Friday, January 11, 2013

What is a voluntary agreement?

Today, a rather stupid anonymous commenter left this message in response to my post, The Libertarian Argument:
How can you not see the difference between a lease, which was signed by the tenant, and a decree that was forced upon a citizen by the majority? One is a voluntary agreement, the other is force.
The commenter makes a number of rather obvious errors, most notably that that Libertarian argument does not usually consist of how to justify the initiation of coercion, but rather that the initiation of coercion is intrinsically unjustifiable. Of course, as I discuss in the post, the Libertarian argument is fundamentally in bad faith: agreements they don't like are unjustifiable because they entail the initiation of coercion; agreements they like aren't the initiation of coercion because they are justified. I find this "argument" as tedious and stupid as Divine Command Theory.

But this comment, while completely stupid, does suggest a more interesting question: what is an agreement? What do agreements mean? When is an agreement voluntary? The Libertarian position is straightforward: Agreements are what Libertarians want them to be, they mean what Libertarians want them to mean, and they're voluntary when Libertarians like them (and involuntary when they don't like them). Libertarians interpret "voluntary agreement" like Christians interpret the Bible.

But there are more subtle issues (more subtle than a Libertarian is like shorter than Manute Bol) about agreements.

What is a voluntary agreement and what does it mean? Well, first of all, an agreement has to provide mutual benefit: all parties to an agreement have to be better off overall than if the agreement did not happen. Second, all parties to a voluntary agreement must be able to forego the agreement without harm. Finally, an agreement cannot be fully explicit: there must be a social process to interpret the meanings of agreements. But even with this definition, there are still notable controversies.

First, although an agreement has to provide mutual benefit, there's no determinist how that mutual benefit is allocated among the parties. The allocation of the "surplus benefit" is a matter of bargaining power, not logic, which then raises the question: what are legitimate and illegitimate ways of obtaining and exercising bargaining power? Is possession of money legitimate bargaining power? How about votes? How about violence, threatened or actual? People have any number of positions on these issues, but there's no single rationally correct answer; they're political questions.

Second, what constitutes "harm"? It's relatively uncontroversial that getting killed or beaten constitutes harm, so that giving my wallet to a mugger who points a gun at me is not a voluntary agreement. But what about natural harms? Does freezing or starving to death constitute a harm that renders an agreement involuntary? How about becoming stateless, ejected from the protection of a society? Is it harm to lose some portion of the mutual benefit of an agreement because of a change in bargaining power. No one is self-sufficient; we all need to rely on others for our physical survival. Does our mutual dependence entail at least some obligation on the part of others to assist the survival of others? Again, these are not rational but political questions.

Third, how do we resolve disagreements between parties to an agreement about what a particular agreement actually means? What, precisely, have the parties agreed to? What do we do about these disputes? Again, how to interpret an agreement is as much a matter of not rationality but politics.

It's not enough to lay out just a consistent set of answers to these questions, because there are a very large number (perhaps infinite) number of consistent answer sets. Why should I prefer your set of answers to another?

One problem (out of many) with not only Libertarianism (right-anarchists) but also left-anarchism is that anarchists simply push all the interesting political questions to "voluntary agreements" and assume all these problematic questions are thereby solved at a stroke. I think this position is at best naive, and at worst dishonest.

23 comments:

  1. You're trying to claim that libertarians are hypocritical when it comes to agreements, that they arbitrarily choose what is right and what is wrong. I think that is very dishonest of you, and you simply haven't taken the time to investigate the underlying reasoning.

    A contract is an agreement signed VOLUNTARILY by two parties for mutual benefit. A breach of the contract itself by either party is an initiation of force, much like theft. If the contract is breached, violence is permitted (but only the minimum necessary to "right the wrong").

    That's it. Nothing is decided by whim or special pleading, as your article seems to suggest.

    /V

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    1. Again, you have failed to read and understand simple declarative and interrogative sentences in the English language, both in the post as well as the comments policy.

      Are all Libertarians as stupid and obtuse as you?

