In 1969, two significant libertarians wrote articles for the Libertarian Forum Volume 1. One Karl Hess published a list of questions he felt needed concrete answers from the libertarian community and Murray Rothbard dutifully stepped up to the plate and answered those questions from a principled, pragmatic, and economically-minded stance. Due to some unfortunate circumstances, though, this work of Rothbard’s has been excised from the libertarian consciousness and left to the AnComs to champion.
Rothbard is widely recognized as the arch-AnCap and rightly so. Without too much geeking out, I want it to be known that Rothbard, with nothing but a pen, brain, and lectures, has done more for humanity’s sake than nearly any other individual. Of course, he used that brain, pen, and lecturing gig towards such an end for fifty-or-so years and, understandably, made some mistakes along the way. The most significant of those mistakes, which he admitted to being an unmitigated disaster , was the time he spent on the political left.
Between the left-friendly rhetoric and the apparent inability for most to contextualize and dispassionately read material, “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle” has gone overlooked despite its presentation of what amounts to, simultaneously, the most principled and most actionable solution concerning the problem of de-socializing state property. Admittedly, this is not entirely Rothbard’s fault, as he was answering the questions of Mr. Hess, a bleeding-heart liberal lacking any solid grasp of libertarianism’s philosophical commitments. Instead of shredding Hess’ article for it’s numerous errors, though, Rothbard attempted to address it on its own terms.
Hess was clearly unaware of the inherent “right-wing” nature of libertarianism/anarchism, openly denigrating “the right” in favor for “left-libertarian” (AKA Marxist) presumptions. The most philosophically criminal of which being his overturning of the ontological hierarchy of human activities, claiming that conceptions of rights and property are derived from some goal of human activity as opposed to the other way around. Such an argument is nothing short of a performative contradiction. Additionally, he lifts openly Marxist revolutionary rhetoric and terminology while also demanding that specifics be given concerning environmental agendas, the revolutionary takeover of General Motors, and egalitarian nonsense such as racially-motivated “reparations” programs in the context of libertarianism.
Given the stage of development Rothbard was at and the stage set by Hess, it isn’t surprising how Marxist Rothbard’s response sounds. Despite all the garbage concerning answers to Hess’ stupid questions, Rothbard still produced a gem which demands legitimate attention. Instead of doing what Rothbard ought to have done and devoting my energy to destroying Hess, what I want to do here is mine out the gem Rothbard created using his later, more AnCap material to inform this activity.
Slave Rebellions and the Homestead Principle
It can be taken for granted in anarchist circles that the dichotomy most central to libertarian discourse is that between the state (socialists) and the individual (anarchists). Another, less equivocal, way to name that dichotomy would be that between the criminal (outlaw) and the non-criminal. In order to appropriately understand this dichotomy, one must first come to an appropriate, if basic, understanding of property.
In the tradition of John Locke, property comes into being by way of homesteading. The simplest conception of homesteading is that unowned property enters into private ownership by virtue of an individual investing one’s own property into it, whether it be labor or materials or by way of occupying or otherwise adding value to it. After a certain property is homesteaded, it can easily pass from one owner to another by way of voluntary trade or donation. This is the basis of all forms of human interaction and that which is commonly referred to as “rights”.
For the sake of clarity, a definition of “property” ought to be proffered here. I use the term to mean “any discrete object to which one has access, control over, and a legitimate claim by virtue of homestead or acquisition from the previous owner with the owner’s assent”. Incidentally, I’ve also addressed the concept of “theft” as applies to property before, and recommend that others read the post centered on the issue. In lieu of reading the whole post, one should at least be aware that theft, in this conception, is the unauthorized use, consumption, or acquisition of another’s property.
In such a case that one steals another’s property, one is engaged in crime and is, therefore, deserving of the title and status of “outlaw”. The unfortunate etymology of the term notwithstanding, all it means is that one such individual is not likely to be welcome in polite, cooperative society, so much so that they are likely to, themselves, have property taken from them and be the recipient of violence. Ideally, this circumstance would lead to the outlaw seeking reconciliation with his victims, making the victim whole. Even if reconciliation is impossible, it would still be morally and economically preferable for the outlaw’s stolen property to be confiscated by literally any private individual who can invest it back into cooperative society. Not only should the stolen property be re-appropriated by the market, but also any (formerly) legitimate property belonging to the outlaw which was utilized for that theft.
