4. ‘Redistribution’ as
Who Owns What?*
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
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
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.
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).
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).
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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 . Available
through Amazon.com. This book elaborates the position outlined here.
2. Historian Paul
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 ones
that wealthy people must be in charge of the state because the government
leaves them alone and takes their bribes.” “Sea of Bile,” LewRockwell.com,
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 Amazon.com.
*This essay first appeared in
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.