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    2. *It's not enough to lay out just a consistent set of answers to these questions, because there are a very large number (perhaps infinite) number of consistent answer sets. Why should I prefer your set of answers to another?*

      I think that part should answer your question.

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  2. If I understand correctly the libertarian position, they tend to say that voluntary agreement consists of only the two parties implied agreeing with mutually advantageous gains. The exchange is validated by the subjective evaluations of each party ( this is a very austrian point - the fact that for libertarians there are no objective standards of evaluating the agreement only the subjective evaluations of the parties implied which are sufficient for validating the exchange).

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    1. This wouldn't make sense. If I subjectively don't want to pay my rent, nor do I subjectively want to leave, then making me do either would then appear to be coercion.

      If everyone actually agrees, then there's no problem. All of our social institutions are there to manage what happens when we do not agree.

      Of course, the Randian answer is that two rational people will never subjectively disagree; Rand holds that all disagreements, even about subjective things such as values, are evidence of at least one party's irrationality. Because irrational beings are not people, and have no political standing, one may coerce them as arbitrarily and unilaterally as we coerce animals.

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    2. Well of course I was talking about exchanges of property. A libertarian will tell you that a person has full rights of use over his property and the conditions on which he gives it or lends it. If you don't accept my demands (rent) then you must leave as your staying there conflicts with my rights to use my property as I want to and constitutes a coercion on your part.
      On a level I tend to agree with the randian argument (if there are objective values then there are right/wrong answers to questions regarding values) but i don't think rationality has any weight regarding how we ought to treat things (rather the ability to feel pain,etc are relevant here). Of course there is a gap regarding animals when libertarians elaborate the theory,because as you can see If I own an animal then I can use them in any way I want (since he is my property).

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  3. If you don't accept my demands (rent) then you must leave as your staying there conflicts with my rights to use my property as I want to and constitutes a coercion on your part.

    There are several problems here.

    First, read the article again. The point is not to answer the questions consistently, but to sell the answers. Either make a political case, or controvert my assertion and argue that the answers really are rational, not political.

    Second, you seem to be switching between subjectivity in your first comment here and objectivity in your most recent. Pick one.

    The third problem is a specific instance of the second. Are you using "coercion" in its objectively determinable sense, or in a socially constructed sense? Does "coercion" label an objectively determinable set of physical facts, or is "coercion" a synonym for "unjust (in my opinion)." As I've written earlier, I see the equivocation often in the Libertarian/Randian justification of their position: on the one hand, one action (e.g. taxation) is unjust precisely because it is (objectively) coercive; on the other hand, another action (e.g. eviction) is not (subjectively) coercive because it is just. It's just as tedious unpacking this poor logic with Libertarians and Randroids as it is with Jesoids.

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  4. Note too that I've written extensively on Libertarianism and on Ayn Rand.

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  5. I was switching between my views (as I am not a libertarian) and those exposed by libertarians (I am not a subjectivist regarding the ontological status of values,neither a randian regarding the metaethical justification of their existence).
    Coercion I think is a pretty vague term if you go very deep into it (as all concepts are perhaps) but let's take the case of taxation.
    Libertarians give the example of taxation as a form of coercion because the government proclaims itself a co-owner of the property of some individuals and it forces them to hand over some resources (if this was voluntary then it would be called donations to the government).
    This quote should be an exposition:

    "By a "forced" separation of ownership and control we mean a separation brought about against the will of its owner. Although owners might be forced both by governments and by private parties, government interventionism is far more important in practice. This is so not only because of the greater quantitative impact, but also because, in our western societies at least, interventionism is usually enshrined in the law and thus can be anticipated.

    Let us first stress that government interventionism must not be confused with a mixed economy. In the latter the government is one of several owners and it controls only its own property. By contrast, an interventionist government commands other property owners to use their resources in a different way than these owners themselves would have used them. In so doing, the interventionist government makes some person or group A (for example itself) the uninvited co-owner of other agent B's property. The essence of interventionism is precisely this: institutionalized uninvited co-ownership.

    Government makes itself the uninvited and unwanted co-owner whenever it taxes, regulates, and prohibits. The specific forms of taxation, regulation, and prohibition are myriad. The important fact is that any form of government interventionism, by its very nature, entails a forced separation of ownership and effective control.

