Property is theft and property is freedom

Matt D. Harris Anarchism, Featured 17 Comments

One of the biggest divides between anarchists is whether or not property, or “ownership” is a legitimate concept.  This post seeks to define and disassemble those differences in order to help each side gain a better understanding of the issue, my thoughts on the issue, and the classic anarchist perspective on property.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the founding father of free market socialist theory and the first individual to document use of the word ‘anarchism’ said “property is theft.”  He also said “property is freedom.” 


To get there, I think we first need to talk a little bit about concepts in general.  A concept is nothing more than a structure in someone’s mind, at the very least.  It need not be common with anyone else, it can exist solely for one individual, or it can exist for an entire society.


In modern society, property and “ownership” exist as a concept.  Backed by the authority of the state, a title in the state’s record, and a police force willing and able to use force to defend a state-sanctioned claim to ownership, it is a very real concept.  The structures which make ownership a real, concrete concept are in place.  A third party which has a monopoly, enforced at gunpoint, on the power to determine ownership, will use force to ensure that the concept of ownership which it believes to be correct, just, and valid, will be respected by the masses.  A tremendous majority of people go along with this, and among even those who don’t, most at least fear the power of the state to enforce it anyhow.  Thus, the state’s conception of ownership is a concept common to a very sizeable portion of the population.  When you talk about property or ownership in most of the world, this is what will come to mind for most people.


In modern society, everything is owned, and that ownership is enforced by the state.  Nothing is truly common or public; those things which the state claim are public are in fact property of the state.  Try sleeping in a park, and a cop is likely to show you who’s boss in that park!  If it were truly public or common, not only could you sleep there, you could build a small house there and plant a sustenance garden.


All that said, the fact that ownership and property are defined by the state effectively means that the state can do whatever it wants, and does not have to respect the property which is “owned” by other people.  We see this occur regularly, your property can be seized for not paying taxes on it, or even on a whim via “eminent domain.”  Asset fortfeiture laws which enrich local police departments have come into vogue in the US.  The state may protect your property from a thief, ineffectually, but who is to protect it from the state?  They have a lot of agents, and a lot of guns and bombs. The state can pass laws that disenfranchise people who had relied on their protection and the people can do nothing about it but meekly protest.  The thief can burglarize your home, and the police will come and file a report, but you’ve still been burglarized.  If you shoot the thief, you’ve committed murder, and, in many states, will go to jail for it.  The state must maintain a monopoly on that authority to defend, lest *it* be subject to being defended against by an armed populace.


So under a state system, we see that property and ownership are essentially a rigged game.  Worthwhile to the extent that people fear the state and mostly stay in line, but not always, and deviance from this is common enough that people invest large amounts of effort, time, and money into systems designed to prevent theft, even though the framework of state title, police, and insurance companies still exist.  Some folks have decided that they’ve had enough!  They want property rights that actually means something, that they can defend for themselves, and that they can defend against any aggressor, including the state.  This requires two things on their end: an intellectual framework – a conceptualization of property and “ownership” – and a real framework – the force which can be used to defend their own conceptualization in order to prohibit others from violating it, such as guns and bombs and man-power.  For the former, rather than create a whole new philosophy and a whole new conceptualization, they seek out existing ones.  Anarchism: a stateless society!  Natural law: a concept which allows for essentially subjective “law” to stake a claim to objectivity under the guise of emmanating from a higher power.  Unfortunately for many modern “natural law” advocates who also claim to be anarchists, they are also atheists, and so their arguments in favor of natural law lack the authority by which Aquinas first declared it to be a valid concept, that is, God’s authority.  Natural law as a concept originated, you see, within the Catholic church hierarchy.


The problems with this framework are obvious.  Natural law as a concept, when taken outside the context of Catholic (or at least religious, deistic) doctrine, is as meaningless as any law that I can arbitrarily come up with, or you can arbitrarily come up with, or any would-be despot with a few guns and a few tacos short of a fiesta tray can come up with.  So that’s where this essentially goes.  You have someone with their own independent concept of what the law should be (which they declare to be the one true law) and some guns.  And a willingness to enforce the law by killing people.  At the end of the day, after all, authority either comes down to a willingness to kill someone who violates it, or it is not authority at all, but merely a request from one individual to another.


Anarchists have always had another proposal, however, and one which is largely ignored by those who claim to be anarchists yet advocate in favor of natural law, property “rights”, and various concepts of “ownership”.  That proposal is quite a bit simpler, and while still subjective, it’s admittedly subjective, staking no claims to objectivity or authority.  That proposal is common sense, community moors and norms, and community solidarity.  Such community moors and norms, and common sense, do not come from God or any other proclaimed deity, nor do they originate with a state or with some individual or collective of humans who claim authority over all others.  They exist fluidly, they allow for human imperfection, and human decency.


