The confusion between property and possession…

It is in the interest of some people (such as “anarcho-capitalists”) to confuse property and possession, and to claim that everyone is actually advocating a property system. They wish to hide the injustices of property theory under the pretense that we have no choice but to have property rights. Db0 discusses this unfortunate tendancy.

You see, it does not really matter what we call the various systems of ownership, we could call them blue and purple bananas for all the good it will do us. The important thing is that we understand the same concepts. That the socialist criticize the ownership system which facilitates and promotes wage-slavery, rent and usury and promote one which makes that systematically impossible. That this is not a discussion on how we’re going to enforce it (voluntarily or coercively) but on simply which system we ought to prefer.

To simply take your own or what you assume are the “right” definition of the word ‘property’ and superimpose it onto socialist critique, is simple a recipe for strawmen fallacies. Perhaps you have the most popular definition. Perhaps you have the proper or more the most clear. Perhaps not. The important thing to remember, as Proudhon pointed out in the past, is that if you’re going to call all types of ownership “property” then you really need a way to distinguish between possession and “sticky property”. He suggested to call the later the more appropriate name of “theft” of course but I doubt the propertarians will agree on that.

23 thoughts on “The confusion between property and possession…

  1. Roderick T. Long May 12, 2010 at 12:39

    But what is your, and/or db0’s, response to Kevin Carson’s arguments that (although he himself favours Tucker-style possession over Rothbard-style property), Rothbard-style property would *not* be able to facilitate and promote wage-slavery were it not for government intervention?

  2. Francois Tremblay May 12, 2010 at 16:37

    Well, I can’t vouch for db0’s answer to this question. As for myself, I have no intention of arguing about Mr. Carson’s work.

  3. Shawn P. Wilbur May 13, 2010 at 02:31

    If you actually look at what Proudhon said in “What is Property?,” “possession” is defined by equality of access. “[T]he man who takes possession of a field, and says, “This field is mine,” will not be unjust so long as every one else has an equal right of possession.” (p. 234) Proudhon himself, in 1842, said that “to abolish that species of theft [i.e. property], it is necessary to universalize it.” At that stage of his career, the “hard core” opposition wasn’t between kinds of property at all, but between equal and unequal divisions.

  4. David Gendron May 13, 2010 at 15:24

    @Roderick T. Long

    I think you mention a good point here. I think Tucker-style is better than Rothbard-style in principle but even a sticky property system will be way less “wage-slavery-facilitating” without the State intervention than the actual statist-capitalist system of property and corporations.

  5. David Gendron May 13, 2010 at 15:28

    But in the actual context, I don’t believe that promoting property rights is a good thing for anarchists.

  6. James May 14, 2010 at 15:33

    So, what is the dividing line between “property” and “possesion”?

  7. Francois Tremblay May 14, 2010 at 19:49

    Usury, and the rights to abuse, destroy, trade, give away.

  8. James May 15, 2010 at 09:47

    “Usury”

    Ok, I figured as much. But what specific aspect(s) of “property” grants this right that is missing from “possession”?

    “abuse, destroy”

    While I can see what an opposition to usury is grounded in (while disagreeing with it myself) I can’t see where the opposition to abusing or destroying things you own comes from. Let’s say I own X, no one else has any claim to it. It’s hard to see where anyone’s claim would arise from if I destroyed X.

    “trade, give away”

    This again seems very counter-intuitive. I can own something and it not be my decision what happens to it? Why can’t I trade it and again where would a third parties claim come from if I did trade it?

    Also, like with the prohibition of usury, I’d need to see what specific aspects of property allow for destruction and trade that don’t exist under mere possession.

  9. Shawn P. Wilbur May 15, 2010 at 14:57

    James, a traditional response to the “abuse, destroy” issue is that property *rights* are necessarily social, so individual property claims are always conditioned by the collective or mutual interests that support the system of rights itself. If goods are scarce or potentially rivalrous enough for individual property to be an issue, then their destruction or the abuse of the basic rights system logically calls other *interests* into play, whether or not a propertarian would think of those interested as having a claim.

