Property as Theft: An Introduction

This is another (appropriately edited) response to a Quora question that asked, “In what ways could profit be considered theft”?

My opinion on the issue as regards profit as being theft basically combines Proudhon, Marx, Locke and Pogge.

In actual fact, people can control physical property. If I have a backpack of stuff, then it’s under my control.
“Ownership” is a value statement. It’s an idea that an object isn’t just in my possession but really belongs to me, and someone else having it without my consent or transaction means they don’t really “own” it, just have it.

For certain societies to work, we have to accept that some intangible assets or some assets that are somewhat abstract can be owned. We have to accept that a certain parcel of land can be viewed as belonging to someone, usually through some kind of deed. We have to accept that a factory, and therefore its output, “belongs” to that person. Even ideas can be considered to be “owned”.

Property is therefore a collective agreement. It’s an idea that says, “We’re all going to come up with some maxim that says that the amount of stuff that people get is their own. It shouldn’t be able to be taken away”.

Of course, enforcing that collective agreement requires things like police. So people have to pay some money into the collective chest so that everyone can hopefully keep more.

So when profit, or property of any kind, can be theft is when either that social contract is somehow illegitimate or someone is breaking that social contract.

A mobster and a corporation that is making profit through illegal mechanisms such as dumping share the trait that they have a lot of property, either currency or some other kind of property, can be said to be stealing their profit because they’re violating the social contract of laws under which you can own something.

So too is someone engaging in tax evasion, or welfare fraud, or embezzlement.

These are somewhat obvious points. What’s less obvious and a lot more controversial is the idea that someone making money without breaking the laws could still have no right to it.

Locke, as Pogge has argued, had an implicit justification for inequality. The idea was that society elevates us above a state of nature. If I make 100,000 widgets a year and you make 50,000, but in a state of nature we both make 10,000, that’s a justifiable arrangement.

Of course, Locke’s position is minimalistic, and people like Rawls criticized that idea harshly.

But the point is that you have to be making 10,000 widgets.

The moment you’re making 9,000, then every one of my widgets above 10,000 is theft.

Globally, there are billions facing food inequality, the inability to access water, or the inability to access shelter.

Steinbeck in Grapes of Wrath pointed out that people were starving while oranges were rotting. A lot of people in the world could literally do better if they could forage.

That means that every single person in their societies, and arguably every one globally, that has more profit or income or net worth than what they’d get in a state of nature is stealing it.

Considering that these arrangements have been brought about by force, that theft is actually violent theft.

Consider a homeless person who tries to live on a national park. Police and rangers will run him out.

But that person is merely trying to survive the best he can. Society failed to provide for him.

Of course, if that homeless person had a good job and lost it because of some incompetence or mistake, how much blame do they have? How much blame can we put onto the educational system or bad parenting? How much can we put upon labor mismatches and geography? How much blame can we attribute to the lack of mental health infrastructure and services?

These are where these issues get complicated. In a state of nature, if I get eaten by a lion, that’s on me. But if I got pushed into a lion’s den, that’s on someone else.

You’ll also notice that Locke’s assumption implicitly limits property rights too. Locke defended property rights, but why is it that a person who makes billions is entitled to those billions? If there needs to be taxes to, say, pay for the collective welfare, and those taxes will cut their wealth down to size, they’re still doing better than a state of nature.

This idea of the legitimacy of the social contract is what is actually at stake in these concepts. A great example is when we talk about debt enforcement. Plenty of countries in the Third World have what we call debts, but those debts were rung up by dictators propped up from abroad. Why should the population have to pay for the privilege of having been brutalized? The Greek government today has an excellent case for why Germany in particular owes them reparations. It’s a complicated debate, but it centers on the idea that history matters.

I personally argue for a participatory economy as outlined by Michael Albert, which you can learn more about at Introduction – Participatory Economics. While I do not think that such an economy is the only just one, I do not believe that our present economy matches even the minimal standards of justice.


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