The Stolen Concept Fallacy

Right-wing ideologues (e.g. Ayn Rand and her followers, Hans-Hermann Hoppe and his followers) love to talk about the “stolen concept fallacy,” because many of them are hardcore rationalists who believe they can disprove various political ideologies using pure logic.

The basic idea behind the “stolen concept fallacy” is that of promoting one concept while denying one of its requirements. Hans-Hermann Hoppe has concocted a related fallacy, called “performative contradiction,” where any statement which contradicts the requirements of discussion is necessarily invalid.

In theory such an argument seems sound, and I have nothing against using logic to deduce theoretical facts. But the “stolen concept fallacy” is not a valid logical fallacy, and it is not used as a logical fallacy, but rather as a way to smuggle in premises and use those premises to discredit a valid concept.

The best way to explain this is to use examples, so let me start with one from Nathaniel Branden:

To understand this fallacy, consider an example of it in the realm of politics: Proudhon’s famous declaration that “All property is theft.”

“Theft” is a concept that logically and genetically depends on the antecedent concept of “rightfully owned property”—and refers to the act of taking that property without the owner’s consent. If no property is rightfully owned, that is, if nothing is property, there can be no such concept as “theft.” Thus, the statement “All property is theft” has an internal contradiction: to use the concept “theft” while denying the validity of the concept of “property,” is to use “theft” as a concept to which one has no logical right—that is, as a stolen concept.

The Fallacy of The Stolen Concept, by Nathaniel Branden

I think most people who reads my blog understand what “property is theft” means, but let me state it again. Proudhon was talking about property as necessarily containing the right of abusus, i.e. to buy, sell, rent, destroy; he was arguing against a specific kind of ownership which is enforced in capitalism, not against anyone owning anything ever.

In this view, “property is theft” does not present any contradiction: it means is that the enforcement of a specific type of ownership based on property is an act of theft against claims of ownership based on possession (e.g. land enclosures: peasant collective ownership claims versus State property claims or corporate property claims).

But even if Proudhon had meant “all ownership claims are instances of theft,” it would not entail a contradiction, because it would not necessarily imply that “theft” is actually coherent; it could equally mean that “theft” as we understand it actually encompasses all claims of ownership, not just some of them, and that as a result “theft” is actually meaningless.

This brings us to the fundamental problem with Branden’s reasoning, and the problem with the “stolen concept fallacy”: this idea, that “property” being an “antecedent concept” to “theft” means that the validity of the latter depends on the validity of the former, depends on not only a literal understanding of the terms (unlike speech in real life, which very rapidly shifts in perspectives and approaches), but on a specific ideology.

In this case, Branden’s capitalist, rationalist ideology informs him that property and theft are both meaningful terms with a clear and direct relation, while reality may indicate quite otherwise (such as the fact that property has historically flourished on the back of the massive and widespread land enclosures, which are theft).

Another result of Branden’s specific ideology is that he defines theft as “taking rightfully owned property without the owner’s consent.” But using Proudhon’s definition in What is Property?, since we are after all talking about Proudhon’s ideas in said book, there can be no such thing as “rightfully owned property.” Therefore Branden’s argument can only make sense if one has already rejected Proudhon’s definition, which means Branden is actually not refuting “Proudhon’s famous declaration” but rather a completely different declaration he has invented of whole cloth using his own concepts.

So Branden’s application of the stolen concept fallacy can only make sense if one already accepts Branden’s worldview and a robotic, literal decoding of language. How can this possibly be a logical fallacy? A logical fallacy is supposed to be universally applicable. This is the exact opposite of that.

Branden’s other examples in that article are technically correct, if you accept his concepts as valid, because they concern basic logical issues (e.g. “we know that we know nothing” is a contradiction because it claims knowledge, and so on). But these are just plain contradictions, and do not require any special fallacy to identify.

Now let’s move on to performative contradictions, a supposed fallacy most famously used by fanatic right-winger Hans-Hermann Hoppe. He defines a statement as a performative contradiction if the statement contradicts the requirements for its formulation and utterance. For instance, saying that language does not exist is a performative contradiction because you need some language in order to formulate and utter that statement. I have no problem with that, although again I would question the need for a new fallacy to explain why such a statement is wrong.

The problems begin, again, when Hoppe goes beyond the obvious logical issues and starts drawing from his ideological biases. I have analyzed one such instance in the entry where I debunk the arguments for self-ownership, because Hoppe argues that denying self-ownership is a performative contradiction. Why? Because his ideology tells him that one must own one’s body as property before being able to make a statement. He does not try to justify this proposition, but simply repeats it over and over.

The obvious reply is that unless Hoppe brings some justification for that proposition, there is no reason to accept his evaluation. Based on what he’s written, I imagine that the self-evidence of his proposition probably relies on three assumptions: 1. speech is predicated upon exclusive control over one’s body, 2. exclusive control can only be ownership and 3. ownership can only be property. The first assumption is hopelessly wrong (as I’ve explained in my entry on self-ownership), the second assumption is a more subtle issue (again, see my entry on this), and the third assumption is a straightforward factual error.

The general problem with the concept of performative contradiction is the same as for the stolen fallacy concept: the second you smuggle your own ideology into it, you’ve stopped analyzing a fallacy, something that can be logically deduced and is universally detectable, and are instead reinterpreting the terms in order to create a contradiction.

Christians presuppositionalists also use the stolen concept fallacy, although they don’t identify it in this manner. But think about it: the whole presuppositionalist strategy is to claim that without God the atheist cannot justify the laws of logic or science. They are therefore claiming that “God” is antecedent to “logic” and “science,” and that denying God removes “logic” and “science” from the atheist’s reasoning.

The obvious problem with the argument is that it remains unproven, and cannot possibly be proven, that “God” is a necessary antecedent to “logic” and “science.” This is a fool’s errand, and presuppositionalists know this because they don’t even try. They simply assume that their interlocutor will have nothing to reply, and that they will be able to slip by. This is just not a viable strategy, and that’s why presuppositionalism has not had any visible effect on the atheist community.

But because of the cutting one’s own head issue, we know it’s the Christians who have a foundational problem, not the atheists. In order to say that “God is antecedent to knowledge” and to have it justified, we first need knowledge that God exists and knowledge of God’s capacities. None of us start off as theists (or atheists, for that matter), and whatever your beliefs are, you have to concede that knowledge of God is predicated on prior beliefs, decisions, etc.

I don’t think this is actually a “stolen concept fallacy,” but obviously I don’t really care about that. I don’t think that’s a particularly interesting question. I think the more important question is whether a worldview is consistent with reality.

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