Written by Robert Haden


As an anarcho-capitalist, I see ownership as entailing three kinds of right: the right to use (jus utendi), the right to the fruit(s) of use (jus fruendi), and the right to abandon (jus abutendi). This is very similar to, if not the same as, the Roman-law treatment of ownership.

In my experience with traditional anarchists so far, I have seen that much of it is in agreement with anarcho-capitalism. For example, it seems clear to me that they believe a person possesses the right to use something once he comes into contact with it. Maybe a better way to put it is that they think it’s right for a person to continue using what he’s already started to use. As I see it, that’s the jus utendi component of what I call “ownership”.

Likewise, it seems clear to me that they think it’s right for a person to start using what he’s created from other things that he’s already been using. As I see it, that’s the jus fruendi component of what I call “ownership”.

It also seems clear to me that they think it’s right for a person to stop using something he’s been using, at which point they think it’s right for another person to start using it. As I see it, that’s the jus abutendi component of what I call “ownership”.

Finally, it seems clear to me that they think it’s not right for a person to (try to) use something that someone else is already using. This is the exclusionary aspect of what I call “ownership”. In other words, an owner of something possesses the exclusive rights to use, enjoy the fruit(s) of use, and abandon the thing.

So if anarcho-capitalists and traditional anarchists agree on these things – and it seems clear to me that they do – the dispute lies somewhere else and is more fundamental. It seems evident to me that the dispute is over the meaning of the verb “use”.

Let’s say that I cut down some trees and mill them into lumber. Then I offer to pay a friend to take that lumber and build a house with it. I think there are two basic ways to evaluate the result. If I’m considered to retain ownership of the lumber, then I’d presumably own the result of my friend acting on/with that lumber, which is the house. Otherwise, if my friend is considered to acquire ownership of the lumber upon taking it and acting on/with it, then he’d presumably own the house.

It seems clear to me that traditional anarchists think I’m no longer using the lumber once I give it to my friend to build a house with it. In other words, once I give him that lumber, they think I’ve abandoned my rights to use it and enjoy the fruit(s) of using it. On the other hand, I don’t think giving my friend that lumber to build a house with entails abandoning those rights at all.

Therein lies the fundamental difference between anarcho-capitalism and traditional anarchism. Basically anarcho-capitalists ascribe a broader meaning to “use” than traditional anarchists, such that a person can still be said to be using something himself even if he’s hired or otherwise directed someone else to do something with it. Under traditional anarchism, only the person who’s (most) directly acting on or with something can be said to be using it.

I think there are some interesting implications to taking the traditional anarchist view of things here. For one thing, it means exclusive individual ownership of something can only be said to exist when an individual labors for it entirely on his own. If anyone else labors for it with him, then the other person becomes part owner, either jointly or separably. Since there are multiple sub-traditions within the anarchist left – individualist anarchism, mutualism, and different forms of social anarchism – I wonder if there are different opinions within traditional anarchism about the kind of part-ownership the other person is said to acquire.

Finally, another difference that I’ve heard some traditional anarchists say about anarcho-capitalism is that is has a “gun in the room” in that it is okay to (for example) shoot someone dead for simply setting foot on someone’s property without his permission.

As I see it, a person on my property could be trespassing – that is, interfering with my use of my property. Whether he’s physically damaging my property or not is irrelevant to me. However, that doesn’t mean I think I have the right to kill him simply for standing within my property when I don’t want him to. I think killing him for that would be an extremely immoral (i.e. unjust) act on my part. In my opinion, it would only be legitimate to kill him if he was threatening my own life. Of course, in trying to coerce him off of my property, he may
resist to the point where I reasonably perceive him to indeed be threatening my own life. I still see nothing wrong with killing him in that case. If that constitutes a “gun in the room”, so be it. I have no problem with that.

However, I think one could just as easily say there’s a “gun in the room” with traditional anarchism – it’s just pointed in the opposite direction. What I mean is that traditional anarchists seem to think it would be right for (what I see as) the trespasser to kill me if I come to be threatening his life.

It seems to me that the moral/ethical principles espoused by traditional anarchists are an instance of “putting the cart before the horse” – i.e. they espouse those moral/ethical principles because of the consequences they see coming from their consistent application. Those consequences are the elimination of profit, interest, and rent. In that case, they don’t oppose profit, interest, and rent because of those moral/ethical principles.

So what is/are the “real” (i.e. underlying) reason(s) for their opposition to these things? It seems to me that profit, interest, and rent are expressions of unequal power and that’s why traditional anarchists are opposed to them – which means that their aim is equality of power. I think one can see this even in their personal behavior, if one looks carefully enough.

Maybe I’m biased, but what’s interesting to me is that anarcho-capitalism doesn’t seem to “put the cart before the horse”. The object of self-ownership is just that – self-ownership. The object of freedom is freedom. Nothing more, really. At least, that’s the way I see it. There are many anarcho-capitalists who do see it differently.