Theft: The Origin Of Property?

“All property is theft”, said Proudhon. The very statement contradicts itself. An act could be called theft only if it involves taking the property of another which is legitimately owned. If no one legitimately owns any property, then how could it be termed as theft? If one could extort a grain of truth out of Proudhon’s statement, it would be that property was largely acquired through wrong means in the past. In India, in most cases land was forcefully appropriated by kings and distributed to Zamindars for the ease of tax collection. The Zamindars have no just claim to the land they acquired in this manner. There were cases of feudalism and slavery in the past. The crucial question is whether ownership claims to land possessed by the descendant of the looter have legitimacy or not. Should it be handed back to the descendants of the victims?

A few days back a reader of my blog posed this question to me: What if an industrialist who is creating wealth and providing jobs for millions is the descendant of a person who earned his wealth by loot? Should his right to property be respected? In all my readings I haven’t found a libertarian thinker deals with this aspect morally other than Murray Rothbard. Ayn Rand is said to have provided a moral basis to Capitalism. But she doesn’t deal with a crucial aspect –The initial allocation of property rights. Capitalism is a politico-economic system based on private property rights and this sort of evasion is hard to digest.

The question I was asked is quite valid. Take the case of Dalits. Most of them are poor. In the past property was acquired through wrong means and it can’t be denied that it has played a role in the poverty they suffer from. The same could be said of blacks in the United States. Should anything be done about it? I am not a fan of Arundhati Roy and was a strong critic of her views, but I shall quote a few interesting lines from Roy’s An Ordinary Person’s Guide To Empire “Even if it were true that there is a Hindu temple under every mosque in India, what was under the temple? Most likely an Adivasi Shrine. How deep shall we dig?” This is the reason I am not at all sympathetic towards Anti-Reservation activists.

I am of the strong opinion that Capitalism is the only moral and practical politico-economic system. There is nothing wrong with Capitalism as such. Capitalism is perfectly moral. It is only that some people suffer from the inequities of a wrong past system, which had nothing to do with Capitalism. Capitalism is incompatible with feudalism or slavery. The fact that in the past property was acquired through wrong means in no way means that people shouldn’t be allowed to keep the property they earned through right means. Two wrongs doesn’t make right. The fact that some of the wealthy inherited looted wealth doesn’t mean that all the wealthy should be taxed out of existence. It is not at all evident that all the wealthy got their wealth through wrong means. Past slavery and feudalism doesn’t make a valid case for Statism or Socialism. It is also not at all evident that confiscating all property and distributing among all would lead to a more prosperous society. It can only lead to poverty and chaos.

Let me quote some libertarian theorists in this issue. Rothbard writes in “Egalitarianism-As A Revolt Against Nature” that “It is not enough to call simply for defense of the “rights of private property”; there must be an adequate theory of justice in property rights, else any property that some State once decreed to be private” must now be defended by Libertarians, no matter how unjust the procedure or how mischievous its consequences.”

To quote Rothbard again, in the “Ethics of Liberty”: “Suppose, for example, that Henry Jones I stole a piece of land from its legitimate owner, James Smith. What is the current status of the title of current possessor Henry Jones X? Or of the man who might be the current possessor by purchasing the land from Henry Jones X? If Smith and his descendants are lost to antiquity, then title to the land properly and legitimately belongs to the current Jones (or the man who has purchased it from him), in direct application of our theory of property titles.” “Suppose that centuries ago, Smith was tilling the soil and therefore legitimately owning the land; and then that Jones came along and settled down near Smith, claiming by use of coercion the title to Smith’s land, and extracting payment or “rent” from Smith for the privilege of continuing to till the soil. Suppose that now, centuries later, Smith’s descendants (or, for that matter, other unrelated families) are now tilling the soil, while Jones’s descendants, or those who purchased their claims, still continue to exact tribute from the modern tillers. Where is the true property right in such a case? It should be clear that here, just as in the case of slavery, we have a case of continuing aggression against the true owners-the true possessors–of the land, the tillers, or peasants,by the illegitimate owner, the man whose original and continuing claim to the land and its fruits has come from coercion and violence. Just as the original Jones was a continuing aggressor against the original Smith, so the modern peasants are being aggressed against by the modern holder of the Jones-derived land title. In this case of what we might call “feudalism” or “land monopoly,” the feudal or monopolist landlords have no legitimate claim to the property. The current “tenants,” or peasants, should be the absolute owners of their property, and, as in the case of slavery, the land titles should be transferred to the peasants, without compensation to the monopoly landlord.”

Ludwig Von Mises’ ideas are entirely opposite in this regard. He writes in “Economic Freedom And Interventionism :“Under the conditions of the capitalistic market society this program of land reform no longer makes any sense. In the market economy the consumers daily decide anew who should own the material factors of production and how much anybody should own. By their buying or abstention from buying the consumers allot control of the material factors of production to those who know how to use them in the best and cheapest way for the satisfaction of the most urgent wants of the consumers. Ownership of land means in the market economy the sovereignty of the consumers. The owners are mandataries of the consumers as it were, bound to employ their property as if it were entrusted to them by the people. When they fail in this regard, they suffer losses. Then they are forced to improve their management or, finally, they go bankrupt. Others who know better how to serve the consumers replace them.”

I would have to state that I am totally in agreement with the views of Rothbard in this issue. Property appropriated wrongfully should be given back to the victims of his descendants wherever they can be traced.

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