Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Absentee ownership

I don't particularly like reddit, and I have my statistics counter set to not report (but still record) inbound links from there. However, every once in a while I'll get a spike in traffic, look around, and see my work discussed on some reddit thread. (The actual spike is from a different reddit thread.)

Thus, I stumbled upon MaunaLoona's commentary on my post, "The Libertarian argument." As is usually the case with Libertarians, the commenter pretty much completely misses the point, but inadvertently brings up some topics that deserve more analysis.

I define absentee ownership here as the situation where the objectively determinable direct use of physical coercion against the person of the owner is not required to deprive him or her of its objectively determinable use.
By his definition leaving a car parked on the road is absentee ownership.
There are a number of issues here. First, yes, leaving your car locked on the side of the road is one form of absentee ownership. And, we do in fact have to make social constructions, such as laws, courts, and police, to define and protect individuals' interest in retaining possession of objects, such as cars, they are not presently using, or even that they loan to others. A misconception here seems to be that I am absolutely against absentee ownership. I'm not. I just argue that all absentee ownership is socially constructed; there are no objective physical facts that define absentee ownership. The argument is against the justification, which MaunaLoona will talk about below.

For example, the occupant of a rented house is already in physical possession of the house; if the renter arbitrarily decides not to pay the rent, no objectively determinable coercion against the person of the owner is necessary. Indeed, it is the owner who must, in a objectively determinable sense, initiate coercion against the possessor to exert meaningful ownership.
The owner of the house is using force to remove an invader. You can call it "initiating coercion" all you want, just as long as we're clear what you mean by that phrase. Words have meaning. They don't mean what you want them to mean.
But this is precisely my point: what does "coercion" actually mean? Does it mean what it does when Libertarians are arguing against coercion: taxation is obviously coercive because if you don't pay your taxes, men and women with guns will come to kill you. Or does it mean what it does when Libertarians are arguing for rent: if you don't pay your rent, although men and women with guns will come to kill you, that's not coercion because it's justified by an agreement. Again, MaunaLoona will develop this point below.

One response is that coercion to enforce absentee ownership is socially constructed to be legitimate, even though the absentee owner does not possess the property. However, if social construction can legitimatize coercion to maintain absentee ownership, then social construction can legitimatize coercion to collect taxes. Remember, the argument against taxation above must be in some sense that because it is coercive, taxation is unjust regardless of any social constructions that legitimatize it.
Taxation is not voluntary. Entering into a rental agreement is. If there is any doubt about who the owner of the rented property is, the contract will say "the owner retains ownership of the property and will kick you out if you fail to pay rent".
Here, MaunaLoona just changes the justification from the use of coercion to socially constructed idea of "voluntary." OK, a socially constructed "voluntary agreement" can potentially justify objective, physical coercion, but this is a different argument than that objective, physical coercion is itself unjustified. The argument then becomes how to construct "voluntary agreement" to exclude taxation but include rent. It is perhaps possible to construct "voluntary agreement" to exclude taxation but include rent, but the construction becomes so convoluted that it loses its obvious linguistic meaning. And even if we could create a coherent, consistent construction, why should we accept that particular construction as authoritative?

Seems like equivocation and strawman are typical leftist tactics. The above argument is similar to:
    a. Libertarians claims taxation is immoral because of coercion
    b. Defending your property is coercion
    c. Property ownership is immoral. Checkmate, libertarians!
I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say I've heard this argument a hundred times before. I wish they would come up with something new.
Well, we don't come up with something new precisely because Libertarians keep using the same contradictory, equivocal justification, which I discuss in this post. Again, I am not claiming that Libertarian ideology is inconsistent or incoherent; if Christian theologians can consistently reconcile the character of Yahweh with an omnibenevolent deity, we can reconcile anything, including Libertarian ideology. Instead, I am arguing that their justification for their ideology is incoherent, inconsistent, and equivocal.

Commenter saint1947 adds:
Taxation is not voluntary. Entering into a rental agreement is.

Exactly! It is not a social construct that allows a property-owner to "initiate force" to remove a renter who refuses to pay. It is the terms of the contract that that specific individual renter signed.
The obvious stupidity of this comment probably deserves a The Stupid! It Burns! tag. A contract (including all the social institutions necessary to interpret and enforce it) is a social construct, in just the same sense that a statute mandating payment of taxes is a social construct.

To reiterate: I am not absolutely against absentee ownership, contracts, the use of physical force, nor am I absolutely against making social constructs to manage and enforce these social relationships. But social constructs are, well, social; what I object to is Libertarians claiming some sort of privilege for their own preferred forms of social constructs, and using poor arguments to justify them.


  1. Where do libertarians propose to get the money to pay for the courts to enforce the contracts the entire society they propose would be based on?


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