An Anarchist Case against Private Property
I’d like to consider some criticisms of anarcho-capitalist theories of property acquisition raised by Jesse Spafford in his article “Social Anarchism and the Rejection of Private Property,” included in The Routledge Handbook of Anarchy and Anarchist Thought, edited by Gary Chartier and Chad Van Schoelandt (Routledge, 2021). Spafford, a research fellow at Trinity College Dublin, is a “social anarchist,” who rejects private property rights.
Spafford appeals to a plausible moral intuition shared by most people, certainly including anarcho-capitalists. By “intuition,” I don’t mean a hunch or guess but rather a judgment about a case, not based on an explicit moral theory. An often-cited example of such as intuition is “torturing babies for fun is wrong.” Philosophers who use appeals to moral intuitions start with intuitions that seem plausible and try to draw controversial conclusions from them. Other philosophers reject this procedure as too subjective and unsystematic.
The plausible intuition that Spafford starts from is that the use or threat of force requires justification. Suppose that you think that smoking is bad for people and on that basis use force to prevent people you know from smoking. To most of us, it seems to that you aren’t justified in doing this. The anarcho-capitalist philosopher Michael Huemer uses examples like this to bring into question the legitimacy and authority of the state. If you can’t do this, why is it all right for the state to do it? What is the difference?
Spafford suggests that arguments like Huemer’s can be used to bring private property rights into question. If you have a property right in something, you have the right to exclude anyone else from using it without your permission. If you use force against someone to exclude them, why isn’t this wrong? Spafford offers this example:
Consider the case of a cruise ship that docks at a previously undiscovered island. The passengers are excited to spend the day exploring the island, but, before they have a chance to disembark, one passenger runs to the end of the gangplank and declares, Sorry, but I have decided that this island is for my personal use only! I forbid any of you from setting foot on it—unless, of course, you pay me $50 and take off your shoes before getting off the boat. When the first passenger in line ignores this edict and walks onto the island, the declaration-issuer’s friends rush over and seize the “trespasser” and be
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