    Taxation means that the government proclaims itself the owner of (a certain share of) resources belonging to its subjects; and that it forces them to eventually hand over these resources, which the latter would not have yielded voluntarily (otherwise one would not speak of taxation, but of donations to the government). Today taxation does not concern concrete physical items, but their monetary equivalent. It follows that, until the tax is paid, the government imposes itself as the co-owner of virtually all physical assets of the taxpayers. However, until the tax is paid, the resources in question are typically controlled by the citizen.

    Regulation means that the government proscribes a certain use of certain resources. This use is typically not the one that the citizens would have chosen (otherwise the regulation would be pointless). Again, the government thereby proclaims itself the co-owner of these resources. Consider the case of price controls. If the government fixes a minimum wage rate, it effectively proclaims itself the co-owner of workers, because it does not allow them to work under conditions they see fit. And it also proclaims itself the co-owner of the capitalists or, more precisely, of the money that the latter plan to spend on labor. However, the government does not permanently control the actions of the workers, and it does not interfere with other uses of the capitalists' money."
    Since as stated "The essence of interventionism is precisely this: institutionalized uninvited co-ownership." I think libertarians tend to think of coercion as a objective thing, eviction is objectively non-coercive because it is justificated by the use of property. Taxation is unjust because it breaches the use of property. What is yours is also objectively defined by the lockean justification of homesteading,etc.

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    1. hm can't edit
      Source can be found here http://mises.org/daily/2935

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  6. I was switching between my views . . . and those exposed by libertarians

    Fair enough.

    I am not a libertarian

    If you're not a Libertarian, I'm less inclined to consider your own views authoritative, for obvious reasons.

    Coercion I think is a pretty vague term if you go very deep into it (as all concepts are perhaps) but let's take the case of taxation.

    I dunno. Objectively, it seems to mean at the very least threatening or exercising physical force against my body to induce me to do something I would not do without the threat or exercise of that force.

    This quote should be an exposition:

    You must cite quotations, summaries, and paraphrases of others' writing. I do not require any specific citation format, but you must cite well enough so I can find the original. I have access to a university library and online database, so a url to an online journal is usually sufficient. If any readers are without access to the source material, they can ask me to fetch and summarize the original.

    Libertarians give the example of taxation as a form of coercion because the government proclaims itself a co-owner of the property of some individuals and it forces them to hand over some resources (if this was voluntary then it would be called donations to the government).

    This seems like a reasonably accurate summary of the quotation, so I will simply address it here.

    First, ownership is a social construct. There is no such thing as objective ownership. Second, the government does not declare itself the owner of anything; the government is the set of institutions with, in this context, the legitimacy to impose taxation. It is a Libertarian eccentricity to cast everything in terms of ownership. Third, the government does not declare itself anything, like all social constructs, including ownership, the legitimacy of the government to do anything is socially constructed by the members of society.

    Finally, nothing in either the summary or the quotation supports objectivity, as opposed to consistent determinability; i.e. there is no attempt to argue that we ought to construct ownership, intervention, or government action according to the author's preferences.

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    1. Actually, you should name at least the author and title in a citation, so online searches could in theory reveal the citation.

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  7. Would you say that self-ownership is a social construct?

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  8. "Ownership" usually denotes a complex of socially constructed ideas, but I'm not particularly averse to specialized definitions. So it depends on what you mean by "self-ownership."

    We might use the Wikipedia definition of Self-ownership as "the concept of property in one's own person, expressed as the moral or natural right of a person to have bodily integrity, and be the exclusive controller of his own body and life. According to G. Cohen, the concept of self-ownership is that 'each person enjoys, over himself and his powers, full and exclusive rights of control and use, and therefore owes no service or product to anyone else that he has not contracted to supply.'"

    In one sense, this definition is trivial, at least until we develop some sort of mind control: it is physically impossible under most circumstances for my body to do other than what my mind wills it to do. Of course, someone who was physically stronger could grab my hand and start punching me with it, but this is not a particularly interesting exception.

