Ego-boundaries, like property boundaries, segregate us from one another. The overstepping of either can evoke anger and violence against the transgressor, although our reaction is likely to be subdued when a neighbor with whom we have regular, face-to-face dealings, walks across our lawn. But should an outsider intrude upon our ego-boundaries, the more abstract nature of the trespass may engender more intense violence, as one sees in wartime. Such are the energies prevailing along boundary lines that can erupt when violated.
Because ego-boundary conflicts are quite abstract, and often involve millions of people with little face-to-face contact, their violence is far more destructive than the more localized and transient nature of boundary disputes by owners. This fact, alone, should illustrate the advantages of decentralizing decision making away from political institutions and into the hands of individual property owners.
Whether we are differentiating the meanings of words, expanding the boundaries of our understanding, trying to reconcile seemingly contradictory experiences, fighting with a neighbor, or confronting our conflict-laden “ego-boundaries,” there is tremendous energy associated with activity along boundary lines. If we can begin to understand the nature of the energy contained within the boundary concept, we may gain valuable insights into the role that the inviolability of property boundaries plays in maintaining both free and orderly social systems. We may discover that much of the destructive energy that is regularly released into our world as conflict and violence is the product of the systematic disrespect for property boundaries in a variety of settings.
There is, admittedly, a paradoxical quality to property as it relates to social conflict. On the one hand, privately owned property provides what may be the most important mechanism for avoiding intra-species conflict. The biological and social purpose served by property boundaries is to recognize the existential significance of each person not only as his or her own purpose for being, but also as a means for the survival of the species. This is accomplished by separating those resources over which each of us will exercise our respective control. It is not simply an ideological preference, but a fact of nature, that no organism can survive without exclusive space to occupy and resources to consume. On the other hand, to claim a resource for oneself, to the exclusion of everyone else, is to divide oneself from others. Conflict is produced by division and yet property ownership seems to both produce and alleviate conflict.
This introduces us to another phenomenon that may further help us transcend the divisions generated by our dualistic thinking. There is an interrelated quality apparent to opposites which, when closely examined, provides intuitive glimpses of a more holistic universe. The seemingly irreconcilable but interdependent nature of the two aspects of a magnet, which introduces “polarization” into our vocabularies, clouds a unity that is immediately revealed when the magnet is cut in half to produce two magnets, each with a “north” and a “south” pole. One sees this unity of opposites in marketplace behavior. A free market involves the energetic pursuit of individual self-interest while, at the same time, it is dependent upon participants respecting the property interests of others. Buyers and sellers commit only their own resources, often with great risks involved, and absorb their own costs associated with their individual pursuits. In spite of all this self-serving activity, market participants end up benefiting others, even without intending to do so!
I suspect that when we encounter seemingly irresolvable discrepancies such as this, we may be straddling the boundary lines that our dualistic thinking employs to divide our experiences into discrete, manageable categories. Such ambivalence may provide us with the opportunity to see the world more holographically—to move beyond our divisive methods of thinking.14 William Blake’s “Contraries” come to mind. “Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.”15
A paradox may only be our mind’s intuitive grasping of this fundamental interconnectedness. Niels Bohr’s “complementarity principle,” addressing the phenomenon of wave-particle duality in quantum mechanics, may have a social analogy to help us understand the seemingly paradoxical qualities of our individual and social behavior as reciprocal, symmetrical expressions of wholeness, rather than division. It is at boundaries that separation occurs. But it is at the same boundary lines that we have the opportunity to glimpse the integrated nature of the apparent opposites that our mind, alone, has created. With paradoxes, we are able to look across the boundary lines of separation and see our world in a more integrated manner. If this is so, a paradox should be a welcome signal for exploring the implications of our dualistic thinking—to bring about a synthesis of seemingly opposing elements and grasp their wholeness.
We may be assisted in our efforts by approaches taken in Eastern thought. In the philosophy of Taoism, the concepts of Yin and Yang help us transcend dualistic thinking that causes us to understand the universe in terms of mutually-exclusive categories. Such apparently opposing qualities as “hot” and “cold,” “day” and “night,” “happy” and “sad,” or “living” and “dead” can, with a change in perspective, come to be seen as complementary, interconnected characteristics. The concept of “virtue” is meaningless without its partner “sin,” just as “truth” and “falsity,” “rich” and “poor,” and “good” and “evil” have paired dependencies. It is our mind, alone, that insists upon the separation and, in so doing, helps to produce the absolutist mindset that plagues mankind.
