Rocco: Finders keepers and the voluntary society

The famous occultist Alisteir Crowley had it that “Do what thou wilt” is the whole of the law. That’s not a law, though. It’s the absence of law. “Finders keepers” on the other hand… now that’s a law! Even a child can understand it. But that doesn’t make it a childish law. Far from it.

Hopefully most of you know by now that I’m incredibly keen on this thing, ‘private property’. I am, in the dismissive phrase of one self-described libertarian, one of those “hands off my stuff people”. So, in reply to a reader’s comment – and in a shocking break from the norm – this is a post about that.

Here’s a fun fact about private property: you can’t argue it doesn’t exist without contradicting yourself.

Let’s say you’re about to eat a banana. I come up and say “Give me that banana.” You say, “No, it’s my banana”. “Yours? Ha! There’s no such thing as private property. Give it to me!” What could you say in response to this? Well, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but what you could say is this: “Owning something means getting to decide how it is used. So while you may say you don’t believe in private property, these are just empty words. You clearly believe you are the one who gets to decide how this banana is used, otherwise you wouldn’t be demanding I give it to you. But this means that you do believe in private property”.

You could continue: “Even worse, this is assuming you can make the demand at all. Just by walking over to me and speaking you’re making use of your body in particular ways. How can you do this if you don’t believe you are the one to decide how your body gets used? That is to say, if you don’t believe you own your body? In the very act of arguing ‘there’s no such thing as private property’ you are demonstrating that you believe in private property.”

So, there must be property rights if men are to live. But surely we want more than just “to live”. We want to live peaceably. Ideally we want to live without conflict. This is where rules and ethical principles governing property come in. Insofar as they are followed, men interact with one another in a conflict-free manner. When it comes to unowned goods, finders keepers is the only rule that guarantees peace.

What is the basis for the first-user first-owner principle, popularly known as “finders keepers”? Why should the first user of a thing get to decide how it’s used? The usual way of putting it is to say, with Locke, that the first user of a thing “mixes his labour with it”. He changes a thing by his actions into something it wouldn’t have been without his actions. If I pick an apple from nature, the object ‘the picked apple’ is different from the object ‘the apple on the tree’. If I collect wood from nature and fashion a shelter from it, the shelter would not exist without my actions. I have literally created ‘the shelter’. As far as claims to ownership go, having created (and not subsequently given away) an object is as good as it gets. Furthermore, neither my eating ‘my apple’ without sharing it, nor my living in ‘my shelter’ alone, are aggressive acts. How could they be? These things, these goods, didn’t exist prior to my actions. But someone coming along and snatching my apple from me, or turfing me out of my shelter, these acts certainly are aggressive. How could they not be?

The first owner of a good is the first person who gets to decide how that good is used. Among the things he can do is to transfer ownership of it to someone else. There are several voluntary ways he can do this: sell it; gift it; lose it in a bet, etc. Whoever he transfers ownership to then gets to decide how it is used, and so on, and so on. As long as all transfers are voluntary we have what Hans Hoppe calls “pure capitalism”. In such a system property rights might be called ‘absolute’ – they are not infringed at all. (Technically, of course, private property rights and ‘absolute’ private property rights are one and the same thing.)

In order for rules and ethical principles to be effective they have to be acceptable to all. Why should “finders keepers” and ‘absolute’ private property rights be universally accepted? Ludwig von Mises’ concept of ‘autistic exchange,’ and Murray Rothbard’s essay ‘Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics’ provide the answer.

Here are three a priori propositions:

1)Every human action is an exchange. (Doing anything at all means one state of affairs is replaced by another.)

2) Every human action is performed to improve the actor’s position according to his own assessment. (We only do something if we prefer doing it to not doing it.)

3) Only voluntary interpersonal exchanges improve both participants’ positions according to their own assessments. (If we thought we would profit from an exchange we wouldn’t need to be forced to participate.)