    In nontrivial senses, the Wiki definition is one particular way to socially construct the boundaries of individual action, but there's no particular objective reason we ought to do so. Hoppe's argument, as summarized in the Wiki article, is obviously deficient.

    Furthermore, in a similar manner as I describe in the original post, the definition just pushes everything interesting about society and politics into the ambiguous phrase "contracted to supply." This entire post consists of questions about what constitutes a legitimate contract.

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  9. Well as you can see ownership and control are much intertwined concepts. I think the self-ownership idea is much more well defended as a natural fact about conscious beings. It is particularly odd to say I have ownership of my brain given the fact that such, an such social constructs exists; if another x social construct would exist, then I someone else would own my brain and would control it (that would bring me into nonexistence, since having a brain and using it has the unwritten assumption that we are not "soul stuff" but we are identical to our brain). So I think that you cannot argue that self ownership can be described as a social construct (so there is at least one kind of ownership that is not socially constructed - or at least that's not the justification for it). If someone would control my brain,as in making my arm behave in other ways that i want to,then someone would be using my body but I think the obvious intuition still says that I own my body and someone is forcing me (as in your example with the punch); if someone would influence me into thinking that I want to move my arm then I would no longer be and all of my beliefs, qualia, etc would be the ones that another person has.
    Anyway the point is that self-ownership seems to describe another kind of relationship of ownership which is not based on social constructs given by the fact that the object owned and the owner are the same thing.
    Of course the political question comes into being when we come to analyze other things, out in the world. Here someone could say that we must engineer from the possible multitude of ways in which we can design the principles on which a person can come to own something.
    I think the standard libertarian answer here comes in line to Rothbard and Narveson, that there are no constraints on use or appropriation as long as it does not conflict with the non-aggression principle well aggression is strictly defined as physical force or the threat of it.Now of course the question becomes why opt for such a construct. Things become a little fuzzy here; the justification is given on the grounds that (a) this would be the best way of organizing society and creating wealth (hardcore austrian economists) (b) it is the only moral way to organize society given the fact that the non-aggression principle is a moral absolute. Rothbard seems to endorse argumentation ethics,also have a look on chapter two on "The ethic of liberty for Crusoe argumentation that libertarians are fond of.
    Narveson is the better philosopher between the two and he elaborates the lockean theory of acquisition of worldly objects (mixing labour with unowned objects -> object is owned by me).Of course Locke put limits on such acquisition, he said that it must leave "enough and good for others". If I remember correctly he surpasses that critique by using the Chamberlain example used by Nozick. (have a look on chapter 7 The libertarian idea - Narveson).
    Thanks for the very funny Hoppe link

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  10. I think the self-ownership idea is much more well defended as a natural fact about conscious beings.

    Yes, there are certain physical, objective facts about the relation of body to mind. I don't see, however, how you can prove those physical facts entail anything interesting and Libertarian-y about our social and political relations. The question is: what social constraints do these independent, autonomous minds/bodies place on each other?

    [T]here are no constraints on use or appropriation as long as it does not conflict with the non-aggression principle well aggression is strictly defined as physical force or the threat of it.

    Use or appropriation of bodies? minds? external property? This is the first unwarranted extension: chair is to human as body is to mind?

    To hold absolutely that no individual should be the tool or property of another is a very standard liberal idea. Not even Hobbes really holds that the people exist for the exclusive benefit of the king. (The Hobbesian sovereign has no interests of his own; he has only the interests of the state as a whole.) But why extend this concept to property, and hold absolutely that no person's property should be the tool or under the control of another?

    Of course, some property is necessary for the "moral independence" in the above sense. The value of this kind of property is instrumental, not fundamental. I need a house to live in, therefore my house should be under my control. To take away my house, or to use it for your own purposes, is, in effect, enslaving my person.

    But what about property I do not need in order to maintain my moral independence? This is the second unwarranted extension of Libertarianism: unnecessary property is to moral independence as necessary property is to moral independence? One very clear example of unnecessary property is absentee ownership: ownership of property that is used and controlled by another. It is clear that because another person is actually using the property, I definitely do not need its use to maintain my moral independence in the same sense that I need to use my house or my fields to maintain my moral independence. Indeed, it is likely that the tenant requires the use of the property to maintain her own moral independence. Therefore, absentee ownership effectively limits the actual objective existence of universal moral independence.

