Is there a contradiction in forbidding aggression against persons and permitting people to defend their property with physical force? Not so, argues D’Amato.

David S. D’Amato is an attorney, a regular opinion contributor at The Hill, and an expert policy advisor to the Future of Freedom Foundation and the Heartland Institute. His writing has appeared in Forbes, Newsweek, The American Spectator, the Washington Examiner, Investor’s Business Daily, The Daily Caller, RealClearPolicy, Townhall, CounterPunch, and many others, as well as at nonpartisan, nonpartisan policy organizations such as the American Institute for Economic Research, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, among others. He earned a JD from New England School of Law and an LLM in Global Law and Technology from Suffolk University Law School. He lives and writes in Chicago.

Are private property rights inherently coercive? If they are, then how do libertarians—who are supposed to be the enemies of aggression against the individual—reconcile these rights with their non‐​aggression principle? Illustrating the apparent problem, philosopher Matt Zwolinski offers the following hypothetical:

If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.

On its face, it seems that this kind of private property right, granting the individual the exclusive use of a plot that was previously open to all, sanctions coercion rather than preventing or protecting against it. It isn’t necessarily clear what exactly gives the individual this right. Given this problem, Matt Bruenig argues that if libertarians are serious about opposing coercion, defined as aggression against the individual’s body, then they must necessarily oppose private property; since libertarians don’t abandon their defenses of property, but rather embrace strong property rights, Bruenig contends that they are in fact propertarians masquerading as liberty‐​lovers. “Libertarians,” he concludes, “are huge fans of initiating force against people.”

Admitting that it is not actually “impossible to follow the non‐​aggression principle,” Bruenig explains that to do so consistently would result in what Roderick Long calls a “grab‐​what‐​you‐​can world” (or “Grab World”), a world that is in fact nothing like the one libertarians want. Long explains Grab World:

This brings us back to the question of specifying what counts as force. Imagine a world in which people freely expropriate other people’s possessions; nobody initiates force directly against another person’s body, but subject to that constraint, people regularly grab any external resource they can get their hands on, regardless of who has made or been using the resource. Any conception of aggression according to which the world so described is free of aggression is not a plausible one.

The stage set, let us consider some of the problems with Grab World.

First, I want to offer, with qualifications, a defense of the distinction between what Bruenig calls “Actual Initiation” and “Ideological Initiation,” a distinction that—whether they realize it or not—non-libertarians actually accept and defend all the time. For example, few would object to the claim that a third party onlooker ought to have the right to use force to defend someone else, even if the attacker hasn’t yet successfully made violent contact with his target (that is, we don’t yet have Bruenig’s Actual Initiation). Similarly, most of us regard fraud as a kind of coercion, despite the fact that, once again, we haven’t fulfilled the requirements of Actual Initiation. If, for example, a shoe salesperson presents her product as “100% leather,” and we later learn, after buying the product, that the shoes are in fact 100% vinyl, then we can quite properly regard this crime as a kind of aggression, though we weren’t physically assaulted in any way. The shoe salesperson’s fraudulent misrepresentation acts as a substitute for force; she has stolen from us just as a mugger might have, only without having to resort to force. And indeed, even the mugger doesn’t, under Bruenig’s Actual Initiation standard, initiate force against his victim, at least not necessarily. Pointing a gun at someone, with the desired goal of taking his money or possessions, doesn’t require the mugger to touch the victim, to make any actual, physical contact.

Bruenig wants to dismiss the question about the legitimacy of a given use of force as mere ideology, as a pleonastic attempt used by libertarians to distract from the real issue and rely on a logical fallacy. Yet virtually everyone, at all times, relies on the distinction between illegitimate and legitimate uses of force. It is a real and philosophically important distinction that turns on the context provided by the unique factual circumstances at hand. We simply cannot know whether Zwolinski’s fence‐​builder in the above hypothetical is a criminal and usurper, violently appropriating what does not belong to him, or a peaceful homesteader and self‐​defender, taking legitimate measures to protect his property, unless we have a verifiable, external standard for the proper acquisition of property.

Libertarianism wants to do much more than simply establish this grab‐​what‐​you‐​can world (which again, according to Bruenig, is the world that would result from consistent application of the rule that one “may not initiate force against another person’s body”). Libertarianism is based on the understanding, often implicit, that there are legitimate uses of force (for example, defenses of person and property) and illegitimate uses (attacks on person and property). We must define, then, the contours of a legitimate property right: How do we properly acquire property? When do we abandon it? These are the questions that we need to be able to answer to fully and successfully address the question posed by Zwolinski’s hypothetical. As I said previously, if one is “initiating force” in the defense of her own justly acquired property, then we can’t really say that she’s “initiating” force at all. Full vindication of her right to be free from coercive interference from others entails a right to self‐​defense. Absent such a right to self‐​defense, all rights are nugatory, mere possibilities or, to borrow property law’s terminology, expectancies, offering no real, protected interest. We’re not engaging in circular reasoning or relying on a tautology if we grapple substantively with the requirements of libertarianism, if we ask what it means to say that an act or institution is “justified on libertarian grounds.” I think that it is possible for an individual to justify a claim to private property ownership; I therefore think that the most salient question is what kinds of property rights we are able to justify in a free society. A tautological statement, in contrast, would be something like, “Libertarianism is justified on libertarian grounds.”

If we understand property rights as a philosophically defensible augmentation of the sovereign person, then it is Grab World that can’t be squared with the libertarian ban on aggression. Since Grab World would allow no protections for private property rights, it is a world wherein might makes right, a violent and barbaric nightmare much like the state of nature as envisioned by Hobbes. This hypothetical reality is easy to imagine, and no sooner than we imagine it, its undesirability becomes apparent. It places the weak at the mercy of the strong, of any brute who decides to steal the fruits of another’s labor. Quite contrary to Bruenig’s claim, then, Grab World is surely not an example of a non‐​coercive social or political system; it is a chaotic mess in which material security, rule of law, and widespread prosperity are impossible. In fact, Grab World makes coercion and aggression against the innocent individual the governing rule, sanctioning constant invasions into his life.

I hope that I have satisfactorily explained “why we shouldn’t just do Grab World,” why it is fundamentally incompatible with libertarian concerns “about force, aggression, coercion, [and] violence.” Private property should be understood as a legitimate extension of the person. Insofar as we live in a determinate, physical reality, freedom and autonomy are empty of meaning unless we acknowledge that individuals can properly own material objects, the products of their labor. Even the various camps of communists, collectivists, and socialists agree with this claim, at least in its fundamentals; their whole complaint is that the material objects we need to survive have been unfairly monopolized by a small group, that the private property this small group defends is in fact theft, and that material wealth ought to be distributed more evenly and equitably. As I said in my previous article, even under these social systems, ownership itself (as opposed to Grab World) is taken for granted. The question, then, is how best to define and implement ownership. Libertarians want to define and implement it at the smallest, most concrete and objectively definable level—the individual. We argue that more centralized systems, those in which property is owned, governed, and administered by some collective (the party, the state, the commune, etc.), concentrate decision making power and coercive authority in dangerous ways, jeopardizing the dignity and freedom of the individual and thereby making societal prosperity impossible. Many libertarian socialists have agreed, and the anti‐​capitalist decentralism of Catholic distributists like G.K. Chesterton called not for the abolition of private property, but for (as “distributist” implies) its widespread distribution. I welcome this dialogue between libertarians and the progressive or social democratic left, and I hope that it will continue and prove to be a source of edification.