A Short Word on Libertarian Redistribution

There seem to be two prevailing views on the particular outcomes of a truly free market mechanism. In the case of right-libertarians, such as Hoppe, we see a belief in a natural tendency toward inequality, where outcomes vary and there will be discrepancies in wealth and capital ownership[1]. With the left-libertarians, such as Carson, we see a belief in much more equal outcomes arising from market exchange, and that the reason this isn’t so is due to massive historical theft by the state and the continued subsidisation of most of the capitalist economy today[2].

Now I think both views are right and wrong. On the point of a natural order arising from market exchange, this may certainly occur. No equality of outcome is guaranteed and there will be losers who can’t keep up innovation relative to demand. However, left-libertarians are correct in saying that the level of inequality would be significantly dampened if the subsidy of history created by states and plutocrats were corrected through different mechanisms of redistribution. The real question then becomes how would this redistribution mechanism work and what would it achieve.

This is where I think left-libertarians can go wrong. There seems to be an assumption[3] that historical theft ranging all the way back into the feudal and pre-feudal era needs to be corrected. But of course determining correct property and ownership rights is nigh on impossible the further back in history we travel. For example, areas of common land that were enclosed cannot reasonably be given back to commoners, as such a concept doesn’t really exist in developed nations anymore. Equally, forms of large land ownership can be traced indirectly toward an historic theft, but does that mean that that property should be expropriated and redistributed?

Well it depends. Circumstances and factual evidence are different for each individual case. In some cases, the theft is so blatant and directly traceable that a polycentric order of law could reasonably take the property away from its current owner, potentially with compensation, and give it back in some way to the victims of this aggression. This could be in the form of direct ownership as with tenant farmers on an estate or as a group of stakeholders (composed of the victims of the aggression) in a firm who used state power to gain some privilege. The possibilities are endless. However, where there is a claim made with some historical fact, yet actually expropriating the property could itself be an act of aggression against an innocent third party, something along the lines of profit sharing, an agreement of a tally paid to a particular group or community, reparations, or a land sharing agreement negotiated between owner and claimant could occur.

What comes out of this is a multiplicitous order of economic and social organisation, which is what anarchy should be as no coercion can be used except as a legitimate act of readdressing previous coercion or aggression. Thus redistribution would occur, but it wouldn’t eliminate the hierarchies of a Hoppean social order. Historically this has been the case with rebel and proletarian movements in demanding change. In the feudal era, some of the tenant farmers and peasants called for reform where tallages and tithes would not have to be paid except voluntarily in a negotiated fashion and where they had greater control over their lives, free of the coercion of the landowner. We don’t see the desire to eliminate hierarchy or custom, but rather to change the power relations from within into a more equitable circumstance. Equally, significant elements of the heretical movement were calling for the redistribution of stolen property by the Catholic Church and the creation of alternative egalitarian communities[4]. As Federici herself notes, support for the heretical movement came from “the peasantry, the lower ranks of the clergy…the town burghers, and even the lesser nobility”[5]. Later in history, there were movements of peasant communities who marched alongside landowners and priests calling for the maintenance of the monasteries and the common lands[6]. E.P. Thompson’s idea of a moral economy with a just price set by the consumers (peasants and labourers) also shows an idea of maintained social hierarchies (by not eliminating the position of the baker or farmer in society) while demanding a certain price in times of hardship[7].

Similar processes are seen in recent history, such as with common land in the Philippines with the Zanjeras. Many of those involved are tenant farmers who maintain independence via their control of common land. Similarly the commons of Japan were hedged in accepted hierarchies of family and custom[8].

Fundamentally what is seen here is a multiplicitous society, the bedrock of true anarchism. Redistribution is entirely possible under voluntary rules and orders. But the processes that may govern it and the outcomes achieved will be very different for each locale. Not every community will be some Hoppean private society of landowners and established families. But some certainly will, as seen with the existence of the Italian and Greek city states with their merchant communities (which included dynasties and banking families such as the Medici’s) and household economies respectively. Equally, the leftist utopia of full egalitarianism will not prevail worldwide, but there will be many communities where such ideas exist and even thrive, as with tribal societies in Melanesia, Papua New Guinea and areas of the Andes and experimental communities such as Marinaleda, Spain and the CNT collectives of Anarchist Spain. And between these will exist a wide variety of other ownership and organisational models.

[1] Hoppe, H.H. https://mises.org/library/natural-elites-intellectuals-and-state

[2] Carson, K. http://fee.org/articles/the-subsidy-of-history/

[3] Possibly I’m misinterpreting this. I mean no rabid criticism but rather I’m just trying to determine what I see as the possibilities of the proposals made.

[4] Federici, S. Caliban and the Witch, 2004

[5] Federici, S. Caliban and the Witch, 2004, 40

[6] Wood, A. Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England

[7] Thompson, E.P. The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century

[8] Ostrom, E. Governing the Commons, 1990

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