    And, of course, alienability has frequently *not* been a part of the “bundle of rights,” particularly when we’re talking about real property.

  10. Francois Tremblay May 15, 2010 at 15:28

    James: Your questions are strange. Are you asking us for the historical roots of the distinction? Or the ethical justification for not permitting such things? Or what?

  11. James May 15, 2010 at 19:28

    “James, a traditional response to the “abuse, destroy” issue is that property *rights* are necessarily social, so individual property claims are always conditioned by the collective or mutual interests that support the system of rights itself.”

    I’m not sure I follow. Aren’t all laws neccessarily social? That doesn’t mean they should always be conditioned by the interest of the collective above the individual.

    “If goods are scarce or potentially rivalrous enough for individual property to be an issue, then their destruction or the abuse of the basic rights system logically calls other *interests* into play, whether or not a propertarian would think of those interested as having a claim.”

    I’d agree that others may have interests but that’s different from having enforceable claims. I can have an interest in many things that aren’t legitimately within my power to control.

    “And, of course, alienability has frequently *not* been a part of the “bundle of rights,” particularly when we’re talking about real property.”

    That’s true but i’d still expect justification (like I would of any claim, including that it IS alienable) especially since it is rather counter-intuitive.

    “Your questions are strange. Are you asking us for the historical roots of the distinction? Or the ethical justification for not permitting such things? Or what?”

    I’d like to know a bit more about this alternative theory of ownership. Basically how does it differ from “property” on issues like appropriation, exchange, abandonment etc and why does it differ in these ways. I’ve only been given a list of things that are prohibited under “possession” but i’m looking for how and why this is so.

  12. Francois Tremblay May 16, 2010 at 01:40

    What do you mean? It’s property that is the “alternative theory of ownership,” not possession. The more relevant question is, why should we accept the concept that an owner has the right to destroy, alter or sell off at will? Why is this so? How is this better than the system that we started off with?

  13. James May 16, 2010 at 05:10

    “What do you mean? It’s property that is the “alternative theory of ownership,” not possession.”

    They are both alternative, as in different, theories of ownership.

    “The more relevant question is, why should we accept the concept that an owner has the right to destroy, alter or sell off at will? Why is this so? How is this better than the system that we started off with?”

    Irrelevant. You’re making the claim here, the burden of proof is with you. For the purposes of this argument i’m not being lockean or propertarian i’m simply being someone who isn’t convinced by “possession”.

  14. Shawn P. Wilbur May 16, 2010 at 15:03

    James, if you’re not being propertarian, then I’m not sure where the notion of “enforceable claims” comes from—particularly in the case of abuse. If we acknowledge that property conventions are social in their origins, and “social” here is not just a cover for the interests of some fraction of society, then aren’t any property rights necessarily going to be conditioned by a *prior* basis in the network of interests present in the society? And if the “properties” in question are of a scarce and rivalrous nature, is it *more* or *less* intuitive to think that a “right to abuse” would exist? It seems to me that there’s a fairly intuitive hierarchy of potential rights, and that whether or not use-right is sufficient to the purposes of a given rights system, it is a logical step along the road to anything stronger. It is hard to see how the “right” to abuse or destroy scarce or rivalrous goods is not a rather counter-intuitive “right to abuse (the) right.” There are potentially good reasons to go there, but I would think the burden of proof would be on the one who wanted to.

    If you were arguing as a Lockean, wouldn’t the hierarchy—or at least logical progression—of potential rights impose itself? You have to tackle questions of legitimate appropriation before you can establish legitimate uses—and the more robust, legitimate and universal you want the additional rights to be, the better the provisos seem to look. (You might even go the extra step of saying that “enough and as good” does not just apply to the moment of appropriation.) Rights of ab/use will naturally flow out of the theory of appropriation, which probably needs, minimally, to include a mechanism and some conditions. Again, if you accept the Lockean mixing mechanism, then you have to decide if that sort of appropriation suggests alienable or inalienable property. From my perspective, the Lockean *mechanism* is far more intuitively in tune with inalienability, and alienability is a modification of rights responding to social needs. (And the “positive” or “negative” character of a lot of these higher-order rights seems open to considerable interpretation…)

    I would part ways with Francois with regard to the utility of this sort of almost an-economic approach to ownership issues. But what he’s proposing seems as *intuitive* as most conventional property systems.

