Spooner on Rent
Benjamin Tucker famously held that property in real estate depends on continued personal occupancy, so that when a landlord undertakes to rent out a plot of land or a building to a tenant, the landlord actually surrenders ownership to the tenant, who despite whatever contract she may have signed has no obligation, enforceable or otherwise, either to keep paying rent or to return the property at the expiration of the lease.
I think Tuckers view on this subject is mistaken, but debating its merits is not my present concern. (For a defense of Tuckers position, see Kevin Carsons critique of absentee landlordism; for the contrary view, see my forthcoming reply to Carson in the next issue, 20.1, of the JLS.) Rather, for purposes of this post I want to ask a historical question: what was Lysander Spooners position on this issue?
Its often assumed that it must have been similar to Tuckers; in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, for example, Rothbard treats the abolition of rent as part of the Spooner-Tucker doctrine. But while Spooner and Tucker were certainly aligned on many issues, they had some important disagreements as well most notably on intellectual property (Spooner was pro, Tucker con) and on the ethical foundations of libertarianism (Spooner favoured natural law while Tucker favoured Stirnerite egoism). So its by no means a foregone conclusion that Spooner and Tucker must have agreed about rent.
Perhaps its assumed that Spooner and Tucker were both anti-rent because they both supported the Irish movement to resist paying rent to landlords. But in Spooners 1880 Revolution: The Only Remedy for the Oppressed Classes of Ireland, the only reason Spooner gives for impugning the property title of landlords in Ireland is not that the landlords have failed to maintain personal occupancy, but rather that their holdings were originally taken by the sword from the native cultivators an argument perfectly consistent with Lockean/Rothbardian views on rent.
I cant claim to have scoured every inch of Spooners texts for remarks on this issue, but what I have found convinces me that Spooners position on rent was in fact the Lockean/Rothbardian one and not the Tuckerite one at all.
- The earliest mention Ive come across is in Spooners 1839 legal brief Spooner vs. MConnell, in which he asserts the Federal governments property right over wild lands within its territory, adding that the United States may lease those lands ... so long as they retain the title in themselves .... Here occupancy and title are clearly understood as separable. But this early passage is not a reliable guide to Spooners mature views, since it plainly conflicts with Spooners declaration in his 1886 Letter to Grover Cleveland that [t]he government has no more right to claim the ownership of wilderness lands, than it has to claim the ownership of the sunshine, the water, or the atmosphere.
- But we also find Spooner remarking, in his 1846 Poverty: Its Illegal Causes and Legal Cure, that there is no more extortion in loaning capital to the best bidder, than in selling a horse, or renting a house to the best bidder which hardly sounds as though Spooner sees anything inherently problematic about rent.
The clearest evidence of Spooners disagreement with Tucker on rent, however, comes from his 1855 Law of Intellectual Property. While that work is devoted specifically to the question of property in ideas, in order to address that specific question Spooner finds it necessary to develop a general theory of property rights as such, and in so doing he tells us:
There is no limit, fixed by the law of nature, to the amount of property one may acquire by simply taking possession of natural wealth, not already possessed .... [H]e holds the land in order to hold the labor which he has put into it, or upon it. And the land is his, so long as the labor he has expended upon it remains in a condition to be valuable for the uses for which it was expended; because it is not to be supposed that a man has abandoned the fruits of his labor so long as they remain in a state to be practically useful to him. ...I think this is as clear a statement as one could ask for that in Spooners eyes ownership, while initially acquired by labour and occupancy, does not depend for its continuation on the continuation of such labour and occupancy, but may legitimately be rented out with no loss of the original owners just title. Perhaps it was not solely for its defense of copyrights and patents, then, that Tucker described Spooners Law of Intellectual Property as the only positively silly work which ever came from Mr. Spooners pen.
The principle of property is, that the owner of a thing has absolute dominion over it, whether he have it in actual possession or not, and whether he himself wish to use it or not; that no one has a right to take possession of it, or use it, without his consent; and that he has a perfect right to withhold both the possession and use of it from others, from no other motive than to induce them, or make it necessary for them, to buy it, or rent it, and pay him an equivalent for it, or for its use. ... The right of property, therefore, is a right of absolute dominion over a commodity, whether the owner wish to retain it in his own actual possession and use, or not. It is a right to forbid others to use it, without his consent. If it were not so, men could never sell, rent, or give away those commodities, which they do not themselves wish to keep or use but would lose their right of property in them that is, their right of dominion over them the moment they suspended their personal possession and use of them.
It is because a man has this right of absolute dominion over the fruits of his labor, and can forbid other men to use them without his consent, whether he himself retain his actual possession and use of them or not, that nearly all men are engaged in the production of commodities, which they themselves have no use for, and cannot retain any actual possession of, and which they produce solely for purposes of sale, or rent. In fact, there is no article of corporeal property whatever, exterior to one's person, which owners are in the habit of keeping in such actual and constant possession or use, as would be necessary in order to secure it to themselves, if the right of property, originally derived from labor, did not remain in the absence of possession.
