James Bowery contra the Austrian School

10 posts

Bob Dylan Roof

I've been following Bowery's posting career for a few years now, identifying the various threads of his perspective and piecing them together from a wide range of sources. One of his more interesting perspectives concerns the limitations of mainstream libertarians and the Austrian school in particular.

The foundation of Bowery's own perspective can be illustrated as follows:

Individual sovereignty implies self-ownership, and self-ownership implies the autonomy to sustain one's self without sacrificing sovereignty, even when that sustenance requires the initiation of force against others. (See further on the conflict of mainstream libertarian rights: "This bastardised libertarianism makes 'freedom' an instrument of oppression" )

In contrast to natural rights, artificial property rights are entitlements to objects of property that contracting parties agree to observe; i.e., X and Y agree that Y has a duty to observe X's monopoly over a given object.

With the fundamental natural right to initiate force and acquire land to sustain one's existence in view, Bowery sets out the following principle:

With this framework in place, Bowery's basic criticism of the Austrians can be described:

The 2008 economic crisis was therefore caused by:

The Austrian contract that no one would sign is the contract requiring one to observe in every possible case another's claim to abstract property rights. The reason no one would sign this contract is that, in the event that a potential party to the contract became destitute and found his essential right to self-ownership jeopardized by the prospect of starvation or selling himself into slavery, he would be better off fending for himself in a state of nature than solemnly adhering to the moral abstractions of libertarianism as his self-ownership dissolved.

Carl Schmitt makes a similar point in his lecture on The Concept of the Political in the context of his critique of strictly liberal-economic reductions of the political. Though he takes a moralizing tone, the point is essentially amoral. A system of free association predicated on rational self-interest could never consistently require individuals to enter into contracts that involved the abrogation of self-ownership.

Libertarian morality, stripped to its basic implications, is just another set of abstractions that, given a specific set of circumstances, demands self-abnegation for some to the benefit of others, without any measure of the beneficiaries' merit. For Bowery, the imposition of such a slave morality can mean only the declaration of war:

Bowery believes his view is implicit in the common law and therefore in the perspective of the Founders:

Niccolo and Donkey
Team Zissou

There's no such thing as objective 'squatter's rights,' which is what Bowery seems to be arguing for. If I purchase land and let it lie fallow, how's that different from my building up an extra cache of food or money and just letting it sit in a vault? If I purchase land or homestead unclaimed property, it's objectively mine and his opinion of what is or is not a valid use is irrelevant so long as I'm not cutting off access or polluting his property. And if that's tantamount to a declaration of war to James Bowery then he's right back where everyone else is starting from: rights schmights, I'll kick squatters off my fallow land too. The English common law of property actually lays out all these sorts of things. He's done some pretty selective reading.

Judging by his tone, I'd say he's still smarting over a foreclosure or bankruptcy.

He argued in CAPS. He loses. He said it was common sense that someone who was irresponsible in their life should be awarded a mcmansion regardless.
Bob Dylan Roof
I don't know the extent to which Bowery relies on Henry George or whether he really endorses a positive natural right to land, but your analysis may be correct. Although this may be more of my own creative interpretation, it appears more likely that Bowery is inferring the natural right to initiate force from the presupposed requirement of self-ownership.

Bowery is emphasizing the reasonable inference that a destitute individual is better off in a state of nature, relying on his own capacity to initiate force, than observing the abstractions of Austrian philosophy so that surplus land owners can enjoy their property rights. From an operational standpoint, requiring the destitute to observe this principle vis-a-vis a surplus landowner's fallow land is tantamount to a demand for the destitute to subsidize the enforcement of property agreements he wasn't a party to.

This is libertarian boilerplate that presupposes the truth of liberal property rights, which, as it turns out, become rather nebulous at the margins (as Bowery's adding nitrogen fertilizer by pissing on the land example indicates.) Nothing is objectively yours except to the extent that you can preserve it by force or contract.
On the other hand, If you want to take self-ownership seriously, you must question the rationality of a contract that denies an individual, at birth, the right to preserve his existence in the state of nature. This contract originates from the abstractions of Austrian morality.