  15. Francois Tremblay May 16, 2010 at 15:14

    Originally, I was not the one making the claim, so I don’t know what claim you are referring to. The claim my original post refers to is the ancap claim that property and possession are not separate ideas. Besides, as Shawn pointed out, you have to accept every right given by possession because they are also part of property, so if you’re not “convinced” by possession you can’t be “convinced” by property either.

  16. James May 16, 2010 at 16:51

    “James, if you’re not being propertarian, then I’m not sure where the notion of “enforceable claims” comes from—particularly in the case of abuse.”

    I think we should have ownership rights, rights being an enforceable claim, but i’m not arguing for any particular set of them.

    “If we acknowledge that property conventions are social in their origins, and “social” here is not just a cover for the interests of some fraction of society, then aren’t any property rights necessarily going to be conditioned by a *prior* basis in the network of interests present in the society?”

    Will be or ought to be? I’m quite happy with various rules being determined by social convention, that makes sense, but I still don’t see how that a) prevents us from determining these rules in the context of some given principles b) implies that these principles can’t be determined outside of the interests of society (everyone?). I think any decent ethical system will have some of it’s basis in people’s interests but there’s a gap between that and “individual…claims are always conditioned by the collective or mutual interests that support the system of rights”.

    “And if the “properties” in question are of a scarce and rivalrous nature, is it *more* or *less* intuitive to think that a “right to abuse” would exist? It seems to me that there’s a fairly intuitive hierarchy of potential rights, and that whether or not use-right is sufficient to the purposes of a given rights system, it is a logical step along the road to anything stronger. It is hard to see how the “right” to abuse or destroy scarce or rivalrous goods is not a rather counter-intuitive “right to abuse (the) right.””

    Well, for one thing, *IM* scarce too and i’m hoping no one else has any claims to me, despite the many interests that may desire my continued existence. That’s not meant to be an argument but an illustration of why there is no need to equate “interest” with “enforceable claim”. Perhaps neither answer to “do we have the right to abuse?” seems intuitively right but there can’t be any leap from what’s in another party’s interest and what they have can force you to go along with.

    “so I don’t know what claim you are referring to.”

    Within the context of our discussion on the dividing line between possession and property. You’re claiming there is a distinction and i’m claiming I don’t know if there is a distinction. Therefore i’m justified in asking you to elaborate rather than have me prove endless negatives.

    “Besides, as Shawn pointed out, you have to accept every right given by possession because they are also part of property, so if you’re not “convinced” by possession you can’t be “convinced” by property either.”

    Yes, assuming that property grants more license rather than possession imposes more prohibition. Regardless of that there *is* a difference (atleast i’ve been told so) and i’m asking how that difference is arrived at. There is no reason why similar ends can’t be arrived at through different means.

  17. James May 16, 2010 at 16:56

    “b) implies that these principles can’t be determined outside of the interests of society (everyone?).”

    Actually, I think any ethical system will be somewhat grounded in the various interests people have. But there’s space between agent-independant and agent-relative (agent-neutral?) that suits these kind of discussions. Basically I just think that defining individual rights, claims that others shouldn’t be allowed to violate, within the context of said “others” interests is dangerous territory.

  18. Francois Tremblay May 16, 2010 at 16:59

    What “similar ends” are you talking about?

