the work of the writer, and the factory worker is not as dependent on a new robotic arm being installed in eir factory.

It would be equally silly to go in the opposite direction and argue that the writer should get all the money, since ey also depends utterly upon the publishers to translate eir work into tangible goods. Likewise, the machine innovator depends on the workers to make use of eir innovation.

There is always the danger of such a system becoming legalistic, so simple rules should be adopted as much as possible. In practice, a ladder of percentages would probably be the most handy solution, especially if it lets producers figure out immediately how much of the sale cost they must set aside to pay for IO purposes.

There would also be a time limit on royalties, as we have now, and a public domain like we have today. Anyone who wants their work to be part of the public domain would still be able to do that.

Finally, I want to point out that the IO system is an addition to my egalitarian economic ideas, not meant to be implemented in today’s society. It assumes that we already have a society where everyone receives an equal part of society’s production because every person’s labor is necessary for every other person’s labor. Innovation is necessary, and therefore should be rewarded, but it’s more than that. Everyone’s labor is usually a tiny margin on everyone else’s labor, but innovation is different from that: it often represents a huge addition to a wide range of productive activities.

In our current capitalist system, I would rather see no IP or IO, rather than IO. I also find that IP is always reprehensible, whatever the economic system. So I agree with Nina Paley on that issue. The rest, I think, is mostly details.

How an economy grows and how property arises…

Emma, Mikhail and Voltarine live on Socialism Island, a tropical island surrounded by clear blue waters. They survive by fishing with their bare hands. It’s very hard work and they can only catch one fish a day, just enough to not starve. They don’t have the time or energy to do more.

One day, Mikhail is washing his shirt made of animal skin and accidentally drops it into the water. Pulling it, he finds, to his great surprise, that a little fish was caught in his shirt as well! He runs back to his comrades and they all realize that some sort of net may be more efficient for fishing.

They choose Voltarine, who is most skilled at building the little tools they use, to make a net. As always, they pool their resources and each of them eats two-thirds of a fish for one day. This is not a lot of food, and they begin to feel sharp hunger.

But the next day Voltarine has finished the net. Instead of one fish a day, the net lets one person catch ten fish a day. That’s all the three of them need in order to eat to satiety. They decide to have one person fishing each day in rotating order, while the other two can make different sorts of tools. Soon they have made a primitive axe and are starting to use wood to build better shelter.

Because they cooperate and share freely, the people of Socialism Island experience little friction in their day-to-day lives. As they produce more and more, life gets easier and easier.

The situation was rather different on Capitalism Island. There, Able, Baker and Charlie did not share their food in common, so when Charlie thought of the idea for a net, he had to shoulder the entire risk. While making the net, he starved terribly, and if the net didn’t work, he could die. So it was much to his relief that his net worked just fine, capturing ten fish in a day.

Now Charlie had a lot of food. But when Able and Baker realized how great Charlie’s net was, they came to him and begged for him to let them use his net. Charlie thought, “I almost risked my life for this, why should I run the risk of them stealing it from me? At least I deserve a reward.”

So, using his surplus fish to feed himself, he made two more nets, and demanded that Able and Baker pay him eight fish a day for using them. He called these nets his “property.” When they complained, he told them, “why are you complaining? You’ll have twice as much fish as you did before, thanks to my nets. It’s only fair that I get a reward for making them for you.”

Charlie accumulated and dried a lot of fish, while Able and Baker still worked all day. They came to complain to him again about how unfair it was that he was hoarding so much dry fish. So Charlie paid them three fish a day to build a boat so they could go out to sea and capture even more fish for him. They gratefully accepted, as they never had so much fish to eat before. But now they had to do whatever Charlie ordered them to do.

Going out to sea, the two workers discovered Socialism Island and the shelter, tools and goodies that had been made there. They went back to Charlie to tell him about it. He decided that they should storm Socialism Island and steal their goodies.

At first, the war was easy. The people of Socialism Island were weaker, and they were able to steal quite a bit. But subsequent wars got harder. The people of Socialism Island started making wooden traps, and Able and Baker started getting seriously hurt. Charlie had another bright idea: “instead of constantly coming back, we’re going to take their island over, ask them for a tribute every week, leave one of you there to keep them in line.”

After the last war, Able was left to live in one of the shelters that were built by the people of Socialism Island. He said this was the “property” of the invaders and could not be used by anyone else, no matter the need. Then he implemented the first “law”: instead of living and eating in common, every single person was to have their own “property” as well, from which each would pay their tribute.

Emma, Mikhail and Voltarine now had to work for themselves, instead of working for each other as they always had. They became like the people of Capitalism Island, and never shared anything ever again.

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