In an anarchist society, given a lack of natural law, a lack of the state, and of any other authority which could declare who owns what, “ownership” becomes an abstract concept.  A hopelessly abstract one, at that.  There are no defining factors of what allows someone to own something.  Some have tried to qualify and quantify various “objective” criteria for how one can own something.  One prominent example is that some would claim that once you have mixed your labor with land, you own that land.  My response is, of course, that I plan to walk quickly across the continent, re-arranging twigs and leaves on the ground and upturning the soil with my boot, such that I shall own tremendous tracts of land!  Then they may pay rent to me to live or farm upon that land.  Such a society quickly begins to look like feudalism, wherein those who did not upturn dirt and re-arrange twigs and leaves quickly enough shall be the serfs.  Utter silliness ensues.  Not only is it utter silliness, however, it’s also absolutely antithetical to anarchism.


As anarchism is defined loosely as a society without oppressive/coercive hierarchies, clearly landlord/tenant relationships are out.  As a libertarian, I hold the non-aggression principle close to my heart.  I don’t wish to initiate force or coercion against other people, and I don’t like it when other people do so, either.  So much so, that I’d be inclined to step in if warranted and willed.  When you evict a tenant or a serf from “your” land, by force, because they failed to pay you, you are initiating force against someone.  You did not need that land to live (obviously, if you could give use of it to another), however they were reliant upon it as their home.  They resided in it.


In anarchism, that would effectively make it their home.  Not that they “own” it, per se – ownership is an abstract concept that anarchists do not make use of – but that it is still, nonetheless, theirs, in that they occupy and reside there.  They maintain control of it when they are not home by virtue of the respect of their friends, neighbors, and community at large.  You might kill a murderer who kills your neighbor, not only for revenge, but also to prevent them from killing you.  Likewise, you might prohibit in some manner, someone from damaging or destroying your neighbor’s residence, lest you likewise end up a victim of the same.  Thus, in the absence of “ownership” concepts, individuals and collectives still maintain control over the things which they posess or occupy.  Absentee control can occur in a number of ways.  For another example, if I am a part of a worker co-op restaurant, my control in that sphere would exist even when I was not present, because of the mutual respect and kinship among the workers.  Those who are present would respect my wishes, as I would theirs when I am present and they are not.  This may include not allowing certain behaviors in the restaurant.  This may also include things like not messing with the desk that I prefer to use in an office.


Now let’s talk a little bit about self ownership.  On the surface, the concept of self ownership seems like a pretty good idea to most people.  You own your own body, so people can’t do things to you that you don’t want them to, etc.  The problem here again is that ownership is a hopelessly abstract concept for anarchists, and for others, it implies something entirely different than what people mean by self ownership.  The simplest way to put it is thus: you don’t own yourself, you ARE yourself.  To most people, something owned is a commodity.  I can be bought, sold, or traded.  You cannot be bought, sold, or traded.  You have free will, and that free will trumps claims of ownership.  You ARE yourself.  It goes far beyond ownership, and even beyond just posession, occupancy, or control.  You have the highest level of control over yourself, you have free will.  That control cannot be bought, sold, or traded, as control over a commodity could be under a typical conceptualization of “ownership.”  You don’t own yourself, you ARE yourself.


Now, let’s talk a bit about posession and try to define it a bit with some common sense examples.  When you’re wearing a sock, you posess that sock.  If you leave a sock lying on the side of the street unattended, you do not – and it’s most likely you don’t control that sock either, since most people will not even know that you once posessed it, much less stand up to a person who needs a sock to keep a foot warm and hence takes it and puts it on.  That person now posesses the sock, and you no longer have any more valid claim to it than someone else did when you were wearing it.  Thus, it’s safe to say that no one would come up to you and attempt to take from you something that you posess, and that if someone did, you would defend yourself and others would likely come to your defense as well!


One other concept worth mentioning is hoarding and artificial scarcity.  Since we’ve already stated that your ability to maintain control over the things that you consider to be yours relies on community support in lieu of the support of the monopoly-on-force power of the state, it’s worth considering that if you wrong your community, you may find yourself at a loss or worse.  Attempts to hoarde resources to create artificial scarcity as is so common in today’s society would likely be met with hostility from those who suffer due to that scarcity.  Such hostility would be wholly justified, as well, for to use such a method is to create a hierarchy of “have” and “have not” which likewise leads to oppression and tyranny.  Expect, under such a circumstance, that your community would see you as any tyrant or oppressor. Change can occur in communities, but it’s based upon the ability to logically converse with your community and not your ability to use force to oppress them into doing things your way or believing what you do.

