Property is theft

Say I find some unoccupied land. That is, it hasn’t been claimed by anybody. I decide how much of it I want, and I put up markers and say ‘Mine!’ If nobody owns the land, then anyone can use it. So by claiming some of it as my own property for my own use, I am effectively ‘stealing’ it from everybody. Even ‘unowned’ land can thus be ‘stolen’. As an imperfect example, homesteaders 100+ years ago claimed their land and put up barbed wire. The cattlemen saw the land as common property, and people were ‘stealing’ it from them by fencing it off. People died.

In the case of land, I can accept that ‘Property is theft’. But what about other kinds of property, such as a car or a book. If I have it, then I made an exchange for it. If I bought it, then it’s not theft. I could go on through various permutations, but what it comes down to is that I exchange my services for property (money). The seller exchanges property (money) for services, and other property to make the property he sells. I don’t see the ‘theft’.

So the way the slogan is commonly used, how is property ‘theft’?

I don’t know the way it’s commonly used, but the way it’s meant to be used is the first sense - i.e. property = real estate. Personal use items are different - they’re yours. Even there, there are some who hold they should be yours only as long as you’re getting use out of them, or reasonably anticipate getting such use in the future, but not so much if you’re just storing them up to isolate them from everyone else when someone else could use them. Like if you have a sewing machine in your cupboard and you’re never going to use it, someone who is, should be able to claim it. I wouldn’t go that far, myself, although I certainly agree with the *moral *of that argument.

“Property is theft!” is a slogan, not a definition. It comes from the nineteenth-century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who employed it in his work, What is Property?. In the same work he asserted that property is impossible, property is despotism and property is freedom. None of these statement is intended as an all-embracing definition or characterisation of property; rather, each serves to introduce a discussion of some aspect of property.

For Proudhon, the only legitimate source of property is labour. Thus workers, peasants and artisans own what they produce and the income they get from selling or exchanging it, and they also own – or can own – the means of producing it. Here, property is freedom. Landowners and capitalists, by contrast, he held to have stolen what they had from the workers who produced it. Here, property is theft. A socialized, collective ownership through the state he regarded as a form of despotism. And so forth.

So which of these is correct? Is it meant to be used to refer to real estate, or is it meant to be used to refer to manufactured goods?

I think the best definition of property would be “legal fiction”. If a record in a government office says you own a piece of land, then you own it; if no such record exists, then you don’t.

So people in countries without such records don’t own land? Even if there family has lived there for 2000 years, the boundaries re clearly marked, the land has been improved and everybody agrees that they own the land?

I’m not sure I buy that.

Land ownership requires *registration *in the US, but that registration in itself is not the totality of ownership. Gun ownership also requires registration in most places, but that doesn’t mean that no if such record exists, then you don’t own the gun. It may mean that the ownership is illegal, but ownership still remains.

Land records ARE civilization - writing was invented to resolve Sumerian land disputes. Plenty of people throughout history have held land through tradition and force of arms, but the moment an organized goverment evolved or arrived, the only thing that mattered was what the official listings said.

So countries like, for example, England are not civilised? Because they still allow for ownership through adverse possession regardless of what the official records say?

Correct me if I’m wrong, but in the UK, if the records conflict with possession then the courts issue a ruling and the records are changed; until that happens, the property’s status is disputed. In other words, the courts (an organ of government) decide who owns the property - and write their ruling down.

County records, court records… it’s all the same.

Not unless things have changed lately no. Exactly the opposite is true.

If someone takes possession in a specified manner the property becomes theirs. There is no need for a court to get involved at all. If that possession comes into dispute the of course the courts resolve that dispute, but nobody considers that they didn’t own the property before the court finding makes it official. This is absolutely no different to any other property claim, where ownership is immediate the courts only step in to resolve disputes of ownership.

So does this mean that England isn’t a civilised country? Because I always thought it was. Or for that matter was the Inca civilisation, for example, not a civilisation? Because, lacking writing, they can hardly have had official listings of land ownership. Yet academics consider it a civilisation.

I always thought that the whole issue of land ownership was very complex and evolved in multiple ways in multiple cultures over millennia.

Indeed, adverse possession is itself a legal figure in the common law, and gets to be asserted when challenged. But where there is no Rule of Law, property is just loot waiting for someone stronger or better armed to take it from you. So Britain is a civilized country because there is a Rule of Law about how you accede to propertyholding and you can assert your right for said RoL to protect you. That to modern ears that’s expressed by “there is an official piece of paper that says so” does not contradict you.

