Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

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4. ‘Redistribution’ as Euphemism or, 

Who Owns What?*

Anthony Flood

I thank Stuart Burns for continuing to raise questions about my critique of redistributionism, and Geoffrey Klempner for providing a forum for those challenges and my attempt to meet them.



The tether to Professor Jonathan Wolff’s paper has long been severed: our thread has a life of its own for reasons I’ve given twice before.  Yes, I mentioned charity in reference to his presentation, which did not mention it.  Mr. Burns’ reference to condominium board’s “charitable” expenditure obscured the obvious, so I had to belabor it.  

A condominium’s board of managers is constitutionally incapable of performing any act of charity per se.  All board decisions must have a business rationale.  Even one that has a business rationale wherein charitable “spin” plays no part may move members to recall its officers.  Decisions transparently motivated by non-business interests, however, tend to invite such retribution more swiftly. The days of a board that regularly makes poor business decisions, for whatever reason, are numbered.

Mr. Burns tendentiously describes the board’s expenditure of his maintenance fee for repugnant purposes as “an involuntary redistribution” of his fee.  Maintenance fees are exchanged for sound condominium management.  The goods that exchanging parties receive are not “redistributed,” but become elements in future exchanges.  If my grocer gambles at the casino with the money I spend in his store, my expenditure is not an “involuntary redistribution” of money to the casino, or to the casino’s food vendor, or to the vendor’s trucker, or to the trucker’s landlord, etc.  

I’m sorry I disappointed Mr. Burns by suggesting a limit to the power of philosophical argument.  The limits may lie solely within me.  In the end, I may not be pedagogically skillful enough to evoke in his mind the relevant insight that illuminates both the nature of a condo board decision and the nature of taxation on which “redistribution” depends. Mr. Burns may have found my discourse “unpersuasive,” but it’s the best I can do.  In the following I merely add a few brush strokes while boosting the amplifiers and adjusting the lighting.


Redistribution: A Ruse by Any Other Name . . .

Mr. Burns’ reluctant defense of “redistribution” prescinds from the question of what is necessarily subject to it.  It is always someone’s property. How does one acquire property peacefully and justly?  There are four ways.

1. Self-ownership: More accurately, body-ownership.  Each person has a primary sphere of influence, namely, his own body, which he “acquires” as soon as he comes to be. One’s body is a boundary line for others: I am the first, if not sole, arbiter of what may be done with or to my body.  To achieve my goals, I need to enjoy exclusive control of my body.  To achieve them more efficiently, I must cooperate with you by, among other things, recognizing your right to exclusively control yours.

2.   Homesteading:  If a resource is not yet owned, one can come to own it by picking it up, touching it, or cordoning it off. Action, not mere vision, is decisive.  That is, one must “mix one’s labor with it,” as John Locke put it. It is not enough to say, “All that I survey is mine,” because the fellow on the horizon facing you could declare the same thing.  Who picked up the first stick or rock on the field?  Who fenced off the territory and cultivated it? These are the germane questions. They are rooted in millennia of human practice, not in deductions from axioms.

3. Exchange: Persons who have acquired property by the first two rules and the fourth may exchange property according to mutually agreed terms.  One possible exchange is collecting rent, so much for such-and-such a duration, for the permission to use one’s property without gaining title to it. Exchange also includes gift-giving, which is an exchange of a tangible good for an intangible good (the donor’s satisfaction in having satisfied another).

4. Increase: Any transformation that my property undergoes is also my property.  If I own the land, I also own what grows on it, any resource lying below it that I may unearth, and any improvements I make to it.  One also has title to interest on money one lends out if lender and borrower agree for, all things being equal, an amount of present money is demonstrably worth more to the borrower than that same amount in the future.

If a person acquires ownership of a physical object in accordance with these rules of social cooperation, then he owns it justly, rightly, or by right.  We may say he “has a right” to it as long as we do not understand a right to be an occult property of a person. “Right” refers to a relationship between a person and a physical object such that it defines a boundary for other persons in their relations with him.  Property radiates, as it were, lines of demarcation that morally limit what nonowners may do.  With one’s own property one may do as one wishes, logically excepting interfering with another’s use of his property.