There *is* abundance in this world.  The scarcity is entirely artificial, and is based on “ownership” concepts used to justify hoarding of resources, enforced by the state.  The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.  In anarchism, everyone is rich.  In a free market socialism system such as I advocate personally, some may be a little more rich, or a little less rich, but everyone would be rich.  Only by the power of a tiny few hoarding more than they could ever use, much less need, does poverty exist in this world.


Finally, given that most anarchists see “ownership” as a hopelessly abstract concept, it makes a lot more sense to use words that make sense and are backed by concrete concepts; words like posession, occupancy, residence, and control.

Matt D. HarrisProperty is theft and property is freedom

Comments 17

  1. Less Antman

    A great contribution to the discussion.  I tried my own reconciliation of the various views on property last year in a piece, Is Property Theft?, on my website, at

  2. MerlinYoda

    Great piece. Although, I think I can craft a definition of “ownership” that would meet your criteria of being concrete. Ownership is those objects which one has just control over whether or not they are in one’s immediate possession, occupancy or residence.

    For example, let’s say I purchase a custom-made jacket from a local tailor. I obviously have possession of the jacket so no one would have just claim to take it from me in an anarchistic society. Furthermore, if I leave it at my place of residence, there is again no issue as, in an anarchistic society, no one is going to have just claim to come and take it. However, should I, due to some pressing circumstance, leave said jacket somewhere else with intent to return to it (say, on the back of a chair at a bus terminal because I had taken it off and had to rush to the restroom) then I am neither in possession of it nor is it confined within an area which is rightfully labeled as my “residence”. Despite this I still “own” this object because only I (or perhaps even another party which has my self-interest in mind) can justly control what happens to this jacket as far as its location (especially when it is taken from that position). By having “ownership” over this jacket, I don’t have to worry about someone else just assuming it abandoned and taking it in those circumstances in which I do not have an blatantly obvious claim to it (like actually wearing it, holding it, or having it somehow connected to my personage … like sewing my name into it).

    Without this sort of “ownership”, I can’t see how any anarchistic society doesn’t just devolve into tyranny, especially through the “would-be despot with a few guns and a few tacos short of a fiesta tray” (loved that line :-) ) that you describe in this article.

    1. Matt D. Harris

       “Ownership is those objects which one has just control over whether or
      not they are in one’s immediate possession, occupancy or residence.”

      So you’re making it a synonym for control… why do we need another word for something where a perfectly good word already describes it?  :P

      “on the back of a chair at a bus terminal because I had taken it off and had to rush to the restroom”

      Worth noting is that under most modern systems of law, you would “own” the jacket… but in most modern bus stations, it would be gone. 

        1. Matt D. Harris

          Justice is an abstract and subjective concept, though, so to use it as a defining characteristic of another concept makes that concept equally abstract and subjective.  In this case, that level of abstraction and subjectivity renders the latter construct effectively useless.  

          1. Anonymous

            Wow, I can hardly believe that after your original reading error, you came back to make this argument.  I was just trying to explain what MerlinYoda meant; you had read “just” as “merely”.

            As far as the “effective uselessness” of the concept of “justice” — I have seen many people make effective use of it.

          2. Matt D. Harris

            “you had read “just” as “merely”.”

            This is not true.  Please don’t make such assumptions. 

            I made my statement based on the fact that “just” is subjective enough that it isn’t useful for trying to define objective standards. 

          3. Justen Ⓐ Robertson

            Well, any time a non-state actor makes up a term “X” it’s not long before a statist hijacks it like so, “state-X”, and before you know it through the art of newspeak “X” comes to exclusively mean “state-X”. So if “ownership” originally or colloquially means, “just control”, surely it has come to mean “state-justified control” or “justified state-control” or “state-justified state-control”. If “justice” is a subjective and abstract term, surely our discussions of “justice” are mostly limited to “state-justice”, because the state strives to possess and control all language.

            Is it not possible that there is a kind of “anarchist justice” or at least “justice outside the state”, in which case the notion of “anarchist ownership” is founded in “anarchy-justified control” of the kind you’ve already hinted at?

            I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s silly to assassinate a word that has some kind of understood common meaning just because the popular flavor of the word is statist. “Control” is certainly an abstract concept, and possession (stretched as far as it is by anarchists, especially) is fairly abstract as well. If I live in a cabin in the woods in British Columbia far away from civilization, and I decide to take a tour of Europe, it can’t be said that I in any literal sense possess the cabin, nor do I control it (even by proxy, lacking nearby neighbors to assert my ‘control’). Someone may come along in the meanwhile and occupy my cabin. If one is to interpret this notion of possession and control strictly and literally, I no longer have any claim to my cabin once I drive away from it. If I interpret it very liberally and abstractly, I might.

