The Separation of Property and State

I have been discussing politics and economics with some left-libertarian anarchists, including STR's very own controversial writer, Bill Anderson, and have come to the conclusion that a lot of the dialogue between so-called anarcho-capitalists and so-called anarcho-socialists is muddled by semantics and arguments over nothing.

The anarcho-socialists oppose private property, but they support 'personal possessions.' They support free markets but oppose capitalism. This might all seem like a contradiction, and, indeed, many self-described left-anarchists are not anarchists at all, and do seek to use institutionalized coercion to attack economic freedom. But many other left-anarchists do in fact seek a voluntary society, free of coercion and without a state. They think that private property, as they define it, is a creature of the state, without which the economy would be freer, more just, and more favorable toward the interests of the working class.

Much of the argument has to do with economic theory. Libertarians like me believe in property, and believe that in the absence of a state, there would still be lots of thriving business. I believe that the only economic system known to humankind that is compatible with freedom and anarchy is indeed laissez-faire free markets. It's hard to know how hierarchical things would look, but I would imagine a free economy would be more decentralized and 'democratic,' ' at least the way the anarchist left favorably defines the term ' and yet have plenty of managers. There would be lots of big businesses, but not as much Big Business.

Libertarians seek civilization without state coercion. Regardless of how things would look in a free society, we do not support the use of the state to mold it to our liking.

To nail down the case for the right to property, economic liberty, and market anarchy, it is useful to look at the issue of religion. There are a number of STR writers who do not like religion much, and consider it an essentially statist institution, which either depends on or mimics the processes and mechanisms of a state. There might be some truth to this, especially historically, but it is interesting that not nearly the same controversy emerges when this point is made as when someone draws similar parallels between corporations and the state.

Both 'capitalism' ' an economic system based on private property and usually characterized by a significant accumulation of capital in the hands of capitalists ' and religion exist. They will continue to exist. People like religion, they like business, and libertarians who dislike religion or big business cannot honestly dispute this. Such institutions will almost certainly continue to exist, even in arguably exploitative and anti-individual forms, with or without a state.

The real question for libertarians should be whether or not any institution or social arrangement ' whether a church, a business, a family or a sexual relationship ' should be mixed with the coercive state apparatus, and indeed whether it is ever justified to initiate force to modify, abolish or defend these arrangements. I say no.

Now, of course, left-anarchists will argue that private property inherently entails coercion, or something essentially as bad. Anti-religion libertarians might make the same point about churches.

But there is a difference between the 'exploitation' one might suffer under a factory owner, or a religious cleric, or a bossy girlfriend, and force.

Force is the use of violence and threat of violence. The left-anarchists think that since private property must be defended by force, it is a coercive construct of society. But lots of things might be defended by force ' one's freedom from being raped, for example ' which no self-described libertarian, anarchist, or humane human being would ever say is not in the right of a potential victim to use. Even libertarian pacifists who eschew the use of force would not deny the right to use it in self-defense.

So whether or not property is defended by force does not quite get to the heart of the matter. If, on the other hand, property must be obtained through force, then of course all libertarians agree that we have a problem.

Property does not need to be obtained through force. In fact, left-anarchists would probably agree that this is true of personal property, which they call personal possessions. But where do we draw the line?

If left-anarchists make the distinction between rightfully held personal possessions and statist private property simply by saying the latter is coercive or state-supported, we're back where we started.

So left-anarchists often fall back on the labor theory of value in order to determine whether something is rightfully owned or not. Aside from the epistemological and economic problems with labor theory, there are numerous practical ones.

If labor is the source of all wealth, then virtually every American is an exploiter. We live in a rich country, where some of the poorest own more than the wealth owned by the average, even relatively wealthy, people on earth. If all the wealth in the world was created by labor, with its amount of value dependent upon it, then anyone who works 40 hours in America and is able to afford television, transportation, telecommunications, and modest healthcare clearly has far more than his fair share. Certainly, the teachers and janitors are overpaid. No left-anarchist worth taking seriously believes in the forced redistribution of wealth on a global scale, but the economic justice they seem to believe in would imply that it would be warranted.

Now, putting aside economic theory and property rights, why would anarchists not support the redistribution of wealth on a global scale? Almost anyone knows this wouldn't work, it would lead to disaster, and it would facilitate the emergence of totalitarian government. If private property can be said to have some statist qualities to it, pure economic egalitarianism, if taken as a value above all else and pursued governmentally, contains the seeds for the total state.

The real question is whether or not someone supports the initiation of force to change society. Libertarians do not. If a left-libertarian believes that the abolition of a state would lead to the peaceful abolition of private property, I can respectfully disagree but not take too much offense, any more than I would if someone said that without a state there would be no religion, more religion, more traditional families, or no families at all. If you support the use of state aggression to get where you think anarchy would bring us ' the way Marxists do ' you are not an anarchist. If you oppose such aggression, you are an anarchist, regardless of your understanding or misunderstanding of economics.

Whether you believe in private property or think of it as a demented construct, the total separation of property and state is the way to minimize exploitation and maximize the good of the people. Whether you think property would thrive or sink without the state, a true anarchist would advocate their separation. We don't know exactly what society would look like, but all anarchists would welcome the change. If you would use the state or force to create capitalism in a communal society, or to build communalism in a capitalist one, you are not an anarchist or a libertarian, and you indeed can be said to value something more than freedom, choice and peace.

Now, to see if a left-anarchist is really an anarchist, it comes down to this: if, in an anarchist society, businesses emerged, people decided to trade, including their labor, and it became clear that these markets, however hierarchical, existed not because of state enforcement but because of the voluntarily pursued preference of the individuals involved ' regardless of how exploited you considered the workers to be and regardless of the attractive voluntary communalism that would also supposedly emerge ' would you advocate the initiation force to stop it? If so, you are not an anarchist, any more than an atheist who advocates the forced abolition of religion is an anarchist. To see if an 'anarcho-capitalist' is really an anarchist, a similar test can be used: would you use a state to create capitalism where none before existed? If so, you are not an anarchist, any more than a theist who advocates theocracy.

In short, if your idea of economic justice requires aggressive force to maintain, then you aren't an anarchist, and your idea of economic justice stinks.

All anarchists should be able to agree on that. And if you agree with that, I am happy to consider you an ally against the state, no matter how superstitious and unfounded I may find your economic theories. I hope the left-anarchists can extend the same courtesy and solidarity to me.

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Anthony Gregory's picture
Columns on STR: 37

Anthony Gregory is a Research Analyst at The Independent Institute, a Policy Advisor at the Future of Freedom Foundation, and a columnist at His website is