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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/5194/mutualism-a-philosophy-for-thieves/

Mutualism: A Philosophy for Thieves

June 18, 2006 by

The collapse of socialism-communism has not only given rise to the remarkable growth of environmentalism, as a replacement outlet for hostility to capitalism, but also to some growth, vastly less considerable of course, in the remnants of the old anarchist movement, which now sometimes calls itself “libertarian” or “left-libertarian.” A leading strand of this remnant goes under the name “Mutualism.” And its philosophy has recently been set forth in a book by one Kevin Carson, called Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (Fayettville, Arkansas: Self-published, 2004), which I reviewed in the current issue of The Journal of Libertarian Studies. The opening portion of my review appears in my blog posting of June 10 on this site.

The purpose of this posting is to expand on the following paragraph of that portion of my review:

Thus, for example, if I, a legitimate owner of a piece of property, legitimate even by Carson’s standards, decide to rent it out to a tenant who agrees to pay the rent, the property, according to Carson, becomes that of the tenant, and my attempt to collect the mutually-agreed-upon rent is regarded as a violent invasion of his [the tenant's] “absolute right of property.” In effect, Carson considers as government intervention the government’s upholding the rights of a landlord against a thief. He believes he has the right to prohibit me and the tenant from entering into an enforceable contract respecting the payment of rent and that such action is somehow not a violation of our freedom of contract and not government intervention.

In support of my claims, I now quote Mr. Carson:

For mutualists, occupancy and use is the only legitimate standard for establishing ownership of land, regardless of how many times it has changed hands. An existing owner may transfer ownership by sale or gift; but the new owner may establish legitimate title to the land only by his own occupancy and use. A change in occupancy will amount to a change in ownership. Absentee landlord rent, and exclusion of homesteaders from vacant land by an absentee landlord, are both considered illegitimate by mutualists. The actual occupant is considered the owner of a tract of land, and any attempt to collect rent by a self-styled landlord is regarded as a violent invasion of the possessor’s absolute right of property. (p. 200.)

Careless readers of this passage from Carson may assume that all that he is talking about is the case in which a later owner chooses not to occupy or use the property to which he has obtained title. Such a case is certainly possible, but it is not the case that needs to be considered first. The case that needs to be considered first is that of land which passes from the possession of someone whom Carson acknowledges as a legitimate owner, that is, precisely the kind of person of whom he says, “An existing owner may transfer ownership by sale or gift” to someone else, and then this someone else does, indeed, occupy and use the land.

The problem is that, according to Carson, this new party’s mere occupancy and use of the land extinguishes any possible property right in the land on the part of the previous possessor, whom Carson acknowledged as legitimate.

For suppose the first owner and the prospective second owner mutually agree on a rental of the land. According to Carson, once the second owner takes possession of the land and begins using it, he is now the legitimate owner. “A change in occupancy will amount to a change in ownership,” he has just said. If the first owner, who no longer occupies or uses the land, collects rent on it, he is a landowner who is absent from the land on which he collects rent. He is thus, necessarily, an “absentee landlord.” And Carson has also just said: “Absentee landlord rent, and exclusion of homesteaders [i.e., presumably the second occupant-user] from vacant land by an absentee landlord, are both considered illegitimate by mutualists. The actual occupant is considered the owner of a tract of land, and any attempt to collect rent by a self-styled landlord is regarded as a violent invasion of the possessor’s absolute right of property.”

Here there is a mutually and voluntarily agreed upon rental contract, but after taking possession, the new occupant decides that he is the owner of the land and will not pay any “absentee landlord rent,” which Carson believes it is his absolute right to decide. Has he not obtained another’s legitimate property and is now refusing to pay for it? And, having taken it, and both refusing to pay for it and refusing to give it back, is he thus not stealing that property?

Would he have been able to obtain the use and occupancy of the land if it had been known or suspected that this is how he would behave, once having obtained it? Obviously, he would not have been able to, and the assurance of his not behaving in this way is a written and signed enforceable rental contract. In that contract it is agreed that in the event of failure to pay the rent, the use and possession of the property reverts to the first user/possessor, who is recognized as the property’s owner despite his absence from the property. The contract also provides that in the event of non-payment of the rent, the owner has the right to dispossess the tenant by force if necessary.