(Oh, and the Inca were communistic; no private ownership of land; but again, THAT was THEIR Rule of Law)

As to “property is theft”, both the descriptions in the first two responses have been used over time, but both coincide in that it originally was used to refer to ownership of productive (or potentially productive) property – land that can be farmed, real estate that can be rented; plant, tooling and inventory that can be put into production, etc. Depending on the evolution of the respective ideologies it has variously evolved to encompass other aspects of property or capital.

It also explains, of course, why anarchists only use teabags.

The Inca did not have writing, but they certainly kept records.

I concede your point.

However, I do agree with JRDelirious - adverse possession is considered ownership because the law says so, just like any form of ownership. From that I conclude that without law there is no ownership, which to my mind means that ownership is a legal fiction.


Blake, I think I over-generalized in my first post - property is real estate + factories + mineral deposits + fishing grounds etc. Basically anything that isn’t personal property

Lack of clear title to land is a widespread problem in many parts of the third world. Formal recording procedures are unavailable or hopelessly byzantine. This can be a significant economic obstacle, because it discourages people from improving their property or borrowing against it to raise capital.

I recall a talk by a geologist who was doing business in Russia just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He said the problem was, wih communism, there wasa no land registry, since the government owned everything and settled all disputes. Any titles dated back to teh Tsars and were at the level of “For 200 paces northeast from the big rock by the fork in the road” level of quality. Competing businesses cannot operate with that level of uncertainty.

I suspect the quote relates to the fact that whatever property or possessions you have, you are using something someone else could just as easily use. Communal cultures have difficulty adapting to the “mine, hands off” mentality and find it rude.

A classic example of this is the opening of “TheGods Must Be Crazy”. The bushmen get along fine because when they need something, they make it. Suddenly something drops into their lives (a Coke bottle) that everyone needs but cannot be duplicated, so their help-yourself culture cannot deal with it.

So many people have stuff they don’t need, don’t use, wouldn’t miss. If your house is empty while you are away for the winter, why can’t I use it? If you are only driving one car right now, why can’t I walk into your garage and take what you are not using? You have enough food in your freezer that you could easily feed me too. By putting a fence around it and saying “mine” you are taking from me what is otehrswise just lying around.

Of course, humans are self-serving and lazy. They will only produce something if there’s a benefit to themselves. Socialist societies find out quickly that few go the extra mile so others can reap the rewards.

The rule of law is simply a way to ensure order. If everything belongs to whoever can take it, then nothing is safe. We obey rules in anticipation that when others do to, everyone is better off. Think of the difference between an orderly line-up and a big shoving match. A line is a mutual agreement that this is a fair way to allocate a scare resource.

In any country with a functional government, they have a way of allocating land. (Among other things). Generally, what is not “owned” by someone, is owned by th government/king/whatever. Adverse possession or squatters’ rights is simply a way of ensuring that someone cannot be removed from what they have taken to be theirs. The “real” owner has ample opportunity (what? 10 years? 20 years?) to assert ownership before they lose it. It simplifies disputes, as the courts would then not usually need to consider any details more than a decade or two in the past.

Conquest isn’t theft. Historically speaking, it was seen as a perfectly valid method of disputing land claims or for establishing land claims. After that point, there are perfectly clear laws or customs for gaining title to a portion of land.

Law and ownership are, in the end, human fictions. Whatever it is that we accept as the acceptable apparatus is by definition acceptable.

There is no such land. It doesn’t exist. There is always somebody who claims that grounds, either some individual or some state. The homesteaders stole the land from the Indians, before the trouble with the cattlemen. And it was basically the same issue: the farmers argued that since the land wasn’t farmed, it didn’t belong to anybody, when in reality, it was used for the purpose of letting animals graze on it (because farming didn’t work well in those areas - not enough rain, poor soil, too much wind in the praire. Some Praire Indians did have garden plots elsewhere, where growing was better).

It’s not difficult to make the argument, as some people do, that the whole of current society is based on ethical corrupt system, so that the money you earn that you use to pay your stuff was stolen from somebody else - by exploiting workers, if you are an employer, or by exploiting the third world when you are buying that cheap plastic thingie from China, made with almost-slave labour from oil mined under oppressive (bribed) unfair contracts. Etc. The whole system of commerce in todays globals world is unfair and based on exploitation by the first-world countries with their influence, power and bribery.

I was speaking hypothetically.

But if I agree to work for an agreed-upon salary, then I’m not being exploited. The situation is mutually beneficial. So the product my employer makes is not made with labour stolen from me, since I have agreed to be compensated for it.