Propertarianism as Explained by a Libertarian
For those who are heavily involved in online discussions of liberty, a relatively new yet disruptive voice has arisen in the form of Curt Doolittle and his advocates. Presenting many novel arguments on the nature of property and aggression, he has founded an institute in Kiev, Ukraine christened The Propertarian Institute and from which he supports “Propertarianism”.
Unfortunately for those curious, it can be difficult to understand his work. He has not authored any books at this point, preferring to present his theory in a stream of consciousness manner on his website. The Wikipedia entry on the subject seems completely oblivious to his existence, as well. As a result, I hope to present here a decent summary of propertarianism’s most important axioms. I’m not an accredited expert, but I have gathered this information by reading several dozen of his posts and painstakingly listening to hours of his videos. Obviously, if I miss some key development in his positions, I’ll gladly consider them and edit accordingly.
What is Propertarianism at its core?
Put another way, what motivates this philosophy? Doolittle frequently points out that libertarian thinkers speak in normative or moral terms. That is, we say, “Humans ought to act like this.” The NAP, for instance, is a normative statement. It is how we wish everyone would organize their governments.
Doolittle views this as insufficient. Specifically, he points out that, without arguments about the benefits of the NAP, we can not expect humanity to adopt its policies. As a result, he provides propertarianism, which seeks to make empirical arguments for the existence of property (as opposed to normative ones) and in turn to create a system by which humanity can know the boundaries of behavior that will produce a peaceful, high trust, low transaction cost “polity”. Essentially, what rules does a society need to allow citizens to devote as little of their resources to defense, so that they can focus on prosperity and cooperation? This approach has led to some important differences between propertarian and libertarian definitions.
Property en Toto
Also termed “demonstrated property”, this is the first concept outsiders need to learn to understand propertarian thought.
Demonstrated Property, or Property-en-Toto, refers to the property that humans demonstrate a propensity to retaliate against the imposition of costs upon.
This is a bit of a circular definition, so I would recommend replacing “property” with “anything” to get a real idea of what he means.
We should start with the idea of “imposition of costs”, as it is key to how property itself can be acquired. Essentially, costs are imposed when the quality of something is diminished. For example, if I burn your house down, a cost has very clearly been imposed, as it will require effort/money to restore it to its former state.
It is important to note, though, that “imposition of cost” is an empirical term. That is, if humanity, by and large, views some activity as imposing costs, then it does. Thus, it is a very wide-ranging concept.
The second element of this definition is the idea of retaliation. According to Doolittle, this is the true defining characteristic of property, as the purpose of property is to avoid conflict so that cooperation can flourish. Individuals and organizations demonstrate something is property by defending it.
Thus, this entire definition allows for humanity to empirically, as opposed to normatively, discover exactly what we should consider to be property.
It should be noted here that Doolittle has elsewhere stated that property en toto (ctrl-f for “toto”) also requires ownership to have been gained without imposing costs on others.
As some of you would probably guess, this leads to a very broad set of things that can be labeled property. Here are a few examples from his defining article:
- Status and Class: So, you’re allowed to sue for defamation under this idea of property.
- Memories, Concepts, and Identities: If somebody markets a soda as Pepsi, and it’s really Coca-Cola, that’s a property violation that both of those companies could sue that vendor over.
- Commons: “Those objects into which we have invested our forgone opportunities, our efforts, or our material assets, in order to aggregate capital from multiple individuals for mutual gain.”
- Physical Commons: The territory one lives in.
- Institutional Property: A people’s government would be considered their property, for instance. Also, a people’s norms, manners, and ethics would be considered another example of property under this. This is an empirical observation.
Spectrum of Aggression
The other element of propertarianism that needs to be addressed here is Doolittle’s definition and spectrum of aggression. According to Doolittle, as an individual progresses from the negative to the positive, their contribution to a liberated and prosperous polity will increase. This spectrum is taken straight from this video he made available on YouTube.
-3 : Aggression against another person’s property-en-toto: This would include assaulting somebody’s person, as well as harming their physical property.
-2 : Steal: Only imposing costs against property not including the person’s body through physical violence OR fraud.
-1 : Fraud: Imposing costs through fraud.
+0 : Non-aggression against property en toto: You are not harming anybody’s property, but you are also not engaging in positive behavior with the community, either.
