An Overview of Right-Libertarian Theories of Redistribution

Many on the left unfamiliar with the works of right-libertarians decry them as merely a pack of selfish neo-feudalists looking to regress property relations by a thousand years. While this may be true for some (vulgar) libertarians, this method of argument could be turned around on libertarian communists who are frequently lumped in with authoritarians and must differentiate themselves constantly from these overenthusiastic supporters of regimes who enter into the discourse. When analyzing any philosophy, we should approach it from the arguments made by the intellectual founders, instead of those being furious about it on social media.

It may surprise those ignorant of right-libertarian theory that despite its misuse defending those with power in our society, they make arguments for mass redistribution of property and resources within society. While they may disagree with many of the methods used by those on the left to achieve a free society their theory still ultimately favors outcomes that would result in a fairly substantial redistribution of wealth among not just the people of one country, but of humanity as a whole.

Intellectual Property

One place where both the radical left and the libertarian right converge is on the subject of intellectual property rights. Thinkers from both traditions have either criticized or dismissed intellectual property. Consider the following passage by Hayek.

The growth of knowledge is of such special importance because, while the material resources will always remain scarce and will have to be reserved for limited purposes, the users of new knowledge (where we do not make them artificially scarce by patents of monopoly) are unrestricted. Knowledge, once achieved, becomes gratuitously available for the benefit of all. It is through this free gift of the knowledge acquired by the experiments of some members of society that general progress is made possible, that the achievements of those who have gone before facilitate the advance of those who follow.[1]

This view of intellectual property was shared by the other giant of Austrian economics, Murray Rothbard. His thoughts follow.

It is true that a patent and a copyright are both exclusive property rights and it is also true that they are both property rights in innovations. But there is a crucial difference in their legal enforcement. If an author or a composer believes his copy¬right is being infringed, and he takes legal action, he must “prove that the defendant had ‘access’ to the work allegedly infringed. If the defendant produces something identical with the plaintiff’s work by mere chance, there is no infringement.”Copyrights, in other words, have their basis in prosecution of implicit theft. The plaintiff must prove that the defendant stole the former’s creation by reproducing it and selling it himself in violation of his or someone else’s contract with the original seller. But if the defendant independently arrives at the same creation, the plaintiff has no copyright privilege that could prevent the defendant from using and selling his product.[2]

Both authors, despite being some of the most fervent supporters of capitalism of the 20th agree that intellectual property provides an illegitimate monopoly over the use and expression of ideas - resources that are non-rivalrous and therefore cannot be protected under property rights.[3] The end result, a world in which ideas are no longer constrained by law seems like the sort of world Marx would have described, were he aware of how important intellectual property was when it came to upholding capitalist property relations. Many firms achieved market dominance via the monopoly provided by intellectual property rights enforced by the state.[4]

Even in Rothbard's time, patents were vital for securing monopolies for all sorts of goods. Cars, pharmaceuticals, household goods like televisions and refrigerators were all patented, creating monopolies on production for the companies that owned those patents. Removing the enforcement of all intellectual property claims would result in the price in falling for pretty much every good and service on the market.[5]

But intellectual property goes much further than simple cost. For much of Rothbard's life, computers were clunky, expensive tools that were used by highly skilled people and only available to large corporations or privileged state institutions. However in this modern world both computers and the code that runs them are protected by intellectual property laws that result in almost unchallengeable monopolies like Microsoft, Amazon and Google. The world Hayek and Rothbard desire would be a world in which it would be nigh impossible to establish a tech giant thanks to the inability to establish legal dominance over the use and production of the hardware and software invented. That isn't to say tech companies couldn't exist 'post-IP' (see Ardunio for a good example of an hardware company that forgoes patents), but it would be highly unlikely they would achieve the same level of market dominance seen in today's world.

This 'redistribution' of information (which would really just be the removing the barriers which prevent access) would give every single living human access to an unprecedented quantity of both information and tools (in the form of software) that would dwarf even our information rich environment today. Such a paradigm, especially in the age of automation would give everyone the ability to build and use the labor saving devices that are currently protected by intellectual property laws. While this would not instantly equalize wealth, it would give everyone the opportunity to access such technology once they acquire the resources to trade for or build the hardware themselves.

Land and Property

Contrary to the caricature of the property obsessed libertarian who defends the property claims of the rich, some libertarian thinkers have proposed fairly populist approaches to property distribution and even in some cases redistribution. While not as overt as the measures proposed by revolutionary socialists, they still would result in redistributing property in a more egalitarian manner than that which currently exists.

Classical liberalism, which tends to be the basis for the rest of right-libertarian thought sees homesteading (that is mixing labor with the land) as the only method through which property can acquired. While many on the left, especially those with anti-colonial tendencies decry the vulgar usage of homesteading to justify seizure of the land of native populations, homesteading, when applied consistently actually would have protected many vulnerable people throughout the ages. The most obvious being the movement from feudalism to industrial capitalism and how that was precipitated on the enclosure and restriction to the fields that should have, following the principles of homesteading rightfully belonged to the peasantry that toiled there (after all, the local lord claimed ownership over that property through the use of violence, making him the ruler of a de facto state). When property relations are viewed from this way, most large corporations can be seen as illegitimate and the result of state intervention[6] (an early and notable example of this was the construction of the United States railroad which required the use of military to clear the land for the tracks of natives and citizens alike).

The redistribution of land goes further. While occupancy and use is a bane of contention between mutualists and Lockean theories of property, the truth is that they are actually similar. In section 5 of Kevin Carson's article Are All Mutualists? he writes:

But in practice, any practical Lockean system in the real world will have to include standards for constructive abandonment, lest a major part of the world’s land wind up in a status analogous to “orphan works” under copyright law (that is, presumed to still be somebody’s private property, despite being vacant and unused for decades, because it was once somebody’s property and ownership was never formally transferred to someone else). Even if the owner explicitly declared their intent to return and resume possession at some indefinite future time, it would eventually be necessary after some duration for the community to assume that the owner had changed their mind, or perhaps died, without notifying anyone; otherwise appropriation would be irreversible and a growing share of vacant land whose owners had left it would fall under the dead hand of presumed ownership for all future time.