Carson denies the landowner’s rights in a case of this kind and regards the landowner’s act of dispossession as “a violent invasion of the possessor’s absolute right of property.” He considers the support given the landlord by the courts and the police in enforcing the contract to be “government intervention.”

Because of these facts, I concluded in my review of his book, as I said near the beginning of this posting, that “Carson considers as government intervention the government’s upholding the rights of a landlord against a thief. He believes he has the right to prohibit me and the tenant from entering into an enforceable contract respecting the payment of rent and that such action is somehow not a violation of our freedom of contract and not government intervention.”

It should be realized that Carson’s hostility to private property rights is not limited to the case of land. He makes clear that it also includes houses and apartments. He advocates the seizure of vacant homes and apartments by homeless squatters. Thus, he declares:

If every vacant or abandoned housing unit in a city is occupied by the homeless, they will at least have shelter in the short term until they are forcibly removed. . . . In the meantime, the squatters’ movement performs a major educative and propaganda service, develops political consciousness among urban residents, draws public attention and sympathy against the predatory character of landlordism, and—most importantly—keeps the state and landlords perpetually on the defensive. (pp 377-378.)

On the basis of this and all of the foregoing, I say that Carson’s “Mutualism” is a philosophy for thieves. As I wrote in my full-length review in the JLS:

The logic of Carson’s position extends to legitimizing auto theft: An individual rents a car from Hertz or Avis. He is the user/occupant. Hertz or Avis is the absentee owner demanding rent. It extends to the theft of clothing that is not being worn at the moment by its—absentee—owner. It extends to all property, for once in the possession of the thief, the thief as user/possessor becomes the legitimate owner, according to Carson’s conception of things.

Carson simply does not understand that ownership is not the mere possession and use of property but rather the moral and legal right to determine the possession and use of property.

Ironically, his failure to grasp this last principle totally undercuts his condemnation of the massive seizures of land that have occurred throughout history and which are the ostensible reason for his condemnation and hatred of “landlordism.” To the extent that such seizures were the result of a population of outsiders that not only seized the land of the previous occupants but also proceeded to work it, Carson has no basis of opposition, because his principle is that use determines ownership, and they are now the users. His principle of use determining ownership leaves no basis for opposing any theft, so long as the thief uses what he has stolen.

What Carson is actually opposed to is not violent appropriation of land —indeed, as we have seen, that is precisely what he advocates whenever he thinks it is “just.” What he is actually opposed to is merely the case in which the thief does not use what he has stolen—the leading example being when the thief settles down to become a landlord collecting rent on land that others use.

But, of course, Carson is equally opposed to someone who is not a thief also not using his own property. Non-use is alleged justification for legitimate property being seized, and, as I’ve shown, not just land but also homes and apartments, and by implication, automobiles, clothing, and everything else that is not being used by its owner.

I cannot help but suspect that what Carson is actually opposed to is not at all force, fraud, or actual injustice in the history of mankind but the existence of large inequalities of wealth and income, whatever their basis. The idle wealth of the rich is what he has in mind for seizure and subsequent use by the poor, who would allegedly be its rightful owners by virtue of the mere fact of their use of what they had stolen.

Hopefully, in the future, I will be able to address further the problems connected with violent seizures of land in the past and explain why they are irrelevant to the present and do not justify programs of redistributionist “land reform.” For those who may be interested, I have already written on this subject in my book Capitalism, on pp. 317-322.

For now what it is essential to understand is that Carson’s “Mutualism” is a philosophy that urges theft.

This article is copyright © 2006, by George Reisman. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce and distribute it electronically and in print, other than as part of a book and provided that mention of the author’s web site www.capitalism.net is included. (Email notification is requested.) All other rights reserved. George Reisman is the author of Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics (Ottawa, Illinois: Jameson Books, 1996) and is Pepperdine University Professor Emeritus of Economics.

{ 117 comments }

Keith Preston June 23, 2006 at 8:35 am

Here’s a question I want to throw out and see what anyone here has to say about it:

It’s obvious that those of use who have been participating in this thread disagree considerably among ourselves, even to the point of hostility. That’s in spite of the fact that all of us probably think of ourselves as “anarchists” or “libertarians” of some denomination. And it’s also in spite of the fact that at least some of us have spent years studying anarchist and libertarian political philosophy and theory. So the question is: What are the implications of this for the broader society at large or a future libertarian nation or civilization?

Let’s say Paul, Curt, Person, Quasibill, Kevin, myself and others here are appointed to the Supreme Council of the Anarchist Peoples’ Common Law Court for the sake of revising property and contract law. There would be just as many divisions as there would be on any statist court like (like the USSC). Probably more.

The above exchanges between Curt and Paul over child support law is interesting. This is yet another area where libertarians, even the most hard-core libertarians, disagree. Would there not be a need for maintaining a means of reconciling these differences in a libertarian meta-system? And what about “irreconcilable differences”? It seems to me the only possible solutions are either decentralism, separatism and mutual self-segregation or pluralism and polycentrism. What about disagreements between contending libertarian courts over an issue like child support? Would not a third court need to be called in as an arbiter? If so, how is this different from the way conflicts between contending parties are played out in a more conventional legistlative or judicial process? And does this not blur the distinction between “anarchist” and “minarchist” versions of libertarianism a bit?

Just some thoughts.

Roger M June 23, 2006 at 9:00 am

Keith, Interesting thoughts about how anarchism would hand disputes.

Vince Daliessio June 23, 2006 at 9:50 am

Keith asks;

“What about disagreements between contending libertarian courts over an issue like child support? Would not a third court need to be called in as an arbiter?”

Since marriage would be privatized in a full anarchist society, the disposition of custody would be a matter for inclusion into the marriage contract. Those who did not marry but had children anyway would find themselves in the quandary you propose above, but so what? Very quickly people would figure out that a good marriage contract would be an easier and cheaper way to guarantee parental rights, AND support the welfare of children – certainly far superior to the tripartite, terms-undefined state marriage contract / social welfare system we have now.

quasibill June 23, 2006 at 10:23 am

“Very quickly people would figure out that a good marriage contract would be an easier and cheaper way to guarantee parental rights, AND support the welfare of children – certainly far superior to the tripartite, terms-undefined state marriage contract / social welfare system we have now.”

Cue smoky bar scene. After his 5th drink, and perhaps some “green”, Stud Muffin approaches Kitten and buys her a drink. After the couple hit it off (meanwhile imbibing quite a bit more), Stud asks Kitten if she’d like to go somewhere more private, to which Kitten responds by tapping the well dressed man next to her at the bar, conspicuously drinking only diet sodas “Larry, I need you to knock out a pre-nup agreement with Stud’s lawyer in the next 30 minutes before we leave the bar…”

Not every decision is made with consequences fully in mind. I think this arena is especially subject to irrational and spur of the moment decisions, especially among the young. You have to have some default rules in place where the parties don’t have an explicit contract dealing with every conceivable issue. These default rules are the kinds of things Keith is talking about having to have mediated between “FemPower, Inc.” and “Libertine Associates”.

Vince Daliessio June 23, 2006 at 11:14 am

Quasibill said;

“Not every decision is made with consequences fully in mind. I think this arena is especially subject to irrational and spur of the moment decisions, especially among the young. You have to have some default rules in place where the parties don’t have an explicit contract dealing with every conceivable issue.”

You are perhaps forgetting the term “moral hazard”. The current dual / monopolistic system of state marriage and state welfare, being the default system, supports the type of irresponsible behavior you posit.

And if you are not one of the people who quickly “get the picture” in a privatized system, you will have to deal with the consequences, including being lawyered into the poorhouse.

That does NOT create a financial / government obligation on the part of the rest of the public, nor a claim on their income, both features of the current system. The stubborn few who will not get the picture no matter what will be amply served by private charity.

But more to the point, why should I even have to make the utilitarian case? Austrian economics, though profoundly utilitarian, is supposed to be value-free.

We who believe Mises and Rothbard were onto something also largely believe the moral nature of anarchocapitalism is sufficient, and do not need a utility justification for it.Which is why I think the overemphasis of some on the “dilemma” of unwanted children is a largely misplaced concern.

I think Rothbard MEANT to say (or should have – it would have been perfectly consistent) not that there would (or should) be a large class of abused, exploited children; he failed, also, to point out that the CURRENT system has resulted in exactly that, and that an Austrian or an anarcho-capitalist order would reduce or largely eliminate that. Children would have increased social value under an anarchist or voluntary order. Trying to achieve this by some kind of force is like pushing a rope, in Eisenhower’s phrase.

quasibill June 23, 2006 at 12:25 pm

Vince,

Again I agree, but I think you’re missing how thinks play out in reality. Even in a Rothbardian AnCap insurance provider scenario, people are going to buy “package deals” of laws, and that create default rules governing certain situations. Child support would likely be one – many people believe, like Curt, that there is an obligation on the part of parents to take care of their children, at least until they have successfully transferred custody to another person. The true outlier, who doesn’t belong to any insurance scheme will be immune to such rules, of course, but I would posit that large parts of most communities will agree to certain basic default rules, based upon their values.

I’m not arguing about creating state incentives (or even a state!) – but to think that 16-26 year olds are going to keep their pants on, and/or have pre-nups with them when out clubbing, is being a little naive to me. There will be default rules of who is liable for what outcome, just like the common law evolved governing contracts, because even the most diligent person can’t foresee every possible future occurrence and explicitly contract for it.

Paul Edwards June 23, 2006 at 12:27 pm

Keith,

“It’s obvious that those of use who have been participating in this thread disagree considerably among ourselves, even to the point of hostility…. What are the implications of this for the broader society at large or a future libertarian nation or civilization?

Great question.

“Let’s say Paul, Curt, Person, Quasibill, Kevin, myself and others here are appointed to the Supreme Council of the Anarchist Peoples’ Common Law Court for the sake of revising property and contract law.”

Let me reformulate a bit because, at least at the outset, there is going to be no appointing to a supreme council, but rather completely voluntary offerings of such services. I presume the reason we have chosen anarchy here is to avoid state-like institutions.

So in this case, let’s say we each go into the business of offering court and protection services in conjunction with insurance. I would offer libertarian A-C court services that acknowledged the basic libertarian norms: self-ownership, homesteading, private property and contracts which implicitly included rental, lending and employment contracts. This would be the plain Jane non-aggression kind of court. Someone else might offer a mutualist variation that excluded the ability to enter into land rental agreements. Someone else might offer similar services but stipulate that they do not acknowledge lending and borrowing contracts. Another could offer courts that stipulate that employer/employee contracts are not enforced. Still others would stipulate that it is ok to employ people as long as one doesn’t earn a profit in the process which is a crime.

My thinking is this: only the first, the A-C courts would be popular to court and protection consumers, and so only it would prosper and by economic law, in the long run, would become what is supplied also by my competition. The others would either find small niche markets, or just die.

Capitalists and employees, lenders and borrowers, landlords and renters would like the A-C services, and they would be dubious of the odd and unnatural seeming restrictions offered by the competition. On the other hand, mutualists could be very happy also with the A-C services as they could quite legitimately enter into mutualist or communal covenants which would be enforced with enthusiasm by the A-C courts because this court recognizes contract, while never ignoring private property as the foundation of these agreements. The market would decide, and the state never rears its ugly head.

“There would be just as many divisions as there would be on any statist court like (like the USSC). Probably more.”

I think, because of human nature, the market would settle on a particular norm, the libertarian ethic; the one that strikes the most people as inherently just.

“The above exchanges between Curt and Paul over child support law is interesting. This is yet another area where libertarians, even the most hard-core libertarians, disagree. Would there not be a need for maintaining a means of reconciling these differences in a libertarian meta-system? And what about “irreconcilable differences”? It seems to me the only possible solutions are either decentralism, separatism and mutual self-segregation or pluralism and polycentrism.”

Let’s say my court said that having a child implied the obligation to care for the child until an alternate guardian could be found. And although this view was popular, there was a competing popular court that said the child had no right to expect to survive if the parent chose to neglect the child. Then, there would be required a final arbitration from a third court to make the final call that was on the arbitration list of both courts. In these sticky cases, it could go either way.

“What about disagreements between contending libertarian courts over an issue like child support? Would not a third court need to be called in as an arbiter? If so, how is this different from the way conflicts between contending parties are played out in a more conventional legistlative or judicial process?”

It’s different because it is voluntary. Everyone involved is in agreement in advance of the process and the arbitrator’s decision.

“And does this not blur the distinction between “anarchist” and “minarchist” versions of libertarianism a bit?”

Anarchists are very keen on law and order, courts, enforcement, restitution. It’s just that all this can and should be provided without a state via a free market. They are against coercive monopolies of any sort.

Vince Daliessio June 23, 2006 at 12:49 pm

Quasibill said;

“There will be default rules of who is liable for what outcome, just like the common law evolved governing contracts, because even the most diligent person can’t foresee every possible future occurrence and explicitly contract for it.”

But it seems like you are implying a need for someone to enforce such rules, outside of a spontaneous order or voluntary protection agency.

The value of a private contract in a voluntary society is that the final arbiter of all disputes will be specified, that there will be no appeals to authority, and that this will be self-policing since remedies will be restricted to those specified, and remedies that impinge upon self-ownership not enforceable.

Will this mean some retrenchment or cooling of, say, the extension of unsecured credit to individuals? Sure – but wouldn’t that be a “good” outcome?

Curt Howland June 23, 2006 at 1:13 pm

many people believe, like Curt, that there is an obligation on the part of parents to take care of their children, at least until they have successfully transferred custody to another person.

Ah! I said I believe there to be a moral obligation, in part because I accept such an obligation myself for my own offspring. I object to there being enshrined any kind of *legal* obligation.

I also agree with Vince that there would be a serious shaking out period if government were to bow-out. Not violent, or at least no more violent than the combination of criminals with and without badges that we have now, just the final recognition that people who cannot take care of themselves (or find someone to voluntarily do so) will get into trouble.

Even though this same argument, “falling through the cracks”, is used to justify the entire welfare state, the number who actually do will be quite small as all that mental energy spent figuring out how to milk the system is directed instead to creating wealth.

quasibill June 23, 2006 at 1:15 pm

“But it seems like you are implying a need for someone to enforce such rules, outside of a spontaneous order or voluntary protection agency. ”

Dear God, no. I’m merely making the argument that there will be default rules governing certain aspects of behavior, and that in many, if not all instances, these rules will be arbitrary. As people keep pointing out, the classic hypo is infidelity between Garcia’s Commune and the New Faith Covenant agencies. There is no objectively right answer which one is right, and I don’t have the Randian faith that some do that all people will come to have the same values and beliefs, and therefore uniform legal systems, if only the state were removed. So there will still be disputes, and in these disputes, one of the people ostensibly won’t get the result they contracted for.

Further, a truism about contracts is that even the best drafter can’t foresee all possible issues, and even more true that even if you can, you don’t always have the time or inclination to spell them all out in an explicit contract. People will agree to certain default rules that govern “handshake” deals, just as a matter decreasing transaction costs. However, as noted above, the default rules may themselves be different, which will lead to a conflict.

My personal feeling is that people won’t get too involved with all the intimate details of their legal provider – they’re going to make decisions based upon a few salient points seen in the context of an overarching philosophy followed by the provider. So some will prefer the Hoppe Agency, while some will prefer the libertine agency, and still others will prefer, as one example, sharia law agency. The agencies will have pressures to make their packages uniform to a great extent, for marketing and branding purposes.

