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Monday, September 1, 2008

A Property-Rights Theory of Mass Murder

How Do Governments Come to Slaughter Unarmed Civilians by the Millions?

Stephen Carson, a software engineer, writes independently from St. Louis. This article is condensed from “Killing and Stealing: A Property-Rights Theory of Mass Murder,” which first appeared in The Independent Review, Winter 2007, and was reprinted in Opposing the Crusader State: Alternatives to Global Interventionism, edited by Robert Higgs and Carl P. Close (The Independent Institute).

In the study of mass murder by governments, R. J. Rummel stands tall. His theory, which focuses on the role of the state, is a giant step forward from previous theories that examined “cultural-ethnic differences, outgroup conflict, misperception, frustration-aggression, relative deprivation, ideological imperatives, dehumanization, resource competition, etc.” Oversimplifying somewhat for now, I characterize his theory as a regime-type theory: at one extreme, totalitarian dictatorships are the most deadly; authoritarian regimes are still deadly but less so; and, at the other extreme, democracies are the least deadly.

Besides presenting a theory that puts the state at center stage, Rummel has also made two other major contributions to this area of study. First, he has attempted to make the first full accounting of twentieth-century mass murder. No earlier investigators, for example, had tried to come up with a number for total Nazi mass-murder victims because they had focused on particular groups—Jews, Gypsies, and so forth. His most recent estimate is that 262 million civilians were killed by governments in the twentieth century.

Second, using what he learned about the number of government killings, he has emphasized the importance of understanding democide (his term for mass murder of civilians by government) by pointing out that as horrendous as combat deaths were in the twentieth century, the truth is that many more noncombatants were murdered.

In this article I present an alternative theoretical approach, a property-rights theory, for understanding how governments came to slaughter unarmed civilians by the millions and tens of millions. The questions that Rummel and I are trying to answer are: First, how does a government gain the capability to murder millions of civilians? And second, what, if anything, can be done to prevent such monstrous crimes?

Rummel concentrates on the structure of government, pointing to the centralization of power in an authoritarian or dictatorial ruler as the primary problem and to “political freedom” and decentralization of power through democracy as the solutions. The property-rights approach, by contrast, points to systematic invasions of private-property rights as the primary enabling acts and to defense of those rights as the solution. My proposed approach implies that, contra Rummel, democracy is not part of the solution, but rather part of the problem, because both democratic ideology and democratic practice undermine private-property rights.

What stands out about democide in the twentieth century is not the discrete “crimes of passion,” such as the killings in Tiananmen Square, but the systematic bureaucratic killing that took place over years. Not only is this aspect of state murder horrifying to contemplate, but it also explains how the killing occurred on such a stupendous scale: Killing millions of people took a long time. This aspect of democide seems especially amenable to economic—or, more precisely, praxeological—analysis because the systematic killing took place over time, used resources, and even involved something like capital investment (for example, to build concentration camps). But mass killing is not a market phenomenon, so rather than turning to the familiar praxeology of cooperation, which starts with the mutual gains realized in peaceful exchange, we must turn to the analysis of the dark side of human action: the praxeology of aggression.

Aggression Against Property and its Praxeological Effects

Systematic aggression against property changes the time horizon for individuals. Because incentives for producing for the future are reduced, future income and consumption are also reduced, which results in a rise in time preference. Furthermore, taxation discourages time-consuming but productive efforts to earn income and encourages instead short time-horizon methods, including stealing or legally seizing goods through politics. Thus aggressions against external property are problematic in several ways.

First, such aggressions constitute a violent attack on a person through the things the person owns. When they are “legal,” then a property owner’s resistance to them will result in official violence directly against his person. This point deserves emphasis because political attacks on private-property rights have been widely glorified as idealistic and socially minded for more than a hundred years. Much as rape needs to be viewed primarily as a violent act rather than as a sex act, so aggression against property needs to be viewed primarily as a violent act rather than as a manifestation of idealism if we are to understand its role in mass murder.

Second, successful aggression against private-property rights removes the use of the property from the rightful owner’s control. Loss of property has numerous consequences, but those most relevant to democide are loss of the ability to protect oneself, as when one’s guns or other means of self-defense are taken, and loss of the ability to be productive and hence to command resources for consumption.

Third, a successful expropriation empowers the aggressor. Owing to control of the property acquired through aggression, he will probably have enhanced capability to perpetrate even more violence.

Fourth, a successful theft may reduce the incentive to acquire new property because the victim perceives such accumulation as pointless—the property will just be taken as before.

Systematic stealing disarms victims and empowers aggressors. By “disarms,” I mean not only that it takes weapons away, but also, and perhaps more important, that it takes away the resources used to sustain and defend their lives.