As we continue to play with the novelty of holograms, optical illusions, and Escher drawings, we may be able to intuit the wholeness that lies hidden behind boundary lines. We might add to our playthings the Mobius strip—the puzzle created by half-twisting one end of a two-sided strip of paper and attaching it to the other end to create a one-sided surface. Each of these forms of amusement may provide insights into the holistic nature of boundaries that both separate us from one another— as an expression of individuality—and, as a consequence, allow us to cooperatively integrate ourselves in a sense of community with others.
If, as both Taoism and physics inform us, boundaries are not as precise as we imagine them to be, how do we resolve the paradox that all living things must retain exclusive control over specific space and negentropic resources if they are to survive? Is this an inherent contradiction or a failure to reason clearly, or a paradox whose apparent irreconcilability, like wave-particle duality,16 suggests that we may be at the frontier of a more profound social discovery? Contrary to collectivist thinking that is grounded in the divisive proposition that the lives of some may be sacrificed for the benefit of others, the private property principle may be the expression of a more holistic premise that could help extricate humanity from its collective destructiveness.
Because our individuality and need for autonomy is what each of us has in common with one another, is it not evident that only a system of personally owned property is consistent with both our personal and social interest to be free of conflict? Doesn’t the apparent conflict between individual and societal purposes—fashioned by ideologues as a rationale for state power—evaporate once we grasp the simple fact that conflict is a byproduct of boundary trespasses? As we endeavor to understand the significance of new models of social organization in which interconnectedness, autonomy, and autopoeisis are the principal characteristics, we would do well to consider the role of property boundaries as information systems through which we maintain our needs for both community and individuality. Such boundaries function much like DNA: to communicate the boundaries of our individual uniqueness even while continuing the life of the species itself.
The influence of boundaries is also at work in the development of our personalities. Because we are social beings, you and I learn “who” we are largely in terms of our relationships with one another. We do a lot of bumping into one another as we grow up, and learn from each other’s reactions the propriety of our respective actions. The realm of “manners” consists of informal attempts to define “proper” behavior—a term with obvious property connotations. We often employ property language to inform others that their behavior has gone too far: “don’t crowd me,” “give me my space,” and “keep your hands to yourself,” have become fence-lines we employ in our social claim-staking for what we regard as ours. As we respond to others, and experience their responses to us, we contribute to the development of one another’s sense of “self.” Thus who you and I are, and what is yours or mine to control, are determined by related processes of negotiation for our boundaries with one another.
A society in which peace and liberty prevail is dependent upon this mutually-exclusive nature of property boundaries. Because institutional interests depend upon confusion in our minds as to what decisions are or are not for us to personally make, it is not surprising that we should succumb to the idea that our individual interests could be inherently in conflict. Because boundary lines separate what is “yours” from what is “mine” to control, recognition of, and respect for, boundaries set the limits of our individual actions and, in the process, provide a functional basis for harmonious social behavior. Without a concept of individual ownership of property, human activity is inherently conflict-ridden, with most of us reduced to competing for the control of resources on the basis of violence. That such social discord accompanies the expansion of state power, with its inherent contempt for privately-owned property, should not amaze us. Every political system is nothing more than a mechanism that allows some to benefit at the expense of the many through violent takings of property. Modern society provides a clear reflection of the destructive consequences of failing to observe the inviolability of private interests. Only by describing and respecting separate and exclusive areas for each of us to control can such discord be eliminated in our world.
The significance of property boundaries is not confined to human behavior. Those who regard “property” interests as nothing more than a human invention to maintain existing interests in the world, must come to grips with the fact that various life forms—animal and plant alike—identify and defend the boundaries of their territorial interests. In landmark works that have helped to expand an awareness of the territorial nature of many other species—be they fish, birds, or mammals—Konrad Lorenz,17 Robert Ardrey,18 and Edward O. Wilson,19 provided empirical evidence for the role that respect for territorial boundaries plays in reducing conflict within various species. Members of a particular species will stake out a territorial claim, with their boundaries marked by urine, or the range of one’s warble or trumpet. Even molds and bacteria assert their territorial claims to fruits and vegetables by creating toxic substances to discourage trespassers.20 Boundaries operate as barriers that tend to discourage trespasses by outsiders, and thus give to the owner an exclusive realm within which to function. A trespass will invite a defensive response from the claimant, with the interesting result of the claimant being able to successfully resist the intrusion in the overwhelming majority of cases. As Ardrey has observed:
We may also say that in all territorial species, without exception, possession of a territory lends enhanced energy to the proprietor. Students of animal behavior cannot agree as to why this should be, but the challenger is almost invariably defeated, the intruder expelled. In part, there seems some mysterious flow of energy and resolve, which invests a proprietor on his home grounds. But likewise, so marked is the inhibition lying on the intruder, so evident his sense of trespass, we may be permitted to wonder if in all territorial species there does not exist, more profound than simple learning, some universal recognition of territorial rights.21
This overwhelming tendency for the territorial occupier to prevail against an intruder has also been acknowledged by Wilson, Lorenz, and others.22 Who has not witnessed this phenomenon in even the smallest dog’s indignant barking that wards off the invasion of its property by a much larger and stronger dog? Perhaps this disposition helps to account for the “home field advantage” in sports,23 or contributed to the American government’s difficulties in its wars against the Vietnamese and Iraqis, the Soviet Union’s problems in Afghanistan, and the Israeli government’s troubles in Lebanon.
