Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Libertarian tropes #2: The Homestead Principle

It's been a while since I promised a demolition of libertarianism in a handful of blog posts. Sorry about that.

I hesitate a little now because, as it stands, the homestead principle (wiki) - that ownership of unowned land is properly initiated by working that land - is probably the best and most honest way ever of initiating ownership of something previously unowned. Yet this is only because all the other ways are crimes against humanity. Proudhon had a point when he said that "property is theft". Whoever first owned or enclosed a piece of land arbitrarily restricted the right - the liberty - of others to walk across it and use it.

Yet property rights are vital to our prosperity. Societies that don't respect property are dirt-poor. Counter-intuitively, failing to recognise property rights doesn't enrich the poor at the expense of the rich. It enriches only gangsters and warlords at the expense of everybody else.

So doesn't this mean that we need a kind of founding principle of property, and that the homestead principle is good because it is the best of these? No. Property is justified by its consequences, not by some fiction. Unfortunately there is a breed of libertarian that cannot admit that western governments ever legislate in the common good, even by accident, and therefore cannot give credit where it is due.

And it is worth adding that the homestead principle is a lot more useless than it appears. If there were a lot of unoccupied land lying around, it would have some value, but there isn't. And more to the point there wasn't during the spiritual home of the libertarian: the settlement of the American West. The previous occupants were being killed. We are told the "indians" didn't deserve the land because they had no concept of property, or something. No it doesn't make sense.

But where it gets ugly is when this "principle", this triumph of dogma over real life consequences for people, is used to justify an absolutist and all-encompassing view of property that would crush individual liberty. How so? Whenever there is a conflict between your freedom and mine, the libertarian will say "whose property is it?" So every public space must be privatised, so that the owner may make the rules. If we are in conflict over some abstract thing that is not property then that thing must become property, so that disputes over it may be resolved. Every homesteader is a tyrant in their own domain and an abject slave in any other. It could work, I suppose, if we were never to deal with other human beings.

And let's not forget that while homesteading may be a pragmatic initiation of property claims, it certainly isn't a fair one. Those at the front of the queue get land and those at the back don't. The landless classes would be subject to the arbitrary rules of others wherever they go, because everywhere belongs to somebody else. Libertarians argue that prudent entrepreneurs would be benevolent on their land to attract labour; landlords, to attract tenants, etc, but this is wishful thinking.

It is quite breathtaking that anybody dares call this doctrine libertarian. It is an assault on the rights and freedoms of workers, tenants and anybody who spends time on land they don't own. This is in the name of property, justified by the homestead principle, justified by self-ownership. Yes you read that right. Self-ownership is used to justify virtual slavery.

Back in the real world, where landlords and employers don't always feel the need to be benevolent, property rights are more limited - they are balanced against human rights. But this is not a scandal: property, remember, is a useful invented concept. But it is something we rightly legislate to protect because to do so serves the common good. Ditto human rights, the natural environment, voting, and most other things that libertarians scoff at. Counting a grotesque of one as a trump card over the others is just irrational.

No comments: