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Land Allocation Rules are Necessary

Monday, December 7, 2015 22:11
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Land Allocation Rules are Necessary
Kevin Carson’s Reply to William Gillis

As an alternative to what Will regards as the typical approach in advocating for a set of property rules — basically a sales pitch promoting the features of one compared to all the others — he proposes “one where we don’t exclusively compare prefigurative endpoints — final universal systems — but instead focus on the means by which such social norms are generated from the bottom up.”

As anarchists it’s silly pageantry to write policy papers settling on a single and precise blueprint, as if we might debate it on some floor and raise enough voters to our side to enact it. Instead our goal should be to provide a better account of the dynamics and possibilities at inherently play so that individuals might have more tools and knowledge at their disposal to build solutions for themselves.

The question is not so much what property system might finally be settled on, but how it should emerge.

In examining this question, Will begins by more or less accepting my use of “property” as a set of rules governing “primacy in determining the use of a physical object” — including both means of production and personal possessions. Attempts at distinguishing between capital goods and commodities for personal use, he argues, run up against the difficulty that the boundary between them constantly shifts with changes in technology.

And once any rules at all exist for assigning priority of access, that give one group veto power over access by another, a “property” system can be said to be in place.

If one community has a veto to the uses of something and another community does not then there is some kind of property system at play. Unless someone in New York gets a vote on the uses of a toothpick in East Timor and vice versa there’s a property system going on, whatever the limits and however informal, to recognize specialization and relevance. The actors may be “communities” but there is nevertheless some kind of system to denote and determine the boundaries and titles.

And once libertarian communists accept the concept of bodily autonomy (a much less problematic way of framing it than “self-ownership” in my opinion), we’re left with another kind of conceptual ambiguity:

The problem is that there’s no philosophically clean line between bodies and tools. Hair, glasses, wheelchairs, crutches, etc. Even our houses and vehicles can be seen as extensions of us, in terms of identity, causal closeness, as well as basic bodily function and survival. We’re all already transhuman and as we grow ever more so this blurring or queering of the categories of “body” and “tool” will become all the more inescapable. We send signals from our brains out to our fingers and expect them to move, and our fingers send signals out into our laptop and we expect its structures too to move the way we want them to. Many geeks today have taken to referring to our phones and computers as “exocortexes” to reflect how deeply we integrate with them and see them as extensions of our selves, our will, body and mind. Similarly the disabled often see implants or prosthetics as integral parts of themselves, as extensions of their bodies. It would be ethically repugnant to put the continued function of an artificial heart under the purview of a community rather than exclusively the control of the individual in which it resides.

And in practical terms recognizing strong individual possessory rights, including a monopoly on decision-making authority within one’s personal sphere, has all the advantages associated with stigmergic, permissionless organization.

When working on a project like a sculpture or new device it’s often far more efficient to just let an individual work on their own, without having to justify every step or choice in a committee. We say “It’s your block of marble or circuit board” and allow them to tinker with it exclusively.

In short, recognizing individual or specific group rights over the use of material resources has benefits “grounded in realities as simple and fundamental as information and processing” — drastically reducing the total decision-making burden on the collectivity and the amount of each person’s life spent in committee meetings. Hence “[t]he assignment of titles to physical items is an inescapable concern — but for practical reasons.”

Will goes on to challenge the distinctiveness of land:

The very idea of “land” as being fundamentally distinct from say fungible goods would make no sense in the context of outer space when we’re building ad hoc or personal biomes from melted asteroids and the volume of the void is unlimited. On the other end of things, systems that critically assume the possibility of homesteading make no sense in a highly populated world where every cubic inch is constantly cataloged and monitored.

True enough. My arguments regarding the finite supply of locations are only applicable to situations involving people inhabiting a planetary surface with some non-trivial level of cost and inconvenience for moving around or transporting commodities. It is the finite nature of favorably situated locations, and their inelastic supply, that distinguishes them from labor and capital goods in classical political economy. And no doubt in a situation like that of space biomes where the replication of living space involves only labor and capital goods, at a fairly constant marginal cost, the assignment of living space will reflect this reality. Occupancy-and-use, like Lockeanism, is specifically a land use doctrine and of limited relevance at best to the needs of a human diaspora outside of planetary surfaces; that doesn’t alter the need for a set of allocation rules specific to land so long as there are people on planetary surfaces.