Under Lockean principles, property could still be redistributed somewhat fairly. An obvious example of how property redistribution would function under right-libertarian principles is what would happen to the shocking number of vacant homes in America, most of which are owned by banks who took them back after the housing market collapsed. These bank are protected by the state in a whole range of ways - they are granted the privilege of being able to print money, they play a large role in writing the regulations that govern banking and are also protected against failure as the government is willing to bail them out. Right-libertarians look to remove these protections, and would in doing so force the banks to start selling off the vacant property they own in order to stay afloat. While this wouldn't be a violent seizure of property, it would still end up being redistribution on a massive scale. Not to mention the various decentralized property management institutions that would spring up in response that may see property acquired through the application of force by the state as illegitimate, making such property claims void.

Right-libertarians also favor redistribution of organizational ownership. One of the most extreme calls for property redistribution on the right was made by Rothbard himself during the period in which he allied with the New Left in the 60s against the Vietnam War. In his newsletter The New Libertarian Forum Rothbard published Confiscation and the Homestead Principle[7] in which Rothbard compared how the Untied States and Soviet Russia would redistribution property were they to be converted to libertarian principles. Rothbard argued that the workers of organizations that are state owned should be the ones to collectively own them in a libertarian society. However Rothbard did not just argue for the mutualization of public property, but also of property that belonged to private organizations that mostly served the government (Rothbard arbitrarily decides that any company that has 50% of its sales go to the government is worthy of being mutualised). While Rothbard eventually parted ways with the New Left and ended up going so far as to become a paleo-conservative, he never went so far as to become a 'vulgar'-libertarian and defend corporatist practices (the alliance of the state and big business).[8]

The reconfiguration of organizations however goes even further than simple title transfer of public property. Logically consistent right-libertarians should have no problem with cooperatives and mutual ownership over property. Cooperatives and horizontally structured organizations like Valve or Morning Star practice radically different forms of organization that has been shown to be more effective than the traditional hierarchically structured mode of organization.[9] If this mode of organization is indeed more effective and incumbent firms are no longer protected by state intervention, you would logically expect businesses to become more and more worker friendly as it became obvious that led to increased productivity.[10] If right-libertarian market theory is correct, such redistributive methods would not require the seizure of property and would instead arise out of the spontaneous order that should arise as a result of the a stateless society, be it through market transactions that are no longer corrupted by a state or through voluntary non-market interactions (everything from mutual aid societies to voluntary communism).[11] All of these methods of redistribution are, from a right-libertarian standpoint completely acceptable.

While most right-libertarians might not realize it, the changes they propose to society would result in space opening up for forms of organization akin to socialism or communism. In advocating for the abolition of the state and the formation of voluntary decentralized groups, the end result would probably be a plurality of societies, some of which could be communist, some socialist and others individualist. Given that the end result serves both of our needs, left-libertarians should try to become more familiar with either the foundational texts of right-libertarians, or at the very least reinterpretations of these texts from a left-libertarian perspective.[12]

  1. From the Constitution of Progress by F. A. Hayek. Sourced from FEE ↩︎

  2. From Man, Economy and the State by M. Rothbard. Text available at ↩︎

  3. The stress placed by Rothbard on copyright lines neatly up with my belief. Without copyright laws (or norms) proper attribution of work becomes impossible and voluntary contributions to or recognition of creators becomes incredibly difficult. I imagine a Rothbardian free-market would likely have copyright claims similar to that of copyleft licenses today. ↩︎

  4. Funnily enough Rothbard actually considered both himself and his philosophy of 'anarcho-capitalism' to be on the left during that period. Roderick Long outlines Rothbard's approach at the time to the left/right dichotomy in his lecture Rothbard Left & Right, Forty Years Later ↩︎

  5. I will not recount the arguments and counter-arguments against intellectual property here. Kevin Carson, a left-libertarian has written an essay on the subject here, while Jeffry Tucker, a right-libertarian attacks the concept here. ↩︎

  6. This fantasy that the gilded age came about as the result of free markets has been attacked viciously by Kevin Carson in his essay MOLOCH: Mass-Production Industry as a Statist Construct ↩︎

  7. Confiscation and the Homestead Principle by M. Rothbard. Sourced from Alliance of the Libertarian-Left Distro ↩︎

  8. I am ignorant as to the exact reasoning behind Rothbard's conversion to paleoconservatism, but I believe it was in part a desire to see less foreign intervention as paleoconservatives are, despite their many flaws, committed isolationists. ↩︎

  9. To those unfamiliar with market-anarchist theory, I apologize for throwing out claims about markets being redistributive without any backing evidence. If you have the time, I highly recommend the text Markets not Capitalism. If you happen to be pressed for time, the C4SS Market Anarchist FAQ is a good starting point. ↩︎

  10. What do we really know about worker co-operatives by Virginie Perotin is an excellent overview of the advantages worker cooperatives have over traditionally structure firms. ↩︎

  11. Worker cooperatives are not predominantly the norm under capitalism thanks to firms being insulated through competition through the state. The most important insulation is that of startup costs, be it through regulatory capture or through intellectual property laws. All this is covered in Markets not Capitalism. ↩︎

  12. Every single book Kevin Carson has written is a fantastic synthesis of both left and right thought to produce arguments in favor of a left-libertarian world. If you are interested in understanding what a synthesis between the two looks like, I highly recommend his work. ↩︎