    And indeed, the standard Libertarian ideology takes the language of actual liberty and turns it into a justification of slavery.

    The justifications you cite are weak. The first, that "this would be the best way of organizing society and creating wealth," is contradicted by observation, and hardcore Austrian economists have to descend either into the absurdity of praxeology or just lie about observable facts. The second, that "it is the only moral way to organize society given the fact that the non-aggression principle is a moral absolute," just defines Libertarianism to be true, which, as I note in the post, borrows the tedious absurdity of Divine Command Theory.

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  11. "Use or appropriation of bodies? minds? external property? This is the first unwarranted extension: chair is to human as body is to mind?"
    I think the idea here is voluntary,as long as someone agrees with the exchange then the exchange is morally justifiable; External objects don't have to "agree" to anything since they don't have volition so you own them once you mix your labor with them,given that nobody before you did that and claimed it. (how long can a person own something and other social and legal questions are settled by the libertarian in a possible future by thinking of possible legal voluntary systems)
    "But what about property I do not need in order to maintain my moral independence? " Libertarians tend to say that there is no utilitymeter, no objective standard to evaluate needs and preferences; preferences and needs are subjective things which reveal only when other persons act.There are no things that you don't need if you get them and even if there were, you couldn't prove that by objective standards.The big word in libertarianism, as I see it, is not liberty but voluntary (e.g. the state is coercive not because it takes money from people,it's coercive because people haven't agreed to such contracts, it isn't immoral to kick someone out of your house even if that endangers his life). Libertarianism is not a theory of morality but a theory of the proper use of force or aggression based on property rights,not morality.(source http://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block26.html )

    The justifications are given by libertarians all the time. They really believe in the a priori nature of human action,praxeology and all that jazz. It's not the facts but the interpretation ( you can say that the fossils are evidence for evolution of life on Earth or have been planted by the devil) e.g. Thomas Woods Meltdown vs Stiglitz Freefall.

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  12. I think the idea here is voluntary,as long as someone agrees with the exchange then the exchange is morally justifiable;

    This is obviously an oversimplification. If someone holds a gun to my head, I am certainly going to agree to give them my wallet. The whole post is about the complexity of agreements.

    [Y]ou own [non-minded things] once you mix your labor with them,given that nobody before you did that and claimed it.

    Why should we accept this definition of ownership? Why should we accept the Libertarian idea that if you own something, you have absolute control over its use, even to the extent of expropriating additional labor mixed with the object?

    Libertarians tend to say that there is no utilitymeter, no objective standard to evaluate needs and preferences; preferences and needs are subjective things which reveal only when other persons act.

    But they also say their moral codes are objectively correct. This is a big dichotomy.

    The big word in libertarianism, as I see it, is not liberty but voluntary (e.g. the state is coercive not because it takes money from people,it's coercive because people haven't agreed to such contracts, it isn't immoral to kick someone out of your house even if that endangers his life).

    And the counter-argument is that people do agree or are compelled to pay taxes in the same sense that they agree to pay rent. It is not that the differences between rents and contracts entail that one is moral and the other not; it is that Libertarians believe that one is moral and the other not, and retroject the moral distinction to differences in the details. This is dishonest, and it is more dishonest to claim that the arbitrary moral distinctions retrojected on the differences between rents and taxes are objectively true.

    Libertarianism is not a theory of morality but a theory of the proper use of force or aggression based on property rights,not morality.

    I obviously disagree. The "proper use of force" seems to be a directly moral theory. It is immoral to "initiate force."

    Oh, and Lew Rockwell is also a lunatic.