These rules are not conventions, like which side of the road to drive on. Since rational reflection upon their denial proves their cogency, they are not superstitions.  The persistent and widespread violation of those rules will destroy social cooperation and halt the attainment of all the ends that depend on it.  We can never justify the violation of those rules, because morality itself derives its point from the human imperative to seek good lives (in which all, or almost all, of our needs are met continuously, regularly, and harmoniously).  Morality is a mean to the end of enabling us all to pursue good lives.  A society in which some people trample with impunity on the good life-seeking efforts of others is one that diminishes the prospects of good life-achieving for all.

Among property owners A, B, and C, several kinds of voluntary or peaceful transaction are possible. What A may not do is force B to make a gift to C, to exchange goods or money with C, or lend to C; or to forcibly prevent B from doing any of those things. There is nothing economic over and above production and exchange called “distribution.” There is, of course, political force, which is counter-economic.  Redistribution entails the threat of such force.  Why?  Because voluntary exchanges between property owners almost never yield outcomes that satisfy the redistributionist, who is usually an egalitarian.  A the egalitarian observes that B has more of x than C does.  A evaluates that situation negatively, but is not content merely to evaluate.  He is determined to realize equality.  There is another value, however, that complicates his attempt, namely, the right to deploy one’s property as one sees fit (with the appropriate proviso). 

Redistribution” is therefore a euphemism for a form of theft of the Robin Hood variety.  The money or other resource that is to be transferred from one party to another is not lying around unowned.  As soon as it is produced, it is owned.  Unless forcibly prevented, the owner then consumes it or exchanges it for something he prefers. No one is entitled to any good or service if there is no title, and there is none without conformity to the rules of just acquisition.

Egalitarians do not care much about all this, even though a society that respects property rights creates increasingly higher standards of living for the least well off.  For them the only salient fact is the disparity between one person’s holdings and another’s.  The “remedy” that A the egalitarian proposes is to deprive B of some of his nominal property and to give that “excess” to C.  I say “nominal,” for while B or C may be in physical possession of those goods, the redistributionist cannot easily acknowledge that either one owns anything in the sense of being immune from State confiscation. Everyone is subject to redistributory expropriation (except, of course, the expropriators who recognize no limits what they de facto, if not de jure, own).

Again, if voluntary exchanges yielded egalitarian-friendly patterns of outcomes, the thought of “redistribution” would never enter the egalitarian’s head. But they don’t, so it does, and the one alternative to a voluntary exchange is an involuntary one, that is, a forced exchange.  Philosophers have not regarded the use of force as a morally trivial matter. He who undertakes to coerce another has the burden of justifying that undertaking. Therefore, if redistribution is not to be understood as charity, but rather as an entitlement that purports to “correct” the course that charity (a species of voluntary exchange) takes, we must ask when and where the contractual proposal to exchange titles occurred. The answer is: Never and nowhere.


Lingering Equivocationitis

If one word refers to two essentially different things, it may lull us into ascribing to the one qualities or relations that belong only to the other.  The ensuing confusion cancels the advantage of not having to coin a new word.  Historically, for example, “property” has meant something physical. Now, however, “intellectual property,” which refers to a nonphysical pattern that one can record, has entered our language.  If one “owns” a pattern, then one can legally exercise control over the physical property of others insofar as it can record the pattern. One may exercise such control by enjoining the owners of recording device from recording the pattern one allegedly owns.

Similarly, if by “contract” we primarily mean a proposed exchange of titles to property, we risk generating confusion if we also use “contract” to refer the rules of social cooperation. For eventually someone will ask, “Since (primary) contracts are enforceable, who is authorized to enforce the social contract?” To which the ready reply comes, “Why, the State, of course!”  The term “social contract” began life innocently as an extension of “contract,” but negligent custodians raised a delinquent that now pushes its nobler forebear around.  By a conceptual equivalent of Gresham’s Law, a bogus term can drive a sound one out of the realm of discourse, just as “intellectual property” and “social justice” have.1

Mr. Burns relies on yet another analogy, one between representative agency such as arises on the free market and the kind we find in elective political office.  Unlike true servants of clients, politicians promise to confer benefits with the proceeds of taxation. But they are, according to Mr. Burns, just as rightly to be regarded as our representatives and agents as lawyers and talent managers. 

