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October 08, 2013



Marxists simply believe that redistribution is a utopian fantasy under Capitalism that workers should not be deluded into believing. Distribution is a function of production, and so long as production is controlled by the capitalist class, it is the requirements of capital accumulation that will also determine distribution.

As Marx puts it in the Critique of the Gotha Programme,

"Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?"

No tax regime can change this, and we should not be surprised to find that Capital considers the payment of tax as a voluntary act. As Marx put it in the Programme he wrote for the First International.

"No modification of the form of taxation can produce any important change in the relations of labour and capital.

(b) Nevertheless, having to choose between two systems of taxation, we recommend the total abolition of indirect taxes, and the general substitution of direct taxes. [In Marx's rough manuscript, French and German texts are: "because direct taxes are cheaper to collect and do not interfere with production".]

Because indirect taxes enhance the prices of commodities, the tradesmen adding to those prices not only the amount of the indirect taxes, but the interest and profit upon the capital advanced in their payment

Because indirect taxes conceal from an individual what he is paying to the state, whereas a direct tax is undisguised, unsophisticated, and not to be misunderstood by the meanest capacity. Direct taxation prompts therefore every individual to control the governing powers while indirect taxation destroys all tendency to self-government."

In other words, the only reason Marx favoured direct taxation was rather like the Taxpayers Alliance, he wanted to see how much workers were being ripped off by a Capitalist State, whose ballooning budget was undermining their own requirement to provide for themselves collectively via their own self-government.

For marx, taxation should be limited to only what was needed for the administration of the state, and could, in reality only fulfil that function for the reasons set out. As he says, criticising the Lassalleans for believing it could fulfil any other function,

"Taxes are the economic basis of the government machinery and of nothing else. In the state of the future, existing in Switzerland, this demand has been pretty well fulfilled. Income tax presupposes various sources of income of the various social classes, and hence capitalist society. It is, therefore, nothing remarkable that the Liverpool financial reformers — bourgeois headed by Gladstone's brother — are putting forward the same demand as the program."


I read Frances' piece but I'm still not buying the "governments don't defend property rights but create them" idea. Puts me in mind of the State Theory of Money - kinda similar way of thinking.

And its not only between whom and how, but also 'How much' redistribution - Until absolute equality? Until a "just" balance between equality & freedom? And who says what's "just" anyway?

I guess I don't buy the whole 'property rights ain't real' argument as it just seems like a spin on an old debate; redistribution for Equality Vs property rights for Freedom. Whereas traditionally the debate runs - redistribution makes Equality which is real Freedom (& property is theft), on the one side - and property rights make Freedom which is real Equality (& redistribution is theft), on the other.

This particular spun version (the Dillow-Coppola or Coppola-Dillow spin, you can fight that out) affirms the reality of redistribution and negates the reality of property rights. I have no doubt that there are libertarian commentators doing the exact opposite. Sorry, but I don't think any of it really gets us anywhere.


Antipathy to redistribution is de facto the defence of incumbent property-owners. This makes libertarians the most reactionary force in society, despite the cover story of freely-available drugs and walking around in their socks.

Reaction has shifted from conservative to progressive tropes. From throne and altar to the "crazy individualists" of the Bay Area.


A minimal state would end up protecting only the "natural" property rights of property owning libertarians. The state would have no other function than to protect these "natural" property rights.

As FATE says on the comments on Frances's blog, the freedom espoused by right libertarians is really privilege, not freedom.

Libertarians are really arguing for privileges and to have these privileges enforced by a (minimal) state. It is a deeply selfish and nasty creed that would, of course, mainly benefit pale males in good health. The devil take those without property.


"I guess I don't buy the whole 'property rights ain't real' argument as it just seems like a spin on an old debate; redistribution for Equality Vs property rights for Freedom."

I honestly don't see why you are not "buying" the idea that without a state with a monopoly on violence there are no property rights. Property is defined by the state. Who has this or that right is likewise defined by the state.