Therefore, no matter what any actor’s preferences, he will always improve his position according to his own assessment as long as all exchanges are voluntary. As the only way anyone can be worse off is when involuntary interpersonal exchanges exist, it would be rational for each individual to accept in advance a society where the only prohibition is on involuntary exchanges. In other words, pure capitalism, the voluntary society.

  • Mots

    Tour de force

    • Rocco Bogpaper

      That’s very kind of you. Thanks, Mots.

  • Q46

    Capital reasoning!

    • Rocco Bogpaper

      Thank you, Q46. I’ve now added a bit to it, so as to extend the argument.

  • therealguyfaux

    All well and fine when what is sought to be possessed is movable, i.e., personal property, but what about real property? When the guarantor of the deed of title is ultimately the State, in that it is the first grantor in the chain of title, it can be said that further acquisition is subject to covenants/terms and conditions implied either by the concept of sovereignty or stated by act of the legislature. This is the justification for compulsory purchase/eminent domain. A similar concept, that of taxes imposed by the sovereign being first lien on the property, underpins the whole LVT concept many seek to have replace other taxes.

    (And I C wot U did in the last paragraph, employing a Rawlsian original-position/nobody-worse-off-than-they-started analysis to support your more-like-Lockean-Nozickian position!)

    • Rocco Bogpaper

      There is no difference between land and any other good. For the life of me, I can’t understand how anyone could think there is. The idea that economic law ceases to apply just because something is big, is, frankly preposterous.

      • therealguyfaux

        Like I said: “It can be said.” Doin’ a little Devil’s Advocatin’ here.

        But the minarchist position, the one which allows the State to defend against aggression from outside and to punish it inside, cannot at the same time concede the legitimacy of the State to exercise that function without also involving the concept of sovereignty and The-King-as-Keeper-of-the-Peace through courts, thus legitimating the whole chain-of-title wheeze for repossessing your land when it suits.

        • Rocco Bogpaper

          Good job I’m an anarchist then!

          • therealguyfaux

            Just “State”-ing the situation for those not willing to go as far as you.

  • Concrete Bunker

    Rocco,as always a ‘tour de fource’ I think I spelt that wrong- anyway you get the point!

    • Rocco @Bogpaper

      Thank you, very much, Concrete.

  • Andy

    What happens when you find something you say no one is using (say land) and therefore declare you own it when maybe there is someone that uses it once a year? Or once every 10 years?
    What about when the early settlers in the US decided that they could make better use of the land than the natives and simply took it by force, should this land be returned to the natives’ descendants?.

    How do you reconcile homesteading with the anarchist opposition to all intellectual property? I have read Kinsella et al and am not convinced. I own I.P. so admit I have a vested interest but as well as that my I.P. was the result of hard work, intelligence and a lot of investment (£250k) yet you (assumption I believe to be correct) say Joe Blogs up the road has every right to make the same. If it was not for I.P. many inventions (including mine) simply would not occur, why would I waste the effort and £250k? The opponents of I.P. as far as I can ascertain have never invented anything and live in the secluded world of academia (la la land).
    Again with land, the vast majority of land in the world is owned by a very small proportion of elites whose ancestors stole it. Should they retain this land? By what rights do they own it?

    • Rocco @Bogpaper

      Yeah but it’s okay that we live in la la land because we homesteaded it, bro!

      Readers might want to note, that while I’m more than happy to debate any issue I write about, if you want a serious response, it’s best not to make a feeble attempt to insult me in your comment.

      Peace out.

      • Andy

        Sorry, no insult was intended. I don’t know whether you work in academia and I don’t actually know your position on I.P. so I did qualify with the word assumption.
        I do like reading your blogs and envy your ability to summarise very succinctly the libertarian position so again sorry to have upset you.

        • Rocco @Bogpaper

          Fair enough.