            It’s difficult to even frame the scenario without a concept of rights or justice. I could make a claim against the cabin when I return, but the success of that claim would rely on some predetermined sense of justice and rights by those who step up to evaluate that claim. Or perhaps who has the biggest gun and fastest trigger finger if there are no third parties and no meeting of the minds between me and the new occupant. If the general perception is that I have no just claim to control the use and disposal of my (former) cabin, then I risk retaliation by third parties if I oust the current occupant forcefully. If the general perception is that I do have just claim to control over it (i.e. I “own” it), then not only does the current occupant risk retaliation by third parties if he successfully defends himself against eviction, I may immediatley raise a posse of willing people to aid me in his eviction. But then, these people will have to come from far away as I am outside civilized areas; and by your article, you seem to suggest that only people who have some vested interest (i.e. the use of the land or goods somehow impacts them as well) should have input in the problem.

            Of course, you also seem to indicate that common sense and local practices trump everything (as, in reality, they do – especially without monopolistic coercive entities interfering from afar). So in all likelihood there is no objective answer to what is right or wrong in this situation, and the outcome will be determined by my actions, the actions of the current occupant, and the actions of any other individuals nearby. But if we’re talking about common sense, the common sense way to frame this situations is, “who ‘owns’ the cabin?” Ownership is a useful concept that compresses a lot of related ideas about who possesses it presently, whether they rightfully possess it, what rights are (i.e. who is in the ‘right’ and who is in the ‘wrong’ – those kinds of rights), what the just applications of those rights are, and so on. If you prefer a paragraph of text to four words to describe the ethical dilemma at hand, more power to you; but in a stateless, common-sense, customary society, I am willing to bet that the word and concept will stick around and many people will still find a use for it, especially once liberated from the implied ‘state-’ prefix ;)

          4. Anonymous

            [edited because paragraph breaks didn't work, so I doubled them up]

            Raise a posse?

            Why not get you and the squatter together in some kind of dispute resolution council?  That might even involve finding another place for the squatter through the community — protecting everyone’s interests, peacefully.

            Really now, the immediate solution to every conflict — even in anarchy — is not to mindlessly follow the pattern set by Wild West movies.  The concept of “rights” doesn’t really apply here (to people outside of any social relationship, people who aren’t members of the same community of mores).  Maybe at least try and think beyond right and wrong and ethics (which would justify absolute disregard of the interests of the “wrong” party — which notions even exist only to justify violence), maybe try and reach a compromise respecting every person involved as a stake-holder…

            By the way, for a real-world instance of anarchy in action — check out how the issue of food theft is handled, without cops or violence, in this documentary: (streaming) (xvid torrent download) (I don’t think the directors of that film did a very good job presenting things, instead they tried to sensationalize, but you can get an idea.)

  3. Kris Bro

    This is all incredibly subjective. Everyone is simply asserting their opinion of what they feel is “reasonable.”

    Who under your just possession scheme decides how much matter is reasonable for an individual to exclusively control? Who decides what quality of living standard I am justified in pursuing through voluntary means? I don’t need to buy a painting in order to subsist, and survive, is it then not my right to buy or sell a painting merely because it pleases my eye?

    If I begin pursuing the end of a significantly higher standard of living than is in vogue amongst others around me, how is this an invasion against another?

    What if me and my family construct a dwelling significantly larger than those of the families around us because we enjoy having more living room. What if my kids later move out, and rather than convert their rooms into rooms for alternate purposes, like a craft room, or a library, I am persuaded by another to temporarily forsake my plan in exchange for rent? It seems to me that this is all perfectly non-aggressive and voluntary. It seems to me that if another were to interfere with these ongoing plans, they would be the violent aggressor against me.

    1. Anonymous

      That in turn is your opinion of what is reasonable.  And frankly it seems reasonable enough to me, but then I suspect you’d go on to conclude it would be a fine thing to build a high-rise skyscraper apartment building without consulting the neighbors…

      1. Anonymous

        Well, “first come first serve” works OK with subway seats, but when it comes to matters of life and death — people aren’t so willing to surrender.  (And why should they be?)

        Anyway, the reality is, under a regime of ownership, the people responsible for creating value (e.g., the workers who built the railroads) don’t end up compensated to nearly the extent as the people who maintain the significant legal rights over creations (e.g., Carnegie).  The contention that “the market” somehow rewards those who made sacrifices in a fair way, ultimately cannot have appeal to any rational/technical criteria of contribution — instead it will rest on an argument that whoever made the money was responsible for creating the value — a circular argument.