He also raises questions about the arbitrariness of community standards of use and their likely situational variation, and then uses that issue as a segue to question the mutualist response that the application of basic principles will be worked out by convention or community norms.

Popular conceptions of what “laying fallow” might signify could change rapidly alongside broader accelerations in cultural, technological, and economic dynamics. One moment leaving my backyard empty for a year might seem perfectly reasonable, the next moment the public might consider it an intolerable and horrific waste. I’m what? using it to grow some grass? I haven’t done anything with the matter in it or the precious limited surface area it represents in nearly 30 million seconds! That’s unfathomable waste! Please someone anyone dump some nanogoo on it and do something with it!

There’s a lot of talk of “communities will settle on norms” but never mind how that settling is supposed to happen. How are these standards supposed to smoothly evolve and update to reflect new conditions or contexts? Precisely how does that work? And god forbid we critically interrogate the very idea of “communities” as though an anarchist society would just settle into villages that constitute a single community rather than an incredibly complicated mesh of social relations and networks with no clear boundaries.

There’s been a tendency in this long-running debate, particularly in market anarchist discourse, to just chuck everything at “the community” or “polycentric legal systems” and hope that move resolves the issue.

This is in some ways on the right track, but it’s not enough because formalized collective decisionmaking or arbitration apparatuses in many respects just push the buck back. How do the codes of behavior that these systems judge arise? How can these social codes be dynamically or organically changed or updated as context changes? What if it changes dramatically?

All I can say in this regard is that I’m a lot less troubled than Will is at the thought of leaving things to community norms. In fact, problematic or not, I see it as a problem that’s inescapable. No set of general principles can be worked out in application except by means of secondary rules of thumb that are to some extent arbitrary in the sense of not being the only possible way of applying the principle that can be obviously and necessarily deduced by logic from that principle. At the risk of hiding behind David Graeber again, I think that so long as the basic principles themselves reflect a generally correct set of goals and view of the central evils to be avoided, and the community shares those priorities, ordinary people can be pretty well trusted to work out the secondary rules in good faith.

Next, Will challenges the labor-mixing paradigm as a standard for occupancy-and-use:

What does it mean to mix labor? “Improvement” is at core subjective. “Labor” itself is at core subjective. If I walk into a large wild field and rearrange a few twigs or — alternatively — do copious gardening repositioning wild plants to shift the layout slightly, either in ways that I think “better channels the spiritual energy” of the field, it may look like exactly the same sort of wild field to virtually everyone else. But it might be the case that in this new configuration its utility to me has increased dramatically….

In a market one may try to just go off of “market value” but it’s not proven that there would be any singular metric of such in a truly freed market — the currency situation might be incredibly complex, fractal and overlapping, in no way mirroring the current cash nexus. “The market” might possibly be a complex organic ecosystem, not immediately globally clearing and with no clear equilibrium point for an arbitration court to go off of. Indeed arbiters or community bodies or whatever may not overlap with currencies at all. But again even if we could settle on a single notion of value improvement or even labor expended, it’s not clear how much should be requisite for unowned materials to get titles assigned to them. Titles in a legal system are a relatively binary thing. Either you have title to something or you don’t.

Indeed it’s obviously worth significantly challenging the philosophical assumptions underlying the assignment of ownership according to work expended on something or degree market value improved. Having poked at something in the past is certainly not the same thing as it currently existing as an extension of one’s body or as a focus of one’s attention and interest.

Here I briefly interrupt the flow of Will’s argument to note that this is precisely why I object to the non-Proviso Lockean idea that a piece of land, once appropriated, becomes permanently an extension of the appropriator’s body to be disposed of at their discretion in perpetuity, regardless of ongoing use. But to continue where I interrupted him:

Indeed at the end of the day the focus on labor-mixing seems to bundle in a defense of property (and markets) grounded ultimately in a rather modern ethos of “I am due recompense for working” rather than the more foundational ethical concern for “what arrangement best improves the lot of everyone.”…. Focusing on labor-mixing as the primary certifier of ownership implicitly appeals to a tit-for-tat sense of “justice” or an entitled demand to personal recompense for work done, rather than a cosmopolitan and universalist drive to better all.