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    1. The article was by Walter Block not by Lew Rockwell.
      The first line contradicts nap (threat of violence -> not voluntary). If I were to sign a contract under the threat of violence by the lender then libertarians wouldn't regard such a contract as valid. Libertarians also tend to reject all-together implied contracts (like what some would call the social contract with the state) and that is the big difference for them between an implied contract with the state and a signed contract for a loan.
      Libertarians don't particularly like to play the objective morality card (the subset of randians do, usually). The austrians place a high value on the subjective methodology of analyzing preferences and values. Libertarians are kind of forced to play the objective card when talking about the moral status of nap. I don't know if you can give a deontological justification for nap; a rule utilitarian justification obviously doesn't work since utilitarians accept the concept of interpersonal utility and can imagine other worlds where the aggregate quantity of utility at least appears prima facie to be larger. Nozick,Rothbard,Locke give natural rights justifications; Hoppe goes for argumentative ethics (which you should give a post about :) ) and tries a misesian a priori way of going about it.

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  13. If I were to sign a contract under the threat of violence by the lender then libertarians wouldn't regard such a contract as valid.

    Indeed. But we're in what's very similar to the Christian exegesis principle. Once we start veering from the objective facts, we get into the question of why one exegesis and not another.

    If I can (and I agree we should) socially construct "agreement" to invalidate it if there's a threat of direct violence, then why should we not socially construct "agreement" to invalidate it if not making the agreement entails an indirect harm, such as starving or freezing to death? There's no objective reason to prefer one social construction to another. (And again, I will reiterate, that I personally believe it perfectly legitimate to socially construct things like valid agreements.)

    And, of course, another argument is that taxes really are voluntary. Most people in Western industrialized nations are free to leave the country, renounce their citizenship, and avoid any further obligation to pay taxes. That they did not "sign a contract" is a trivial objection, since no one but Libertarians care about actually signing contracts, and there's no particular reason for a democratic republic to adjust its formalities to suit the preferences of people who are against democracy: they'll just object to some other trivial feature of the arrangement.

    The austrians place a high value on the subjective methodology of analyzing preferences and values.

    Indeed. And I think subjectivity is very important in economics, probably more important than a lot of modern economists would like. But from what little I've read of Austrian economics (which is neither personally nor academically fruitful for me to explore in any depth), the Austrian account of the subjective theory of price seems at best trivial and at worst taking a reductionist model as the complete truth.

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    1. Here's a try by Kinsella http://mises.org/daily/2291
      Justification of self-ownership by first use -> external property same reason.
      Standard response to "why don't you leave?" argument is

      "One could simply turn this around, and ask, "Why doesn't the State just leave?" The "love it or leave it" bromide begs the underlying question, who is entitled to occupy this space. Perhaps a hardcore statist would simply assume that the government rightfully owns everything, but anarcho-capitalists reject that assumption, given the State's history of conquest and plunder. We believe rightful property comes from homesteading and voluntary exchange, not conquest. A good anarcho-capitalist response may be, "The State doesn't rightfully own this property; people do."
      from http://www.ozarkia.net/bill/anarchism/faq.html#part10

      Here's a short post about how libertarians see taxation http://mises.org/daily/5214/The-True-Nature-of-Taxation

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  14. Again, do you see the change in justification from "presence of choice" to some sort of natural ownership?

    I could just turn it around yet again and say that rent begs the same underlying question: who is entitled to occupy this space? Perhaps the hardcore Libertarian would simply assume that the landlord owns the the space, but true anarchists reject that assumption, given the landlords' history of exploitation. We believe rightful property comes from occupation and use, not legitimation of coercion. A good true anarchist response may be, "The landlord doesn't rightfully own this property, the resident does."

    And, of course, the standard political science answer is simply that all these questions of ownership and use are complicated and their answers socially constructed at many different levels. Hence we mix contracts, contract law, democratic-republican legislation, administrative law, custom, and, when necessary, coercive force. I would agree that our system is very far from ideal and needs changing, but it does give the people some voice, and I see the Libertarian/an-cap solution as both untenable and undesirable.

    Remember, Evanescent, the question is not whether Libertarian ideology is coherent and consistent. I believe it is consistent, or if it's not, it can be made coherent and consistent. What I am questioning here is the quality of justification: why should we build a Libertarian or anarcho-capitalist society? I don't like any of the Libertarian/an-cap answers.

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