The “similarities” blind Mr. Burns to the difference between the State and institutions that are formed by voluntary exchanges on free markets. The latter are peaceful uses of justly held property.  The State, however, necessarily violates property rights.  It cannot do anything else unless it first does that.  The democratic participation of millions in the race to become a net tax-consumer does not compensate for the injustice of taxation.  That is, just because millions of people are deceive themselves into believing that the value of their “redistributed” benefits exceed the taxes they are forced to pay does not justify the racket.2 Whatever the State does that coincides with the provision of justice it can do only because it commits a basic injustice. Its coincidental dispensing of justice is also far more expensive and inefficient than need be.  It also creates problems that invite more State intervention, etc., ad infinitum, ad mortem.  Even when the State charges a “fee for service,” it has customers only because it forcibly monopolizes the provision of that service.


The State: Who Protects Us from The Protectors?

The State is a relatively small number of individuals organized as an unjust monopoly of the means of force over a territory.  The State compels you to make “gifts” to and exchanges with it and to compel or forbid exchanges between you and another person.  This distinguishes it from every other institution, even condo boards.  The State maintains itself by forced tribute or taxation.  In “exchange” for this “gift,” the State promises nothing specific that it can be held to.  It does not go out of business when it fails to deliver the goods.

My analogy between the State and Vinny the extortionist is therefore intact. The State is Vinny writ large, just as Vinny is potentially an incipient State.  Every State has it origins in a Vinny, a big guy with big arms and a bigger club or axe.  His descendants may wear fine suits, speak correctly, and know which fork to use for the salad, but that should not deceive us.  Like Vinny, the State does not like to be ignored, and because it has a monopoly of force over a given territory, it can compel one’s undivided attention.  Like Vinny, the State offers to protect its victims from violence when it is what they most need protection from.


Welcome to the Collective (Resistance Is Not Necessarily Futile)

I do not have “reservations” about Mr. Burns’ use of the term “collective decision making.”  I reject it a species of loose talk that philosopher should avoid, for it is not clear what “collective” modifies.  The process by which individuals reach a decision is collective (more than one individual is involved), but the decision (the Aye or Nay, up or down vote) is not.  The votes do not, as it were, “fuse” into one vote, any more than the voters fuse into one voter, even when in unanimous agreement.  There is simply the favoring of one of the two alternatives, and the ruling out of the other. 

Condo board members must deliberate and then conclude their deliberations.  “Majority rules” is a less-than-ideal way to conclude when there is a need to do so, but no unanimity. There are others, however, and they are worse: “minority rules” or “nobody rules.”  Group members are free to resist the majority by foregoing the benefit of remaining with the group. The friends of Mr. Burns’ example who lunch at a less desirable restaurant demonstrate that they prefer the company of their other friends to a better restaurant’s ambience.  There’s no forcible imposition and, in the end, Mr. Burns conceded as much.

If a group’s actual performance diverges from a member’s expectations, he can re-evaluate his continued membership in the group.  The “bait-and-switch” model of condo board behavior that Mr. Burns described must be the rare exception or there would be no condominiums.  The fact of abuse is never a good argument against appropriate use.  The initiation of force on which the State depends for its existence, however, is intrinsically, not accidentally, abusive.

No contracting party may alter the terms of the contract.  Sometimes, however, one party can perform the contract only in a way that was not foreseeable in detail.  The fine print on the reverse of an event ticket may lead a potential spectator to say, “No thanks!”  By now it is common knowledge that the ticket seller may use a buyer’s image in broadcasts of the event.  Any ticket purchaser unwilling to be photographed is given a refund on demand.  The principle here is that the event’s producers decide who gets to enjoy what they own. If an individual chooses to forego the pleasure of being a spectator in exchange for anonymity, we have a case, not of the violation of rights, but rather of their exercise.

