A Meta-Defense of Mutualism

Often in ancap circles, one finds criticisms of the specific recommendations of mutualism, especially the idea of occupancy/use as being the basis of property.  However, I think that some of these criticisms somewhat miss the point, and I thought I would do everyone the pleasure of clarifying the debate.  I myself am not a mutualist, although my views are heavily influenced by Tucker and Carson, and I think that the principle of mutuality can be integrated within an Aristotelian liberal approach, as part of the virtue of justice.

A common argument against the occupancy and use standard is a reductio ad absurdum: one often finds the example of a man holding a piano.  He can do anything he wants with it, as long as he doesn’t put it down and leave, because he would have relinquished his claim to it.  I think that this misses the point, for several reasons.

First off, the mutualist approach to property is purely consequentialist; there is nothing inherent to mutualism that demands that occupancy and use is the only standard by with property is to be judged.  By contrast, most ancaps take a partially or completely deontological approach to property, and derive it from first principles (part of the issue also stems from the tendency of some ancaps to take property rights out of their proper context).  Thus, from the ancap’s perspective, it makes sense to use the reductio mentioned above as a condemnation of mutualism as a whole, while the mutualist will think it a strawman.

The actual mutualist position is that rules for property acquisition and abandonment will follow the general social consensus.  Occupancy and use is upheld because it is thought to be the best general standard (whether it is or not is another issue entirely), but the way that it is applied will follow what people think is fair and just.  Thus, a squatter who moves in to your house while you go out for groceries almost certainly won’t be considered the rightful owner; that’s not fair or just, and it wouldn’t have the best consequences for society in general.  (And to anyone concerned about the use of the word “social consensus”, just substitute “common law”.)

Also, the differences between occupancy/use and neo-Lockean property rules are often overblown.  They are differences of degree, not of kind; there are just different standards of what constitutes abandonment and acquisition.  In Anarchotopia, I would expect that different jurisdictions and communities would have different property rules, ranging from mutualist to neo-Lockean to proviso Lockean and geolibertarian, and mixes of them.  Roderick Long’s Land-Locked in the JLS issue on Mutualist Politcal Economy, and Carson’s rejoinders in the same issue, are good further reading.  Also, an old post of mine on the paralells between Douglas B. Rasmussen & Douglas J. Den Uyl and Kevin Carson on the philosophy of property rights.

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~ by wombatron on 05/06/2009.

2 Responses to “A Meta-Defense of Mutualism”

  1. Good post.

  2. Excellent post.

    “In Anarchotopia, I would expect that different jurisdictions and communities would have different property rules, ranging from mutualist to neo-Lockean to proviso Lockean and geolibertarian, and mixes of them.”

    I also think so (I’m anarchist without adjectives). This is a little different from traditional Friedmanite/later Tuckerite vision of free society. My arguments for “occupancy and use” standard are quite consequentialist (concerns about absentee ownership, problem of “the kings of Ruritania”, the labor problem).

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