I'm sure you've noticed that Hoppe levels a similar indictment against the American (and Lockean) argument that every American tacitly enters into a contract with a territorial monopolist (the Federal Government) and forever alienates his constellation of rights to that entity. By analogy, no (Boweryan) actor would wager his life on success in the market such that if he failed, he would be destitute and lose self-ownership. The possibility of such a consequence is a corollary of strict adherence to Austrian morality and the requisite commitment to uphold all abstract property rights.

The English Common law developed several different principles throughout history that favored different political and economic climates. Easements and adverse possession developed in concert with concepts like trespass. More importantly, in 11th-century England, and indeed all of the pagan nordic world, land disputes were often decided through trial by battle. Any individual could walk onto another's land and make a rival claim, whereupon the dispute would be resolved by mutual combat. There are many justifications for this approach to dispute resolution, one of them possibly being Bowery's intuition that the interests of a destitute freeman will include initiating force to maintain self-ownership.

It should be noted here that Bowery is not advocating a return to trial by battle (though he does endorse the revival of single combat as an extra-legal mechanism for protecting the ecological integrity of a given community). The point is that a rational actor would hesitate to enter a contract requiring him to acknowledge the legitimacy of, and subsidize the enforcement of, artificial property right agreements entered into by others, without some other corresponding guarantee that renouncing his right to initiate force garnered equivalent consideration. This basic intuition seems to be lost on libertarian moralists.

For example, if a government (in the case of America) or a private insurance company (in the case of anarcho-capitalists) is going to protect land not being used for subsistence, then it should owe a rent to people denied access to that land. The rent is literally an incentive provided to non-owners to not exercise the natural right to initiate force and preserve self-ownership, i.e. compensation for their willful observance of third-party abstract property agreements. If the rent isn't provided, surplus land owners are basically free riding on the moral integrity of the population.

I stopped hanging out on Mises.org when I asked about this and couldn't get a good/honest answer. It usually went over their heads, or they point to Locke and says "he said it, so it's the case!"
Niccolo and Donkey
Please give me the context for this.

Homesteading: Land is unclaimed, you clear it out and put up a house and farm. Now you own it, and have the right to it. My objection is that you only have the right to it so long as the right is protected.


I agree with Bowery. It's difficult to base an entire philosophy on the non aggression principle and the sanctity of private property when the creation of the latter often negates the former. Additionally, Austrians and Objectivists often treat private property as some sort of eternal principle outside of historical factors. Rand judged historical societies on weather they realized private property or not. This is pure reification. Here she is on American Indians:

In other words, they didn't believe in our definition of property thus we don't need to apply it to them. I'm not arguing that European settlers shouldn't have taken their land and created a civilization out of it, but the only way to justify this philosophically is by noting that might makes right which obviously violates the non aggression principle and this notion that we're all contractually obligated to respect the private property of others.
Bob Dylan Roof
An indispensable source on the history of European common law concerning property is Schmitt's Nomos of the Earth and its successive corollaries. Schmitt's thesis is that western law is predicated on land appropriation, either through homesteading or forceful appropriation supported by religious justifications. Although Schmitt isn't primarily concerned with libertarian abstractions, his history is definitive: libertarian formulations of private property simply fail to comport with the history of property in the west and even in the early American Republic. In theory, virtually every philosopher from antiquity up through Locke and Kant acknowledged "radical title" or the acquisition of title to land through force as an extra-legal basis for every political and legal system. In practice, Europe regulated disputes between Christian parties concerning the appropriation of native land in the New World on the basis of the concept of Discovery, meaning the legitimacy of European initiation of force against natives was presumed and the question turned on which Christian party Discovered the land first. The Old Republic of the American Constitution was not somehow exempt from this tradition, either, so libertarians can't find precedent in the U.S. Indeed, the Supreme Court explicitly adopted the European "Discovery" model in 1823.

This isn't a refutation of the a priori arguments adduced by Austrians in favor of a sacrosanct ethic of property rights, but it certainly speaks against the notion that their arguments somehow capture a "natural order" that was mysteriously absent from western history.