Precursor to Democide

Aggression against external property usually precedes aggression against persons. Moreover, aggression against external property enables aggression against persons by transferring resources from victim to aggressor, lowering the time preference of both, creating conflict where there was harmony, and so forth. Because democide usually takes place over long periods, the victims must be prevented from running away and from effectively defending themselves. Thus attacks on property are essential to a successful democide—to keep the victims helpless and foreclose their alternatives.

In the case of communism the attack is mounted not simply on external property in general—the sort of attack illustrated by a bandit raid or by income taxation—but on the means of production in particular. Ludwig von Mises’s socialist-calculation argument demonstrates that where capital is socialized, economic calculation will become chaotic. To the extent that the free-market price system is undermined, buyers and sellers find it more difficult to compare the benefits they expect to gain from trade with their perceived opportunity costs. As this difficulty increases, economic planning by individuals and business owners, and the coordination of their plans by the economic system, is weakened. At the extreme, the economy will break down altogether, and the advantages of the division of labor will be lost for the most part. This consequence alone may be enough to account for the murderous famines that invariably accompany all concerted efforts to socialize.

An attack on people’s ability to produce differs from merely stealing someone’s output for the day. A person who has lost his productive capacity has lost the ability to demand consumer goods on the market—another reason why socialism has been deadly on such a huge scale. Socialism’s victims are left without the means to draw goods to themselves to meet their basic needs. They become entirely dependent on bureaucratic distribution, which, as the calculation argument suggests, will be ineffective even if the regime intends to feed them. If the regime decides to starve them, however, it can do so with deadly effectiveness.

Another aspect of the socialization of the means of production is that everyone becomes an “employee” of the state. What jobs they may take, whether they work, their rewards and punishments—all are determined by government functionaries.

The people become slaves in fact, if not officially, but they become slaves of an unusual sort. Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains that just as socialized capital is depleted, so also socialized labor receives “lowered investment, misallocation, and overutilization.” Labor is misallocated because of the lack of a competitive market for it and the consequent absence of market prices because independent entrepreneurs are eliminated. One pictures the schoolteachers and skilled craftsmen working in the killing fields under the watchful eyes and guns of the Khmer Rouge. Labor is overutilized because with the workers’ income largely subject to the caretakers’ control, these partial, temporary owners have an incentive to use up the labor without regard for the long-term consequences. In public slavery, the worker has no resale value. In the extreme, laborers are worked to death, as many millions were in the twentieth century.

The Historical Role of Gun Control

In Death by “Gun Control,” Aaron Zelman and Richard Stevens argue that gun control has preceded all the mass murders of the twentieth century. They summarize their thesis in what they call the “Genocide formula”: “Hatred + Government + Disarmed Civilians = Genocide.” As they explain further, “When the firearms are confiscated and the defense-minded people gone, only the defenseless unarmed people remain. The third element of the Genocide formula—the only one that the people can directly control—is in place.”

This important argument fits very well into a property-rights approach to democide. I would emphasize, however, that stealing the means of production is perhaps even deadlier. People who still can demand goods on the market, owing to their ability to produce, can procure new means of defense.

The deadliest combination is gun control and socialization. Take away people’s means of defense and their ability to acquire another means of defense, and they are left truly defenseless before the power of the state.

How does a regime that ultimately rests on popular opinion get away with such horrendous actions?

Ideology holds the key.

Ideology’s role in democide must be considered carefully, however. Violators of external property rights do not always embrace an explicitly anti-property ideology, as the communists did. They were especially deadly, though, because they precisely and consciously aimed their attacks at property rights. As we examine ideologies with elements of socialization, we should expect to find some of this same lethal effect, though not as much as in outright socialism.

Attacks on property also go by other names besides communism and socialism. Militarism, which includes the subordination of private-property rights to the state’s military machine, played a deadly role not only in the Nazi regime, but also, we are learning, in Mao’s regime. Mao was willing to take food from the mouths of the Chinese people for this purpose, and he often did so. Ideologies that announce their devotion to the race, the nation, and even freedom and democracy can also result in attacks on private-property rights.

The property-rights approach to democide gains credibility when we recognize that the twentieth century, a time of such colossal mass murders, was also a time of ideological rejection of classical liberalism’s strong devotion to the protection of private-property rights—an ideological rejection, it should be noted, that was popular in all regimes by the middle of the century, even in those that were nominally committed to “freedom.” It is no coincidence, however, that the century’s deadliest regimes were explicitly socialist and featured an announced ideology of enmity toward private-property rights.

