Smashing Windows isn’t Justifiable Regardless of Property Rights

One of the core differences between libertarian philosophies and socialist philosophies has to deal with property rights. Namely libertarianism recognizes private property while socialism does not. This difference leads to a massive schism between the two philosophies that extends beyond simple disagreement. When socialist anarchists protest there are often shards of broken glass in their wake, which has lead many to believe anarchists just like breaking shit. The truth is more complicated and has to do with a complete lack of recognizing property rights and holding the belief that all forms of hierarchy are violent. First I want to address the reason socialist anarchists find the smashing of windows acceptable and then I want to present an argument against smashing windows outside of recognizing property rights.

If you’re ever looking for comments from socialist anarchists you can always rely on /r/anarchism on Reddit. I think this comment by 2paradoxes sums up the philosophy concisely:

But in principal, a window does not have some intrinsic right to not be smashed. If I bought a window and smashed it in my backyard, you would not accuse me of window abuse. So window smashing is not wrong in and of itself (this should come as a shock to no one)

As anarchists, property is not our thing (I’m assuming that’s your opinion, it’s the prevailing one around here). So it doesn’t make sense to say that breaking a window is property damage so it’s wrong.

Yet I do agree that window smashing can be wrong. I would say it is only wrong to the extent that it causes harm. Harm to a person. People have rights, windows don’t have rights. Break a window on a house and someone freezes, you have committed murder. Break a window in the front of a bank, they have to close down for a day and I lose zero sleep over it. banks actively harm people, and if you need to break some glass to stop it more power to you.

Since windows themselves lack rights and they don’t believe in property rights the smashing of windows is justified. The only time some socialist anarchists believe breaking a windows is wrong is when it physically harms another person. Personally I find such justification extremely convoluted. I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” If nobody recognizes property rights in any form (either collective or private) you really can’t have nice things because they will be destroyed.

Property rights, ultimately, are an attempt at creating a peaceful system to divide scarce resources. Reality is harsh and dictates that two people cannot use the same thing at the same time. Furthermore many things are one-time use such as food and water. Private property divides resources amongst individuals while communal property rights divide resources based on the whims of a community (they may be divided based on votes for example). A problem arrises when a proponent of communal property doesn’t recognize private property. In a case where an individual lays claim of ownership over a windows somebody who doesn’t recognize private property will smash it and claim their action was justified because of their lack of recognizing private property. This brings us to another fact, all forms of property rights are ultimately backed with the threat of violence.

Property rights only serve their purpose if they are recognized. When the system breaks down then the only option to continue protesting property is through force. Followers of the non-aggression principle state a violation of one’s property right is an initiation of violence and thus defending property is an act of self-defense. Under private property rights I have a right to use force to prevent you from burning down my home. Communal property is not different. Let’s say we have a cooperative where each worker owns an equal share of the business and somebody decides they are going to burn the business to the ground. What are the workers to do? They can either watch their business go up in flames or they can use force to prevent the individual from burning their business down. Opponents of private property are always quick to claim that private property can only be maintained through violence but the same is true of communal property rights.

If property rights are not recognized or backed up with the threat of violence then there is no point in having anything. Who is going to build a store if they know it’s going to be burned to the ground by a random thug? Let’s say somebody does build a store, what happens when the random thug shows up and the owner is unable to justly defend the store? Based on the statement I linked to above the thug would not be committing an act of violence so long as the store owner wasn’t physically harmed. Economically this leads to complete breakdown.

Economics when boiled down is nothing more than the study of human interaction, namely as it relates to cooperation. Whether you live in a capitalist society or a socialism society cooperation occurs. In a capitalist society that cooperation is based self-interest where both parties enter a transaction because they feel they will come out ahead. If you want bread but have eggs and your neighbor wants eggs but has bread you can trade eggs for bread so each person has what they want. Socialism is based on alturism. If your neighbor wants eggs and you have eggs you give him the eggs. No matter how you look at it these transactions breakdown entirely if you have no recognition of property rights.

Let’s assume you want to bake bread. You’ll gather the raw ingredients and equipment needed for the baking process then you’ll put the ingredients together and bake them. If you’re exceedingly good at baking bread you may decide to give some of your bread to others either in exchange for other goods or out of pure altruism… unless your ownership of the ingredients of equipment are not recognized. Would you tell people you have the raw ingredients and equipment needed to bake bread if it means they would simply be taken from you? Let’s expand on this idea, would you bother building a home or store if it was just going to be destroyed? In both cases the majority are likely to answer in the negative. At this point we end up having a complete breakdown in society. There is no longer any reason to come together with other people since any interaction with another is likely to lead to your stuff being taken or destroyed. Humans came together in societies to take advantage of division of labor. Hunting a wooly mammoth and carrying back to your cave is much easier when you have help after all.

Of course I’ve ignored the “harming others” aspect mentioned by the linked comment. Harm can be very subjective and thus actions of theft or destruction can be easily justified as not harmful. In the case of the bread maker above one could say stealing his raw ingredients and equipment wasn’t harmful because he also has potatoes growing and thus can eat. Burning a home to the ground can be justified as not harming the home owner if he has a tent or other source of shelter. It’s trivial to make justifications based solely on whether or not an action harmed a person or not. That leads to a subjective system and subjective systems lack stability of any sort. Once again somebody is unlikely to build a store even if they know it won’t be burned down now if the rules are entirely subjective. Just because the store won’t be burned down now doesn’t mean the rules won’t subjectively change later after all.

Returning to the beginning of this post smashing windows isn’t good for anybody either. Socialists are often proponents of workers seizing the means of production from capitalists. If you smash a bunch of windows in a capitalist owned factory the workers will have to replace them if they take control. Many socialist anarchists also believe and complete abolition of money and therefore believe banks cannot legitimately exist. For the sake of argument let’s assume a society free of money rises from the ashes of a worker revolution, what will happen to the unneeded bank? A smart society would repurpose it. Banks are merely buildings and like any building they can be used for things other than being banks. Perhaps a group of workers want to open a bicycle repair shop, if the bank is now unoccupied it would make a perfect place for the operation. Yet if the windows are smashed the workers will have to replace them before doing business. Ultimately smashing windows isn’t good for anybody because they must be replaced. This is why Frédéric Bastiat developed the broken window fallacy.

Destruction of in-use products of labor isn’t productive because those products will need to be replaced. If you’re trying to bring on the workers’ revolution then you must realize any windows you break will have to be replaced and if the capitalist that owns the window doesn’t do it then the workers will have to do it after they’ve seized control. Even if you don’t recognize private property rights smashing windows must be recognized as a negative action because labor must be expended to replace the window, labor that could have been more productively used elsewhere. It’s a net loss to the store owner and society as Bastiat pointed out. Sure, you may have robbed a capitalist of one window. Since the capitalist has to expend resources to replace that window he can no longer use those resources to buy food at the local cooperative (and many capitalist do shop at cooperatives). Effectively money has been robbed from the worker/owners of the cooperative who are usually held as the darling children of socialist movements.

It’s a no-win situation that can only be justified by short sightedness.