There has been much debate and controversy in libertarian circles recently over the concept of private property, with the ideas of rent and landlordism, in particular, being front and center. While modern-day American libertarianism has generally considered the right to do what one wishes with the rightfully-acquired private property as sacrosanct, some within the libertarian movement have been promoting the idea that “rent is theft.”
I will offer a quick explanation of what they mean by this, in case anyone reading is unfamiliar with their argument. While most in the liberty movement believe that property is justly acquired through either homesteading (mixing one’s labor with the land) or purchasing it from the rightful owner, the “rent is theft” crowd believes in occupancy and use standards for determining property ownership. This specifies that as long as someone is living in a house or apartment, they are the owner of the property. Thus, because they view someone who is renting out their property to someone else as having no claim to it, they believe that the landlord is committing an act of thievery.
On the contrary, however, it is the tenant who refuses to pay rent or refuses to move out when he violates his rental contract who is stealing. A landlord who rightfully owns the house or apartment that he is renting out has made an investment into his property, whether it be the time and effort he used to build it himself, the money he paid to have someone else build it, or the money he paid to buy it from its previous owner. He may have done so with the intention of renting that property out or originally had a different purpose for it, but he has purchased and/or developed it either way.
When the landlord makes an agreement to rent that property out to someone else, he expects the other person to adhere to their side of the contract. If the tenant violates that contract by refusing to leave when the lease has expired or refusing to pay rent while the lease is active, that tenant is making it impossible for the landlord to rent the property out to someone else who would abide by the agreement. Even if the landlord simply wishes to move into the property himself, the tenant is preventing him from using his property to its fullest extent, as the tenant and his belongings will necessarily take up space and reduce the privacy of anyone living there. Thus, the tenant is a) taking something that does not belong to him and using it for himself and b) preventing the rightful owner from fully using said property. This is in fact theft.
Those who disagree with me like to make the argument that eviction is force and thus antithetical to libertarianism; I have seen some go as far as arguing that eviction is murder, as removing someone from their living space has the potential to expose them to the elements. However, it is not all force that libertarianism is against, but aggression. If someone is aggressing upon another’s person or property, it is legitimate under libertarian theory for the victim or someone acting on their behalf to use force against the aggressor in order to prevent them from continuing and to restore whatever the aggressor may have damaged. As a tenant being evicted is a trespasser against the landlord’s property (assuming the landlord is following whatever agreement he originally made), it is within the confines of the libertarian non-aggression principle for that landlord to remove him.
As for the idea that “eviction is murder,” no one is entitled to another person’s property. While donating a kidney to someone in need is a thoughtful and generous thing to do, refusing to give up your kidney is not murdering the person who would have received it. The potential donor is the rightful owner of his kidney, and he was not responsible for the other person’s kidney problem in the first place. Likewise, in cases where the landlord is the rightful owner of the property, he has no duty to let anyone live there, nor is he personally responsible for what nature may do to the person he is evicting. While I would personally hope that the landlord would be as compassionate as possible and do what he can to help the person he is evicting if they are in need of assistance, he is under no obligation to do so.
Some of those who believe that rent is theft also like to make the argument that land itself cannot be homesteaded; they say that land can only be occupied and used and that one cannot technically mix his labor with the land. However, this is patently false, as the examples of gardening and farming (among others) show. When a farmer transforms a barren piece of land into a vast array of planted crops, he has mixed his labor with it. He is not simply using it, like one would be doing if they were playing a sport on it or just standing it, but substantially altering it. Building any sort of structure on a piece of land also often requires altering it, as trees need to be chopped down, rocks need to be moved, land needs to be smoothed out, etc. Even if the debate over this specific premise were to be won by the “rent is theft” crowd (which I would not concede), it would still not invalidate the claim that someone who builds a house or apartment is mixing his labor with it. Thus, this point is relatively irrelevant to whether a landlord is the legitimate owner of the dwelling in question.
While I fully agree with the idea that there are laws in place that give the rich and powerful certain advantages over the poor in the United States, arguing against the idea of rent itself is not the way to remedy this. There are times when rent is extremely beneficial to someone who is poor or middle class, such as when they’re living in an area for a short time and don’t want to sink a large amount of money into furnishing and maintaining their own home. Even with the potential benefits of renting over owning a home in certain situations aside, rent is not theft.
You can read more from John Hudak on Think Liberty here.