So I don’t see all this legal negotiation on every aspect of daily life – people don’t work like that, in my experience. The opportunity costs will be too high.

quasibill June 23, 2006 at 1:48 pm

Curt,

But the question is – in a free market, would choose legal provider A, which has as a rule that a parent has a legal obligation to support their child until maturity or transfer of custody; or B, which rules that parents can safely neglect their children with no legal repercussions?

You won’t be imposing a legal obligation on someone else by going with A – it will only be voluntary by those who subscribe to it. But it seems to me to be a moral failure to subscribe to B when you believe that there is a moral obligation. And I’m not very religious, so I would assume that there are people who will be even more strongly inclined to have this duty codified into law.

Devon June 26, 2006 at 2:31 pm

While the mutualist position is flawed, I wouldn’t be too hard on them. Mutualism is a bridge to anarcho-capitalism. Anarchists who start out as communists realize how patently absurd it is, then move to mutualism hoping to hang on to a shred of anti-capitalism even though the mutualists support markets. Eventually, the mutualist realizes the “occupancy and use” thing doesn’t make much sense and the labor theory of value is flawed. From that point they either accept anarcho-capitalism or they sit in bafflement wondering what philosophy is available for them that will allow them to label themselves anti-capitalists and anarchists at the same time (a contradiction).

Curt Howland June 26, 2006 at 3:22 pm

But the question is – in a free market, would choose legal provider A, which has as a rule that a parent has a legal obligation to support their child until maturity or transfer of custody; or B, which rules that parents can safely neglect their children with no legal repercussions?

Exactly. The only people who would choose B are the ones who already ascribe to that philosophy.

But under a non-free market in governance, such a “moral majority” gets to impose its opinions on others by force of law. It is the very nature of pre-emptive law enforcement, especially in a “democracy”, that the minority views get squashed. By law.

I lean very much to the an-archist side of this libertarian thing. I don’t even want laws I think are a good idea.

Devon June 26, 2006 at 11:07 pm

Mutualism does not allow parks. Mutualists would not allow a generous individual to purchase land from, say, a farmer, and then convert it into a open space for all humanity to enjoy for recreation, picnics, etc. This is because anyone could legally come along and start bulldozing it up and build anything they want on it. Of course, they couldn’t kick people off who were having a picnic, but they could work around them. If they wanted to destroy the whole park, they could simply come in the middle of the night when no one was using it. Mutualism is definitely not the philosophy for anyone that likes parks.

DerEinzige December 6, 2011 at 10:04 pm

This is B.S. parks, recreation, etc would all fall under occupancy/use

anon coward June 28, 2006 at 7:29 pm

Curt Howland said: “I don’t even want laws I think are a good idea.”

I’d say you haven’t much regard for good ideas whether or not they are codified as law.

Fortunately, there are lots of people with sticks and guns to keep you from enforcing your “law of no laws” on the rest of us.

Jay September 13, 2009 at 10:47 pm

If you look historically anarcho socialists were the first to use the term libertarian. Libertarianism simply refers to anyone who opposes government coercion and also supports the maximization of freedom. Neither socialism nor capitalism are inherently opposed to libertarianism. Unfortunately groups like the Libertarian Party, USA have attempted to hijack the term and say it only applies to Libertarian Capitalists.
Mutualism by definition is voluntary and thus there can be no force by Government to impose anything. Yet, you seem to imply that the government should by force protect a large landowner who hordes land to the determent of others. Even within our current legal system we have adverse possession laws which allows people to acquire unused land by landowners via adversely possessing it. So the concept is not foreign.
Mutualism is the perfect solution to capitalism vs. communism because it provides for a voluntary, free market economy that respects private property for personal use, like capitalism, but avoids much of the concentration of wealth in the hands of just a few. Like communism it is inherently more democratic, but unlike communism it doesn’t totally put the individual at the will of the majority. Mutualism supports cooperatives in large industries over that of the corporation. Cooperatives are owned by member workers rather than shareholders. Thus wealth is more equally shared by all and those that do the labor within the industry are given a voice.

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