- Nor should we suppose that Spooners 1855 endorsement of rent was later retracted during his association with Tucker; for just three years before his death, in his 1884 Letter to Scientists and Inventors, Spooner restates in condensed form the standpoint of his Law of Intellectual Property, and notes in passing that the originator of an idea may either use it himself, or sell it, or lend it to others for use, the same as he might rightfully do with any material property. (Emphasis mine.) Once again theres no indication that title to any material property is lost when its owners withdraw from personally occupying it and lend it to others for use.
In any case, I agree with Tucker against Spooner about intellectual property, so its not as though I can consistently exalt one above the other. In his Law of Intellectual Property Spooner tries to show that if you agree with him about land youre thereby committed to agreeing with him about copyrights and patents also. Obviously I think his arguments on that point fail, for reasons I plan to address in a future post; my line of attack would be a development of the approach I sketch here and here. But as I said above, my concern in the present discussion is not to offer a theoretical defense of any particular view about property rights, but simply to make the historical, interpretive point that Spooners view on rent was not the same as Tuckers. (Well, to the extent that theres any polemical payoff I suppose its this: those anarcho-socialists who grant the title of anarchist to Tucker and Spooner but deny it to Rothbard and other so-called anarcho-capitalists on the grounds inter alia of the latters disagreement with Tucker about land will find their position at least somewhat harder to maintain to the extent that the distance between the saved Spooner and the damned anarcho-capitalists is narrowed.)
Well, its 3:00 a.m. Tuesday, and my sleepless Sunday night is starting to reassert itself against the temporary reinvigoration from my Monday-afternoon nap, so Im off to bed.
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Roderick T. Long - 2/21/2006
Yes, Spooner's views on money and banking are certainly different from Rothbard's. I wasn't suggesting they don't have important differences; I just don't think rent is one of them.
Kenneth R. Gregg - 2/21/2006
As I recall, if you look at Spooner's economic works ("Poverty"), you will find discussions of "bailment" which would have left Murray quite uncomfortable. Spooner's monetary theory, ("Law of Prices", "Universal Wealth", "Consideration for Bankers", etc.) was, I think, the crux of Murray's strong disagreement with Spooner and the reason why he linked Spooner and Tucker together. Spooner and Murray disagreed fundamentally on the nature and the structure of money. It was also Murray's reason for objecting to E.C. Riegal, an anarchocapitalist in the '20'-40 who Murray considered a "money crank."
Just a thought.
Roderick T. Long - 2/21/2006
Yeah, but we're talking about Spooner being claimed by anarcho-socialists. While anarcho-socialists can be guilty of various sins, they're certainly distinct from the state socialists you mention.
Keith Halderman - 2/21/2006
Modern day "socialists" have a pronounced penchant for the nanny state. The war on obesity for example. In France they have taken the potential vice of working too many hours and turned it into a crime. I do not think Lysander Spooner would be very comfortable in their company.
Roderick T. Long - 2/21/2006
Re Tucker's not being a "commie": well, he believed in individual property, acquired by homesteading via labour in broadly Lockean fashion; what distinguishes him from other Lockeans is just that the criteria for what counts as abandonment are more -- well, more stringent or more lax depending on which way you look at it.
While Tucker also called for the elimination of interest, he thought (rightly or wrongly -- wrongly, in my view) this would naturally wither away under a system of free banking; but he made clear that he had no objection to enforceable contracts involving interest if anyone was so foolish as to enter into one. So his stand on interest doesn't raise any rights-related problems the way his stand on rent does.
Re anarcho-socialists claiming Spooner as one of their own: well, it depends what being "one of their own" involves. Both Spooner and Tucker thought (largely correctly, in my view) that the prevailing wage system and workers' lack of control of their means and conditions of labour were objectionable features that were in large part sustained by various sorts of government intervention in the economy on behalf of the wealthy. (Such intervention included the enforcement of rental contracts and patent rights for Tucker but not for Spooner.) Opposition to this state of affairs is what Tucker meant by "socialism," and indeed what a large number of early free-market radicals (Thomas Hodgskin, William Thompson, Stephen Pearl Andrews, etc.) meant by "socialism." So although Spooner himself doesn't seem to have used the term, I have no problem with anyone calling Spooner a "socialist" (or a "capitalist," for that matter) so long as the multiplicity of meanings is kept in mind. (For my own part I've largely stopped using the terms "socialist" and "capitalist" since I think they function primarily to trick potential libertarians into either left-wing statism or right-wing statism.)
Otto M. Kerner - 2/21/2006
Excellent research, nice work. This calls to mind certain arguments that have occurred on Wikipedia in which socialist-anarchists wish to claim Spooner as categorically one of their own, although I always thought their argument was weak in his case. As for Tucker, they made a certain amount of sense.
Actually, I'd be interested in reading short remarks on "why Tucker is not necessarily a commie," if you'd care to comment on that.
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