          Re: land. Like I said, there’s no difference between land and other goods, and the principle is the same: stolen property should be returned to the owner whenever possible. Obviously, this isn’t always possible – people die, for example. Whenever it is impossible to identify the victim of the theft, the main thing is to deprive the thief of use of the stolen item. Whether the item should be returned to descendents of the legitimate owner is, perhaps, not so certain. (People don’t always leave everything to their children, sometimes they cut them out of their wills; people lose all their money and have to sell their possessions, etc.) There is also a point here about collective responsibility. If the government, or some other faction of “people x” robbed “people y” a few hundred years ago, does this mean every one of “people x” alive today is guilty? Does it mean every one of “people y” alive today is a victim? However that may be, when the alleged theft took place in the distant past, there must be a presumption that the people currently possessing an item (who did not steal it, remember) legitimately own it. In other words, the burden of proof should be – here as elsewhere – on the accuser.

          Re:IP. The point about property rights is that they eliminate conflict over scarce resources. If you make a coffee cake, I can follow the same recipe as you without conflict arising between us. In fact, everyone in the world can make that cake everyday for all eternity without any conflict. The recipe – the idea, the meaning ‘coffee cake’ – is in no danger of running out. It is not a scarce good. The ingredients are, but not the recipe. The only time conflict can arise over ‘coffee cake’ is when the State grants a monopoly.

          Another major problem with IP, is that it gives the privileged person ownership of other peoples’ property. If you invent a cake, “Andy cake”, say, it must be made with flour, sugar, eggs, etc. If you are granted a patent, no one is now allowed to use their own flour, their own sugar, their own eggs etc, as they would like, and in perfectly peaceful ways, too, simply because you thought up the recipe for “Andy cake”. By giving you monopoly on “Andy cake” the State has made you owner of the flour, sugar, eggs, etc, of everybody in the territory covered by that patent, which may be the entire world. None of this is true of valid forms of ownership, of course.

          As for whether you’d invent something without the possibility of being granted a monopoly, Bastiat’s “broken window” is relevant here. We can see what has been invented, but how many things aren’t created for fear of patent violations? Furthermore, patents and copyrights have not always existed, and when they didn’t there was no shortage of inventions.

          • Andy

            Thanks Rocco, my original post was unnecessarily inflammatory even though not consciously directed at you and I deserved to be pulled up. Too much reading of forums and comments on the internet is my lame mitigation.

            I agree with the first paragraph.

            For the second, all goods are scarce, non more so than land – “they just don’t make it anymore”, homesteading is now an irrelevance. I see where you are going with the coffee cake but I simply would not tell anyone the recipe, it’s largely worked for Coca Cola. The state does not give me a monopoly on the materials to manufacture my patent it gives me a monopoly on selling the constructed device, if people make their own for their own use I cannot stop them. For my part I cannot reconcile homesteading being ok and I.P. is not.

            I doubt very much patents prevent any inventions and my opinion is that there are more now due to I.P. In the case of my £250k a competitor could reproduce the tooling for £5k so without I.P. the invention would not have occurred.

          • Rocco @Bogpaper

            I’m not sure about that. According to the IEA, 9/10ths of land in Britain is currently undeveloped, and only 1/20th is “concreted over”. There are large swathes of land in North America that no one has set foot on, etc.

            The point about homesteading is that it provides us with a means for determining, in all cases, who is aggressor and who is the victim of aggression. Most of the time we deal with transfers of owned goods. You buy a watch from a previous owner, who bought the parts for it from someone, who bought the raw materials from, etc. The chain has to start somewhere – that’s where homesteading comes in.

            As to homesteading and IP. You say you’d keep it a secret. This is fine – no opponent of IP (I would hope!) thinks the can command you to tell them the recipe. While it’s in your head, it’s yours and yours alone. That is, the idea that is in your mind is what you have homesteaded – it is your property. But, your particular idea of Andy cake is only an instance of the idea “Andy cake”.(Like numbers, for example. If you think of the number 2, that is not the number 2 properly speaking. It’s an instance of the universal, or ideal object, 2). You don’t own the ideas in other peoples heads, and you don’t own the ingredients for Andy cake in other peoples kitchens.

            As for whether things would be invented without IP, clearly we are making educated guesses. So, given that, we might want to err on the side of caution about advocating laws that give you control over other peoples property.