A condominium requires unit owners to entrust management to a subset of themselves.  That is not what citizens do in a “representative democracy,” which extends its reach not only over voters who did not “win,” but also over nonvoters.  “Represen-tatives” deliberate about allocating forcibly extracted tribute.  Now, one is free to live in a condominium, or a traditional house, or a shack on the side of a mountain.  But there is no freedom to ignore the State’s demands, its picking of our pockets for nearly half the year, its regulations, or its propaganda. I fail to see how several thousand mere mortals, calling themselves the State, acquired the right to forcibly bring trillions of dollars under their control to “fix the economy” so they can break it some more, or to combat the international terror that their own brand provokes. 

Mr. Burns says I receive “a great deal of value from [my] elected representa­tives and their hired agents.” I assure him I do not, if I am in any position to judge.  In fact, I receive a great deal of disvalue from them, all of whom I would fire at once were they indeed “mine.”  That I cannot proves that they are not.


Mr. Burns says the “advantages of group cooperation will not happen in a vacuum, and will not happen out of chaos.” This is a false alternative that obscures the voluntary essence of cooperation.  Something as central to human living as language, for example, developed neither in a vacuum nor out of chaos, but mutation-by-mutation in the uncentralized mouths of millions.  No leader issuing edicts from headquarters commanded his co-ethnics to create, for example, the French language. (“Remember, at midnight we stop speaking Latin and start speaking French!”)  Cooperation in the service of common ends need never violate rights. That it must, at least occasionally, seems to be the presupposition of Mr. Burns and of many others.

This idea that in order to enjoy the blessings of social cooperation we must, however reluctantly, sanction a little coercion here and there, is incoherent. If people are cooperating, there is no basis for wondering “whether there are things that the group can morally do as a whole that the individual ought not do as an individual.”   There has been no greater cloak for the crimes of State than the notion that its agents need not be held to the same moral standards as the rest of us, that they may murder, steal, and enslave, but punish any one else for doing the same.  When Mr. Burns seriously entertains that idea, I am uncertain how to interpret his denial that he is “suggesting . . . that ‘the group’ (or ‘society’) is an agent apart from its members.”  That is exactly what the normal reading of his words suggests.

"Redistribution" is a mock-clinical term that masks from its beneficiaries, of whom most are net tax-losers, a violent reality. It need never deceive us if we only insist on an answer to one simple question: Who owns what?


1. "[T]he right to contract is strictly derivable from the right of private property, and therefore . . . the only enforceable contracts . . . should be those where the failure of one party to abide by the contract implies the theft of property from the other party.” Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, 2nd ed., 1998 [1982]. Available through  This book elaborates the position outlined here.

2. Historian Paul Gottfried’s recent commentary is relevant: “[W]hat power is about is being able to force others to do as one wants. While money may be a means to achieve this end, monopolizing force, as the post-medieval state has done, is an even better way to get others to do one’s will. Moreover, in a mass democracy . . . political leaders can acquire mass endorsement in return for redistributing wealth and by holding periodic plebiscites—organized by parties that belong to the system. Unlike “dictatorships” and traditional aristocratic societies, “democracies” can create consensus around their exercise and extension of power. . . . It may be the ultimate Marxist superstition to think that economic disparities count for more than political onesor that wealthy people must be in charge of the state because the government leaves them alone and takes their bribes.” “Sea of Bile,”, August 7, 2003.  And one can no longer responsibly presuppose the value of democracy after the publication of Hans Hermann-Hoppe, Democracy: The God That Failed, Transaction Publishers, Rutgers, NJ: 2001. Available through


*This essay first appeared in Philosophy Pathways, Number 65, 24 August 2003.  It is a rejoinder to Stuart Burns, "Redistributionism and the Social Contract: A Reply to Tony Flood," Philosophy Pathways, Number 64, 10 August 2003.  


Abolition versus Redistribution