The clear example of this principle would be a back-alley mugging. Say I take a shortcut down the wrong alley in Denver and find myself held at gunpoint. My assailant demands my wallet. For the sake of discussion, I either hand over my wallet or have it forced from me. It would clearly be justified if I were to promptly re-appropriate my wallet from him. Not only would it be tactically sound, but it would also be morally justified for me to confiscate his firearm and maybe even his getaway vehicle as well. If I am overpowered and some honorable bystander witnesses this event, he would be equally justified in intervening and doing so on my behalf.
This action is preferable and just for three reasons. Firstly, it makes the victim of a crime closer to being made whole and increases the opportunity for justice to take place. Secondly, it decreases the opportunity of the outlaw to continue committing crimes. Thirdly, it sends a market signal that there are externalities and risks associated with committing crimes, thereby reducing the likelihood of others taking such a course of action.
A crime which has only recently been acknowledged as such, historically speaking, is that of slavery. Ultimately, slavery is little more than institutionalized coercion and theft. The (largely fictional) account of slavery in the American South is an easy example of this reality: individuals compelled by the use of force to perform tasks and refrain from others while also being robbed of the fruits of their labor. This description may sound reductionist, but no one could argue that it is not the heart of the matter. The only change that may be warranted would be the addition of some description of scale, but that is superfluous to this discussion.
Given the above description of homesteading, theft, and confiscation along with the popular sentiment concerning slavery, I imagine it would be largely non-controversial to claim that a slave rebellion in such a climate would be morally justified. At a minimum, one who believes the American Revolution was justified would have to acknowledge the legitimacy of a slave rebellion in the South.
Such a fictional rebellion could take several forms. One, unfortunately impractical, instance would be an entire plantation or county witnessing its slave populations simply standing tall and walking off the plantation. I imagine most can see why that would be impossible; given the surrounding environment, it would likely turn out much like emancipation really did. More likely to succeed and more in-line with the first part of this post would be the confiscation or re-homestead of the plantations. Rather than remaining complicit with their slavery (horizontal enforcement, complying with orders, etc.), the slaves could act in self-defense, thereby exiling or executing their masters and confiscating or re-homesteading the products of their forced labor and the instruments by which that theft occurred.
This is where Rothbard’s application of the homestead principle comes into play. How ought the slave re-appropriate the plantation? What options are available? By way of the nature of homesteading, each slave who remains on the plantation and continues to work would naturally come into ownership of his tools and the immediate fruits of his labor. While the theory is simple and broad, the application could be messy and case-specific.
One possibility would be an extreme individualist approach, whereby the individual plants on the plantation would be divided among the farmhands while the individual household appliances and rooms would be divided among the house servants and a micro-economy could emerge whereby the cooks could prepare meals in exchange for the fruits of the field and as rent for staying in the house… but this solution is likely to result in friction: petty squabbles over bits and pieces of the plantation and personal disputes.
An other option would be to collectivize ownership of the plantation whereby a communist micro-state could be formed. Each former slave would continue doing the very things they were before the rebellion, only replacing the masters’ directions with weekly meetings to determine how the plantation ought to be run. Presumably, these meetings would also serve to manage how wealth ought to be distributed amongst the former slaves who choose to stay. Of course, this solution looks far too similar to an Orwell novel and is likely to go as well as the Bolshevik revolution.
A more likely to succeed option would be a sort of middle-ground by which the confiscated plantation would be incorporated, for lack of a more accurate term. It would take a certain degree of commitment and foresight, but the former slaves could divide the plantation into a number of shares equal to the number of remaining former slaves, essentially granting virtual ownership of the plantation to those who re-homesteaded it. This creates an economic incentive to remain and invest labor and play nice with others in order to increase the value of the shares one owns in the plantation. Such activities would increase the dividends and resale value of the share as well as increasing the security of one’s livelihood. However, if one desired to leave, they could, using the dividends or resale of the share to serve as compensation for one’s participation in the labor and rebellion preceding his departure.
Admittedly, this is all hypothetical. To my knowledge, no such rebellion occurred in actual history, which leads me to believe that slavery, writ large, wasn’t as bad as I was told in elementary school. Even so, I only presented three out of a literal infinitude of resolutions of a slave rebellion. Given my more pessimistic views of human genetics, the most likely outcome would be something similar to that which exists in sub-Saharan Africa as opposed to Iceland. However, this hypothetical would be far more likely to end well in the following example.