If you and I build houses next to each other, who gets to pick apples from the equidistant tree near both houses. What if I decide that I have property rights to the tree and you have none, where is your recourse in the absence of a state to enforce or resolve the dispute? Essentially property rights in the absence of a state are merely matters of opinion and force.

In conclusion:

Property is theft.
Property is Liberty.
Property is impossible.
–P.J. Proudhon


"property rights in the absence of a state are merely matters of opinion and force."

Property rights with the state are pretty much the same (albeit the force is generally financial/legal rather than muscular)

Frances did a post on Pieria yesterday too 'The Problem of Ownership' http://www.pieria.co.uk/articles/the_problem_of_ownership claiming that; "The real problem with individual property ownership is that it does not really exist. You only own property if others agree that you do - and that is the case whatever system of law and governance is in place."

I don't buy it because simply put, property rights are an extension of the conception of ownership. IMO ownership/possession develop from sexual rights (a la Freud). I don't deny that they develop in a reflexive way with social structures. But that's a long way from 'state's creating property rights'.

This stuff is embedded in our psyche - its to do with what it is to be human. I think Economics gets itself confused between definitions and descriptions. Property rights describe how the conception of ownership is mediated between the individual and the state at the moment. A definition might be needed for the purposes of Law, but that is not creation, it a response to something extant.

Frances Coppola


I replied to your comment on my Pieria post.

I think you are confusing possession in the sense of relationship (as in "my father", "my daughter", "my friend") with possession in the sense of ownership (as in "my house", "my money"). We use the same language to denote two entirely different types of psychological connection. I suppose you could reduce both to Freudian sexual desire, but to be this seems far-fetched. I would rather blame the confusion on the inadequacy of language.

You say that I deny the reality of property rights and promote redistribution. This is a misunderstanding of what I wrote. I don't think either the right to hold property or the right to "just" distribution of resources is innate. Both depend on there being some system of law. In the absence of any system of law, the "law" in operation is "might is right", which negates both property rights and equitable distribution of resources. There is nothing "just" about the law of the jungle, from either perspective.

If you want something you consider more "just" you need some kind of system of law, and that is created by government. This applies whether your idea of "justice" is the right to hold property even if others are bigger and stronger than you, or the right to an equal share of scarce resources. Government's job is to attempt to satisfy both those who want to hold property and those who want property redistributed. Since this is actually impossible, it is not surprising that government seldom pleases anybody.


Thanks for your reply here & on Pieria, Frances. We're already quite a way from Chris's topic of redistribution and I don't think we're going to work out our differences in a comment's section, so maybe we should agree to disagree for the moment? But thanks anyway.

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Churm Rincewind

Hmm. If there are no "innate" property rights, but only those created by government, it follows that I do not "own" myself except insofar as the state allows. So slavery, for example, which is quite simply the ownership of one person by another, would by this argument be morally neutral and liberty from slavery would not be a natural right but merely a function of government policy.

This is a tenable argument evidenced by thousands of years of human history, but it still makes me uneasy.


@Churn Rincewood

You are correct when you say you do not own yourself. The state ultimately determines what you can and can not do.

In times of war, the state can conscript you into armed service. In peace time, the state will do all it can to stop you from committing suicide (the ultimate act of self-determination). In short, the liberties you have are licensed by our "liberal" state. These liberties are not natural or inalienable.

People are not property. To regard one's self as property seems to incorrectly bring the world of commerce into the spiritual realm. Perhaps it was the same erroneous starting point, that self and selves are property, that gave rise to slavery.

Rather than talking of property and self-ownership, is it not better to talk of self-determination? This would at least remove the hallowed realm of subjective experience from the vulgar world of commerce.


We give rights to get rights. I give up the right to murder, for the right not to be murdered.

All rights are by the consent of others. Since the consent of others is always contingent, no right can be absolute or inalienable.

I discuss rights more generally at:http://anamecon.blogspot.com/2010/04/on-rights.html

Comments desired.

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