  19. James May 16, 2010 at 18:31

    These ones,

    “you have to accept *every right given by possession* because *they are also part of property*”

  20. Shawn P. Wilbur May 16, 2010 at 22:38

    James, I’m not “equating” interests and enforceable claims. I am arguing that the more “robust, legitimate and universal” you want the range of enforceable rights to be, the more you had better take account of the widest range of interests. Ultimately, rights that pertain to everybody but are not conditioned by everybody’s interests, are the sort of thing that has given “property” such a bad odor in lots of anarchist circles. Honestly, when we’re talking about *real property*—land, natural resources, products of collective force (the things that mutualists usually argue about)—a lot of the conventional rights associated with property seem to be positive entitlements. Personally, I think there are good reasons for granting those, and treating real property in much the same way we would treat products of labor, but it seems to me that it is *that* that would need to be explained and justified.

  21. James May 17, 2010 at 11:56

    “James, I’m not “equating” interests and enforceable claims. I am arguing that the more “robust, legitimate and universal” you want the range of enforceable rights to be, the more you had better take account of the widest range of interests.”

    I wasn’t saying you were or that we shouldn’t, I was saying there’s a step missing so we shouldn’t assume anything.

    “Ultimately, rights that pertain to everybody but are not conditioned by everybody’s interests, are the sort of thing that has given “property” such a bad odor in lots of anarchist circles.”

    Are we talking about everybody as in each individual or everybody as in the entire collective? I’m not saying rights shouldn’t be in everyone’s interest as individuals but that doesn’t imply the collective’s interests overide them. I’m not gonna deny that collectives don’t exist in any meaningful sense but all actions are ultimately individual actions. When collectives act its just a greater number of individuals acting so they have nothing that they don’t have as unique individuals.

    “Honestly, when we’re talking about *real property*—land, natural resources, products of collective force (the things that mutualists usually argue about)—a lot of the conventional rights associated with property seem to be positive entitlements.”

    Ok but how does whoever is giving them this entitlement attain the claim in the first place?

    Anyway, back to my origional question, where are the differences from “property” derived from?

  22. Shawn P. Wilbur May 17, 2010 at 15:23

    Nothing I have said implies collectivism. As for derivation, I’ve taken a fairly conventional Lockean line, though obviously with provisos intact. When we’re talking about products, it’s fairly intuitive to think that the right to dispose of the fruit of one’s labor—or of one’s portion of the fruit of collective labor—would be among the rights granted by most any society. With regard to real property, it’s certainly not *my* intuition that the right to abuse or destroy makes sense as a part of the basic bundle of rights. And there are good reasons to read the history of actual real property rights as supporting that intuition. I suspect every attempt to create systems of right that are *not* responsive to the interests of every interested individual is at least as dangerous as every approximation that *is.* Where Francois and I part ways, I think, is that I think that some of the dangers associated with individual domain over real properties are worth the risk, since they contribute to the maximization of liberty.

    But that may be as far as we’re going to get….

  23. James May 17, 2010 at 17:05

    “Nothing I have said implies collectivism.”

    Well this – “individual property claims are always conditioned by the collective or mutual interests” – kinda hinted at collectivism but i wasn’t sure, thanks for clarifying.

    “I suspect every attempt to create systems of right that are *not* responsive to the interests of every interested individual is at least as dangerous as every approximation that *is.*”

    Perhaps, it depends on where boundaries are drawn. I’m all for having everyone having say, a right not to be murdered, that can’t be changed no matter how many people want it to change. In some ways the point of rights is that they don’t change to meet anyone but the holders needs. I would agree to keeping these boundaries drawn very close around the individual though.

    From what i’ve gathered then it’s similar to proviso-lockeanism but with stronger provisos that are in effect for longer than the moment you appropriate something, am I atleast on the right track? (That seems to make the line look a lot less distanct than francois is implying but anyway…) It seems like a reasonable enough idea. So appropriation of land would work in the same way but different rules would apply to what you can do once you’ve homesteaded it. Elsewhere a big deal has been made about the different rules governing transfer and abandonment, which i take it are also based on the system of mutual interests, so what are you’re thoughts on how we can justly alienate property?

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