+1 : Trade: Pretty self-explanatory.
+2 : Reciprocal insurance of property en toto: If somebody harms your neighbor, you help your neighbor get compensated.
+3 : Invest in commons: Invest time, effort, money, or opportunity costs into some sort of common.
+4 : Pacification: Proactively impose this standard of aggression and property en toto on those around you, if they are imposing costs on you. For example, if you have invested in a common property and others are using it without also paying for its maintenance, you can go out and impose those costs on them. It’s worth noting that Propertarian Commons can be far more reaching than a public park or ocean fisheries. He’s written that an atmosphere of cooperation is the first commons, for instance. So, if somebody were to move to AnCapistan and then not get insurance from a DRO, but instead rely on everybody having that insurance to provide a safe atmosphere, then others in the community would be justified if forcing him to do so.
Doolittle’s View of the Heritage of Libertarian Thought
While the previous sections explain Doolittle’s philosophy, it is worth mentioning his view of libertarians, and specifically Rothbard. From the sidebar on his site, we know that he views his ideology as the empirically formalized offspring of “western aristocratic egalitarian philosophy”. Specifically, he has formed his thoughts in the context of a ternary examination of cooperation. That is, you can cooperate (be proactive), refuse to cooperate (be passive), or kill them and take their stuff (once again proactive).
Secondly, he views libertarian thought as having originated in an atmosphere where violence is explicitly prohibited, but everything else is still on the board.
It is only binary when I’m in the ghetto and the monarchy leaves us alone as long as we don’t engage in violence.
The monarchy cannot trust either of us to tell the truth, so the monarchy limits its definition of crime to violence, while tolerating unethical and immoral behavior.
This he refers to as “ghetto ethics”, and it is his view that Rothbard specifically developed his philosophy in this context.
It is easy to see that, if I am not allowed to retaliate against you when you commit fraud because doing so will invite judgment from the monarchy, then fraud will run rampant, as the fraudsters have no fear of reprisal.
In my continued research of this subject, I continually find myself thinking that Doolittle must be unaware of the full extent of the implication that all contracts are indeed property contracts. For example, if I sell you a car and claim that the maintenance was done regularly and on schedule, then you find out that wasn’t true, under the property theory of contract, the sale would be voided. At that point, whatever money you gave me would legally revert back to you, and any attempt to retain it by me could be met with legal violence. For some reason, Doolittle doesn’t see this and instead believes that the NAP/IVP would allow such behavior.
Secondly, his discussion of government as a common property of the people is also naive, as it completely destroys the notion of individual rights if true. What is government? The legal right to enforce your will on other individuals, provided you meet some criteria. Furthermore, those individuals have no reasonable means of withdrawing from this arrangement. Thus, what rights can an individual possibly have?
It also greatly complicates the discussion of what is right and wrong. Simply applying the NAP reveals the tyrannical nature of government in seconds. Under Propertarian thought, this becomes much more murky.
Third, the idea that somebody can hold a communities customs as their property and retaliate against other individuals is an extremely dangerous notion. Gays rights, female suffrage, slavery. All of these very important steps towards a moral society violated customs. You might claim this is a straw man, but only slavery imposes a cost on an individual who could lay claim to that property before the tyrant could. That is, a slave has a first claim to his body at all times. Any violation of his body through violence is inherently evil, even under propertarian thought. A gay man, even if he has been gay his entire life and has lived in the community he now inhabits for that duration as well, would be changing customs that the rest of the community had lived with well before he decided to live as a publicly gay individual. Thus, the rest of the townsfolk have homesteaded the custom of only heterosexual marriages and possess the right to retaliate against him violently for violating that custom.
It is here that we begin to see the value of the the fact that the NAP is normative and not empirical. Simply formalizing what people do in a system of logic does not mean that what they are doing is right. The NAP is a simple moral stance that pushes people to fight for what is RIGHT, rather than what is COMMON. The NAP is designed specifically to end the initiation of force, and therefore create an atmosphere of maximum cooperation and prosperity. This is not a liability.
I hope all of you have found this summary informative. I tried to source as well as I could, but any additions you have to reinforce my description would be most welcome. Also, as I’m sure some supporters of Doolittle will be reading this, if I’ve misrepresented Propertariansim, let me know with citations and I will gladly update this post.