I’m just as happy to substitute occupancy, use or alteration for “labor-mixing.” Nevertheless, whatever term we use, the primary evil that all principled land theories seek to avoid, when they call for labor-appropriation, is a situation in which someone can fence off large amounts of land and hold it out of use despite no intention of immediately putting it to use themselves, and either retain it for speculative purposes to sell at a later date or collect rent from those who actually put it to use.

But on a more practical level, the classic reductio of labor-mixing can be immediately seen with a group heading out to a deserted island or planet and the moment they get there one of them uses robots to till all the land. Does that person now justly reign as supreme king forever? Markets can exist with such unequal distributions that they just entirely replicate the existence of the state. Even Rothbard conceded that if you “privatized” title to the possessions of a communist state that owns everything into the hands of a single person or just a few literally nothing would have meaningfully changed.

Obviously, should technological developments make this a possibility, it would be a fundamental violation of the spirit of labor-appropriation and occupancy-and-use, and would directly entail the primary evils such a system aims to avoid. Equally obviously, under such circumstances the conventions for ownership would have to evolve to avoid the primary evil of one person or a small group of persons monopolizing an entire planet’s surface. Again, unlike Will, I am perfectly comfortable leaving such things to convention so long as the conventions are set in a society of equals whose goal is to preserve widespread distribution of the necessaries of life — as opposed to a class state in which the rules are made by a small minority, with armed force at their backs, to enforce their own privilege. To borrow a phrase from Shawn Wilbur, any set of rules must of necessity be an “anarchism of approximations,” to be worked out in practice by a society of equals.

Having raised all these objections, Will proceeds to the meat of his own alternative.

In ragging so heavily on labor-mixing I’m implicitly to some degree asking that we reground our analyses to start with “bodily extension” as a more important or fundamental paradigm than the more nebulous labor-mixing.

Nevertheless, he continues,

…I don’t want to pretend that there are ultimately any clean resolutions there either. If a robber baron networks thousands of factories’ cybernetic systems directly into his nervous system that hardly trumps all other concerns on the legitimacy of property titles. No ethical argument for property of yet satisfactorily resolves the question of where our bodies end without making an arbitrary move. All definitions of bodies much less what constitutes the “facts” of who possesses what are socially constructed as well as individually subjective. They all require input parameters derived from culture and contexts that can change fluidly. It would be a shame to enshrine rules or systems incapable of keeping up with those contextual changes.

This is where Will seems to concede that his bodily-extension paradigm, just as much as labor-appropriation or occupancy-and-use, entails application through secondary rules that are to some extent inescapably necessary. I return to my own argument: It may well be that labor-mixture or alteration is theoretically amenable to universal appropriation by one person with an army of terraforming robots — just as it is theoretically possible under Will’s bodily-extension system for a cyborg Monty Burns to “homestead” an entire planet’s industrial economy by plugging into it. This is less important to me than the fundamental problem of starting out from a structure in which rules are made by equals with the goal of guaranteeing universal access to the means of life and preventing monopoly — and hence of preventing Monty Burnses from arising in the first place. Given such starting assumptions, it’s likely that any sane property rights regime will confront such possibilities by adding a new rule — no doubt arbitrary, but so what — that “no one may appropriate an entire planet, or any significant multiple of the land necessary to support an individual in a conventional level of comfort, by terraforming or plugging in to it.”

Here Will moves into a line of argument that, like the discussion of the gift economy of property in Shawn Wilbur’s article, leaves me in awe:

Our evaluation of other individuals and their evaluations of us are prior in a deep way to everything else. Such evaluations — our relationships, impressions, trust, and intentions with regard to one another — cannot be alienated from us or overruled. At least not without breaking the very Cartesian individualization and subjective experience our skulls presently impose that makes property useful.

Reputation is firmly prior to any other contextual consideration.

This much should be obvious and it may seem a trivial point, but it continually astonishes me how quickly our discourses leap past this primordial reality. As if the ethical frameworks we speak in terms of have no more aspiration than the most provisional or situational.

Every social norm, every standard, ultimately originates in the detentes between individuals. Society itself is a fabric of social relationships. We reach settlements, optimal meta-agreements through a rich network of relations, not a single deliberative body. Things quickly get complicated and thorny once you add in physical and historical context. But property titles are, at root, just an agreement to respect each other.