This social role of property was noted, as early as 1878, by T.E. Cliffe Leslie:
A dog, it has been said, shows an elementary proprietary sentiment when he hides a bone, or keeps watch over his master’s goods. But property has not its root in the love of possession. All living beings like and desire certain things, and if nature has armed them with any weapons are prone to use them in order to get and keep what they want. What requires explanation is not the want or desire of certain things on the part of individuals, but the fact that other individuals, with similar wants and desires, should leave them in undisturbed possession, or allot to them a share, of such things. It is the conduct of the community, not the inclination of individuals, that needs investigation.24
Again, as Ardrey writes, most territorial contests are restricted to members of the same species. “A squirrel,” for instance, “does not regard a mouse as a trespasser.”25 For much the same reasons, we humans would tend to not look upon a bird as a trespasser if it built a nest in our bushes, but would be inclined to regard a homeless person as a trespasser if he took up residence in those same bushes.
There is an interesting photograph of a dozen or more male mouthbrooder fish, each occupying a hexagonally shaped territory whose boundaries are delineated in the sand of an outdoor tank of water. When one sees the efficiency with which these fish have gotten the maximum amount of usable space from what was available to them, and then compares this arrangement with the patterns we humans have created in subdividing our territories into housing developments, the parallels are remarkable.26
Those who insist that privately-owned property is nothing more than a fiction created by humans, or the creature of political and legal institutions, would do well to examine the behavior of other life forms. Such an anthropocentric vision expresses a fundamental ignorance of the nature of all living things to occupy and consume resources. Territory is the most fundamental fact of existence. Even plants, trees, and corals stake out and defend individual territorial boundaries. Other species have no known governments or laws and yet maintain a very high degree of respect for the territorial claims established by other members of their species. The territorial boundary not only informs others of the area within which the claimant intends to be the sole owner and occupier, but also determines where another may traverse without causing conflict.
Perhaps the violent, angry, and stagnant quality of life in many larger cities reflects our failure to understand the importance of individualized space and the need to respect one another’s boundaries in a crowded world. The study of astronomy informs us that it is the vast amount of space existing among galaxies, stars, and planets that prevents a destructive, gravity-driven collision of such bodies. Our cities may provide us the social equivalent of such insights, namely, that without a sufficient respect for the space that separates us, conditions may become too catastrophic to sustain life.
Since we use the boundary concept to inform one another of what we claim as ours to own and control, one of the first boundaries we ought to consider defining involves our most basic property interest: the ownership of our individual selves. If you and I do own ourselves, what is it that we own? At the most basic level, the boundaries of our selves can be defined in much the same way we describe other material entities, namely, by the three-dimensional nature of our bodies. There may be some debate as to whether these boundaries begin and end at the epidermis, or whether they might also consist of some hazily-defined “aura.” Nonetheless, the implicit recognition of the physical dimensions of the body as representing the minimal boundaries of self-ownership finds support not only in common speech (“your rights end where my nose begins”), but in the standard common law definition of a “battery” as “the least touching of another in anger.”27 Questions concerning abortion; the right to commit suicide, use drugs, decide whether or not to wear seat belts or a motorcycle helmet, or select one’s health practices; or whether a person continues to own his or her bodily organs once they have been removed from their body28 (an issue to which we shall return later) show that the question of how we define our personal boundaries is far from being resolved.
Similar problems of definitional uncertainty—largely the legacy of feudal thinking and early court decisions—are found in the law. In defining the boundaries of real property, the extent of “air rights” and “subsurface rights” are not subject to precise measurement. The old common law definition, untested by earlier technologies, was that rights to land extended from the center of the earth outward into infinite space. This concept never did satisfy the functional meanings of property ownership and has undergone great transformation as a result of such inventions as the airplane, radio and television, and space satellites.