        From a rational/technical standpoint, Carnegie as an individual contributed approximately nothing to the railroads.  He merely maintained certain legal rights allowing him to benefit from their creation.  He was not even on the continent during much of the most important construction: he was in Europe.  Had he died discretely, no one would have noticed.  Perhaps in that case, his bank accounts would have overflowed with the value created by his corpse!

        (At the same point in technological history, the USSR industrialized and built its railway system — but without creating any billionaires — thus proving that no magical singular billionaire is necessary to create a railway — as if such an obvious fact needed any demonstration.)

        This situation is general.  You cannot claim, from a technical standpoint, to have created the value of a skyscraper, unless somehow you created the skyscraper yourself.  (And even if you employed no other workers — impossible today, though possible perhaps in a century — you inherited more from your ancestors than you created: a primitive man, with no technological or scientific inheritance, no matter how ingenious, could not have created a skyscraper; several millennia of technological and industrial development must be inherited for such a construction to take place.)  But you CAN make this claim from a LEGAL standpoint, and this is exactly what the so-called owners of skyscrapers do, and exactly how they can amass a fortune from their ownership.

        In times past, such an argument as the one I made above might have been appropriate.  In modern times, however, we live with the reality that the contribution made by laborers is itself a kind of privilege.  In primitive societies, the idea of a man being prohibited from contributing to his society would have been inconceivable; in modern times, it is a plight to which almost every one has been subjected at one time or another — and to which some are subjected more or less permanently.  Humans are now so dependent on tools and capital and organization to contribute to their society, that they must plead and beg with those who control these things just to have the opportunity to sacrifice themselves.  No society in history has ever done so much to *prevent* individuals from contributing to it — and no society in history has ever condemned with such harshness those who failed to contribute.  A great irony, in one sense; an obvious logic, in another: the fact that those who do not contribute have no choice in the matter makes it all the more necessary to blame them.  This blame is a necessary component of the system, since it cannot provide an opportunity for all to contribute, yet must justify the punishment of those who do not contribute.

        Given the situation of a society to which many are forbidden (by law; by threat of violence) from contributing, contribution can hardly be a morally valid criteria for access to material resources.

          1. Anonymous

            Well, when you put it that way, the correct answer is obvious: to everyone’s satisfaction.

            But it doesn’t really work that way.  The more likely outcome of a social power struggle, even when the outcome is positive, is that no parties are satisfied.  For example, when the slaves were freed, I don’t think either the slaves or their former owners were satisfied with the new arrangement — even when the owners were compensated financially.  The slaves still wanted property; the slave-owners still wanted slaves.  (However, it _is_ said that the hallmark of a good compromise is that no parties are satisfied.)

            Probably the most we can hope for right now is to abolish obvious forms of wide-scale exploitation (e.g., private ownership of the means of survival), or even just to mitigate the nastier effects of gross power imbalances (e.g., personal insecurity with respect to control over one’s home).

            However, I don’t want to be _too_ pessimistic.  I do believe that sometimes, some societies (and families, companies, etc.) have managed to ensure that everyone is compensated in a way that everyone is mostly satisfied is fair.  This is never done through the mindless application of some formula, though: it requires immense political wisdom to arrange things so, and continued wisdom and awareness to maintain them so.  I don’t think that has ever been combined with the degree of specialization and anonymity we have in modern societies of large scale, but perhaps it might conceivably be done in some way.

            Don’t ask me how.

  4. AnarcoCap3

    I have long said, “you don’t own yourself, you are yourself.”  Nice to see someone else has noticed.  I think “ownership” is a useful abstract concept, which enables markets to function.  One of the problems associated with areas of the Earth were the free market hasn’t provided prosperity yet is lack of clearly defined ownwership procedures.  Clearly designated “property rights” have been described as one of the “killer apps,” in at least one TED lecture.  I have worked in an office where people didn’t “respect” the notion of “property” and my work tools regularly went missing.  If I want to buy my mother a pair of socks, how do I effectively ship them to her (she lives on a different continent to me), if there is no concept of “ownership,” at work?  As soon as I transfer possession to a courier, he could just keep the socks, as he then possess them.  I think it’s more useful to figure out how to dupllicate the benefits of “ownership,” without the notion of a “state,” than to discard “ownership entirely.  Also, I don’t agree that a landlord/tennant relationship is, necessarily, an “oppressive/coercive” relationship.  I currenty live as a tennant, in rented accomodation, and I’m quite happy with my relationship to the landlord.

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