What scariest about this to many is that property is not a single collective contract, or even a contract with the kind of hardness and permanency possible when grounded in systemic coercion. It is instead an organically emergent mesh of agreements, constantly being mediated and pressured.

Even the Marxist housemates agree not to use each others’ toothbrushes because this is an obviously optimal arrangement, an optimal détente. But there is no single magical ledger in the sky keeping track of everything. Property, in its most basic and inarguable forms, emerges bottom-up. And just as a market can settle into a perfectly cleared equilibrium — it often won’t.

People can and will disagree over property titles, not because they are mistaken in pursuit of some platonically existing ideal, but because they simply disagree.

If we arrive on a deserted island and I manage to get my robotic drones to till the entire island first you would surely not respect my claim to own all the accessible land. No matter how Lockean you claim to be.

And that’s great. Instead of partially obscuring the issue by assuming that we’ll always establish polycentric legal systems with massively overlapping meshes of formal mediators and conflict adjudicators, and then these will come to consensus on a single global and canonical ledger of property titles, we should be clear that the roots of any anarchist system lie in the agents involved. Disagreements have to ultimately be settled in terms of our relationships with others, our complicated intentionality, goodwill, and trust.

Our relationships with one another, what can be termed, if you feel like it, “the reputation market,” will sometimes be perturbed by differences and require the transmission of signals to return to a tolerable détente or equilibrium for all parties. Theft can be a valid signal. If everyone starts walking off with my goods because they’ve ceased to be sufficiently reputationally incentivised in the broader community or society to respect my monopoly, well that might be a good thing.

If — whether through distortions brought about by systemic violence as in our present world or just some kind of evolutionary misstep from a free and egalitarian state — a “market” has somehow grown so dysfunctional as to see starvation while bread is stocked in plenty then I will happily shout alongside the famous market anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, “Take bread!” And I’ll personally help you bust a window or two to do it.

So in my rejoinder to Will up to this point, I have repeated so many times I’ve lost count that my faith is in the rules as their application is worked out by equals, dealing with each other in good faith, with no one in a position to kick over the table and impose their will on everybody else by force. I’ve called David Graeber, Elinor Ostrom and Shawn Wilbur to witness. And now, having come this far, I find that all his practical objections to assorted Lockean, mutualist and other property rights systems were simply laying the groundwork to say basically the same thing in different words.

In elaborating on his reputational system, Will begins by raising the problematic nature of enforcement of contracts or property by violence, and continues:

Instead the emphasis is that contracts and the like should only be enforced via diffuse reputation. Working to build social organisms and instincts in a direction where freedom-of-association can function as sufficient censor or sanction. The next logical step along this path is to go from treating written contracts this way to property titles themselves.

Wealth is in many respects subjective. What might most deliriously satisfy one person (having a guitar and a pond to write poems beside) can be very different from what would best satisfy another (having a radio telescope array). But the market provides a good means to balance between these preferences; the SETI geek might to demonstrate through revealed preference on many levels that a radio telescope array really is critical to her core desires. This can happen through market pricing of the resources she uses, but also through the effective “pricing” being transmitted through her relationships with others. And if her project’s concentration of resources would leave others destitute or barred from achieving their own core desires they may simply fail to respect her claim/title to it.

In the end, he is skeptical of universal rules but trusting of agency and open-ended processes:

There are of course good game-theoretic reasons to gravitate towards categorical-imperative equilibria where disrespecting someones’ claim is no casual affair…. But nevertheless we should reflect more on the subjectivity of theft itself and remember that society is ultimately made up of individuals with relations, not organizations and rules, and blinding ourselves to those root realities impedes our agency, just like any other self-deception.

Yes, naive and simple reputation dynamics alone are dangerous. Social capitalism can be at least as vicious as any other system. One of the primary critiques left market anarchists have increasingly leveled against communistic anarchists is that their prescriptions risk chaining us in the sociopathic quagmire so often seen in social anarchist scenes whereby power structures are just shifted entirely to realm of popularity contests and team sports. Where almost every action is reduced to social positioning and triangulation.