According to Rummel, “Most democides occur under the cover of war, revolution, or guerilla war, or in their aftermath.” From the perspective of the property-rights approach to democide, war plays a causal role in empowering a regime and in compromising property rights. “War is the health of the state,” as Randolph Bourne pointed out: The state gains strength, and the people who are subject to it become correspondingly weaker. During wartime we are likely to see the warfare state, swollen with stolen men and goods, commit genocide against “foreigners.” “Given his natural human aggressiveness,” Hoppe asks, “is it not obvious that [the state ruler] will be more brazen and aggressive in his conduct toward foreigners if he can externalize the cost of such behavior onto others?”

I have criticized Rummel’s theory here for putting so much stress on the way the government is structured (as a dictatorial, authoritarian, or democratic system) rather than on what the government actually does (specifically to private-property rights). Yet in his 1983 paper “Libertarianism and International Violence,” he puts great weight on economic freedom as a contributor to avoiding violence. In his 1997 book Power Kills, however, he places heavy stress on democracy (“political freedom”) and makes little or no mention of the role of property rights or economic freedom. Rummel’s enthusiastic endorsement of democracy leaves little room in particular for understanding, as I see it, how democracy actually contributes to the deadly move toward the massive invasion of property rights.

What does the property-rights theory offer that can supplement or amend Rummel’s regime-type theory?

Supplementing the Regime-Type Theory

First, focusing on the regime type is not helpful in understanding cycles of mass murder under the same regime type—for example, the peaks and valleys of mass murder by the government of the USSR, a totalitarian dictatorship from beginning to end. A property-rights approach, however, not only suggests that a totalitarian regime would be murderous but also shows where the peaks and valleys of killing will be: the peaks would correspond to determined efforts to collectivize (that is, to massive assaults on private-property rights) and the valleys would correspond to retreats from collectivization (for example, to Lenin’s New Economic Policy period in the USSR).

Similarly, in the case of China a focus on regime structure would merely indicate that it has been under a communist dictatorship for more than 50 years. A property-rights approach, in contrast, calls our attention to the significant changes in property rights in China in recent years and predicts that large-scale democide is unlikely, despite the regime type’s being nominally the same as the one during the Great Leap Forward.

A property-rights approach gives us more insight into the dynamic of how a state gains murderous strength and the people become weak, so that the state can kill so many people. If a devil asked Rummel, “How do I murder tens of millions of people?” Rummel would have to answer, “Establish a totalitarian dictatorship.” To which the devil would respond, “Fine, but how can I put myself in a position to do so?” The property-rights theory then explains that the path to mass murder and the path to a powerful centralized state are the same and that the key is to attack private-property rights.

Applying the Theory

Let’s see how the property-rights theory sheds light on a few matters.

Socialism: From the perspective of the property-rights theory, it seems clear why the greatest mass murderers were avowed socialists instead of, say, right-wing military dictators such as Francisco Franco. Attacks on private-property rights in socialist regimes were not a side effect of another goal, such as defending the country, suppressing a dissident religious group, or attacking a particular race. Such attacks expressed the socialists’ explicit and avowed ideological aim. It comes as no surprise then that the revolutionary socialists (socialists who really meant business) attacked private-property rights repeatedly in deadly waves of “collectivization,” “de-kulakization,” “Great Leaps Forward,” and so forth.

Imperialism: The property-rights theory helps us to understand how the same type of regime can behave one way at home and another way abroad. At home the regime may face resistance at every turn from long-established property-rights traditions. Abroad, the regime does not face these constraints in dealing with the “natives.”

Democracy: Where the regime-type theory holds up democracy as the solution to mass murder, war, and other types of regime violence, the property-rights theory argues that because the principle of democracy (at least in the modern sense) has nothing to do with the protection of private-property rights and in practice undermines such rights, it promotes such violence.

Regime Change: The regime-type theory has been used to justify “regime change,” a policy of sanctions, military invasion and occupation, and other means intended to change an undemocratic regime into a more democratic one. The reasoning is all too familiar: “you have to break some eggs to make an omelet.” In this case, the omelet is democracy, which it is hoped will result in less democide and a more peaceful regime, thus justifying in the long run all the short-term “collateral damage” and other destruction.

The property-rights theory encourages instead an increase in justice—that is, an increased respect for private-property rights—or, to put it another way, a decrease in robbery. Nothing in this perspective suggests that a wave of injustice, such as “liberating” a country’s population by means of “shock and awe” aerial bombardments, can serve as the path to justice. In pointing out this advantage of the property-rights theory, I do not mean to be topical in a frivolous way. A theory of decreasing mass murder that encourages mass murder has a serious defect.




  • Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, Knopf, 2005.
  • Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy: The God That Failed, Transaction, 2001.
  • ———, The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, 2d ed., Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2006.