Before moving further, it is important to draw attention to the basics of this hypothetical. The justification for and the means of achieving this slave rebellion is a combination of self-defense and confiscation in conjunction with the homestead principle, as indicated at the beginning of this post. Self-defense from criminal acts is eminently justifiable, this applies to theft and coercion and, therefore, to slavery. In the case of self-defense, confiscation of the implements of crime-in-progress as well as stolen property is justified as well. Stolen property is, in practice, unowned due to the outlaw effect and the lack of legitimate claim in conjunction with access to the property. Even if that weren’t the case, an executed or exiled criminal’s former property (legitimate or otherwise) is effectively unowned and, therefore, open to homestead.
With this argument in mind, we turn our attention to other instances of slavery. Most widespread, historically and today, is the case of slavery known as the state. By way of regulation, taxation, enforcement, and other euphemistically-named criminal activities, the state coerces specific behaviors, steals and destroys property, and engages in all manner of murderous, coercive, and thieving activities. It is impossible to define slavery in a manner consistent with its historical referents while excluding government in a manner consistent with its historical referents. In Rothbard’s words, “The state is a giant gang of organized criminals, who live off the theft called ‘taxation’ and use the proceeds to kill, enslave, and generally push people around.”
In the case of state-slavery “All taxpayers, all draftees, all victims of the State have been mulcted… Any person or group who liberates such property, who confiscates or appropriates it from the State, is performing a virtuous act and a signal service to the cause of liberty.” In the spirit of the earlier example, “How to go about returning all this property to the taxpayers? What proportions should be used in this terrific tangle of robbery and injustice that we have all suffered at the hands of the State? Often, the most practical method of de-statizing is simply to grant the moral right of ownership on the person or group who seizes the property from the State. Of this group, the most morally deserving are the ones who are already using the property but who have no moral complicity in the State’s act of aggression. These people then become the “homesteaders” of the stolen property and hence the rightful owners.”
The specific examples are largely straightforward: police can take their armor, guns, and vehicles home and take advantage of a sudden demand for private security personnel in the absence of the state. Lawyers and judges can establish arbitration firms. Educators can take control of the facilities and implements of education and continue to teach in a competitive market. Those currently providing non-marketable “services”, such as DMV employees, bureaucrats, union thugs, and military will likely have to find a way to re-brand their respective talents of race poverty. Of course, the slave-holders themselves, the politicians, executive officers, representatives, and lobbyists will face exile or execution. Unfortunately, not everything is that straightforward. What of corporatist entities? General Motors, Haliburton, Koch, MSNBC, the Post Office, and “private” colleges are wholly indistinguishable from the state, itself.
“As a result of zealous lobbying on behalf of the recipient… The same principle applies… they deserve a similar fate of virtuous homesteading and confiscation.” In the case of corporations and organizations that receive half or more of their funds though government institutions, they are effectively inseparable from the state and must suffer the same fate. The military industrial complex, especially, ought to be confiscated from the criminal band known as the state, not only for its complicity in theft but also its open endorsement of globalized murder. Important note: this is a wholly different issue that the legal abuse suffered by firearms and alcohol manufacturers and distributors when their products are abused.
Speaking of these absurdly regulated industries, many of a communist persuasion will argue that all industry is a beneficiary of government and ought to be re-homesteaded. I disagree. Whereas Haliburton is a direct recipient of welfare, most other corporations are merely indirect beneficiaries of the state’s criminal activities by way of limited competition, externalized expenses, and coercing purchase of goods and services. These corporations will be forced, in the absence of the state, to either adapt to the ensuing market correction or fold and sell their assets. Besides, it is morally suspect and quite inefficient to try and homestead every regulated industry. Those that manage to adapt to market correction were clearly sufficiently virtuous enough to deserve protection from re-homestead, whereas those that fold and sell out were vicious enough to deserve such a fate and homesteading becomes superfluous, as those entities are peaceably re-introduced into the free market.
TL;DR: What is required to de-socialize the state and appropriately pursue the abolition of slavery is nothing short of a slave rebellion. Such a slave rebellion must be conducted in accordance with the moral principles of self-defense, confiscation, and homestead. Otherwise, such activities are likely to end in the establishment of an even-less preferable state of affairs, such as that of communism. In the words of Rothbard, “Libertarians have misled themselves by making their main dichotomy “government” vs. “private” with the former bad and the latter good. Government, [Alan Milchman] pointed out, is after all not a mystical entity but a group of individuals, “private” individuals if you will, acting in the manner of an organized criminal gang. But this means that there may also be “private” criminals as well as people directly affiliated with the government. What we libertarians object to, then, is not government per se but crime, what we object to is unjust or criminal property titles; what we are for is not “private” property per se but just, innocent, non-criminal private property. It is justice vs. injustice, innocence vs. criminality that must be our major libertarian focus.”