The abstractions of property and markets provide some defense against this nightmare — the freedom to engage in relatively impersonal interactions can be incredibly important and necessary, as Graeber has argued in The Utopia of Rules. He used this to justify bureaucratic systems like consensus meetings. But here questions of centralization crop up. Systems that appeal harder to organizationalism and collective decisionmaking than autonomous action inherently create effective concentrations of social power, capable of being seized and leveraged.

Decentralization, when paired with sufficient technological freedom/complexity that conflict becomes asymmetric to the benefit of minorities, provides additional security and resilience against power structures. And a general tendency within a mature and enlightened reputation market to move towards property titles would provide security against the horrors of raw social capitalism. One hopes a balance point can be reached organically, like a price, between the dangers of naive and immediate reputation games and the dangers of an overly rigid property system. Reputation is the soil in which we must cultivate a rich and highly-evolved ecology.

Next, Will argues in Graeberian vein that even in our existing world property titles emerged historically from reputation.

But in some sense it doesn’t matter whether or not you’d like property titles to ultimately be emergent from reputation. They empirically are. There’s a reason credit preceded currency, as Graeber famously had to remind a number of economists — trust and goodwill are simply the foundation of the world we move in. We can try to blind ourselves to this or we can take the more anarchistic route of informed agency, refusing to fetishize or enslave ourselves to structures and conventions.

Here I would add the obvious caveat that, however customary property or possession rules may have emerged from the interaction of equals before the rise of the class state, it’s clear that the great bulk of property titles in the world today do not derive from such a process any more than our money system evolved directly from Graeber’s village mutual credit economies.

He concludes:

The market and the assignment of property titles within it is a garden we grow. A tool. Just like consensus process or breaking out into working groups. Like any means of organization we should not fetishize it. It is an extraordinarily useful and necessary tool, but just like any procedure we might adopt it is not a god. And its precise happenstance structure is surely not foundational to our ethics.

We must retain our critical faculties and agency, our capacity to both immediately and smoothly respond the moment our tool stops working. If some post-revolution market does in fact develop cancers of severe capital or wealth accumulation that runaway faster than the myriad diseconomies of scale and centrifugal forces within freed markets can suppress… then we can always just stop respecting some of the property titles of those in danger of becoming new rulers [emphasis added].

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

After what could have served as a resounding conclusion, Will tacks on a couple of other points. First, that markets and property titles are only one part of a larger toolkit, and not suitable for all tasks:

Similarly there are plenty of contexts in which the problems markets and property titles are supremely useful at resolving are not the most pressing ones. Three shipwrecked people aren’t going to divide up their island, write elaborate contracts, and start a fish subprime derivatives stand. Not unless they’re sociopaths. In simple subsistence conditions with small communities it makes far more sense to never even think about titles, but discuss the uses of everything collectively. You can put a reasonable bound on the community discussions necessary to coordinate the growing of potatoes.

Quite true. And as I’ve argued elsewhere, I predict that the erosion of the state and large corporations, coupled with the drastic cheapening and de-scaling of production technology, will result in the shift of a major part of production into small-scale social units better suited to such communistic decision-making.

There are two sets of justifications used for property and markets, one is an entitled tit-for-tat kind of “fairness”, the other is communistic, seeking only the betterment of all. It should be no surprise if the market structures ultimately promoted by either differ. We’ve already seen that this is the case with “intellectual property.” Libertarians and even state socialists have split hard internally on this issue, some demanding “but I put energy into this, I am due recompense, that’s what fairness is” while others aghast that anyone would even think of seeking to exclude or control what others can have when scarcity is no longer relevant. This poorly papered over chasm between selfish and selfless core perspectives deserves widening. I know what side I’m on.

While I agree on the general spirit of the first two sentences, I take issue with Will’s antipathy to the idea of reciprocity and fairness and to effort as the source of value in exchange. Those ideas do not by any means entail things like “intellectual property,” any more than they entail a labor-based price for the mud pie strawman so popular in polemics against the labor theory of value. Indeed I see capitalist economics, and all the monopolies and artificial scarcities it depends on like absentee landlordism and “intellectual property,” as based on a zero-sum ethos fundamentally opposed to reciprocity. Adam Smith’s illustration of commodities exchanging at the ratio of embodied labor — the exchange of deer for beaver — assumes a situation in which the hunter and trapper engage in trade based on reciprocity precisely because they are equals.

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