Property is the most fundamental and complex of social facts, and the most important of human interests; it is, therefore, the hardest to understand, the most delicate to meddle with, and the easiest to dogmatize about.
—William Graham Sumner
There is a shared latent attribute to concepts that gives them profound social significance: the meaning of each is unavoidably tied to the role of property in defining individual and social behavior. Whether we are discussing “pollution,” or the “war on drugs,” “abortion,” or “discrimination” in housing or employment, or any of the other listed matters, we are involved in issues that have, at their core, the nature, use, ownership, and limitations on property. The disputes we have with one another largely come down to disagreements over how, when, or by whom, property is to be owned or controlled. Your neighbor’s barking dog; a business competitor’s use of your trademark; a city prohibiting the building of an addition to your home, or condemning your land through the power of eminent domain; your children fighting over the use of a toy; motorists squabbling over a parking space; or a family fight that arises from the reading of a will: these are just a few of the commonly experienced social problems that derive from conflicts over property.
For reasons that will be explored herein—reasons centering largely on political considerations—inquiries into these varied areas of human behavior are rarely addressed in terms of property ownership. Nevertheless, these and other human activities relate to the question of what property is, how it should be controlled and by whom, and what is entailed in “ownership.” The distinction between “victimizing” and “victimless” crime, for instance, illustrates my point: the former always involves the violation of a property interest, the latter never does.
The conflicts, disorder, and destructiveness that are so expressive of modern society arise from our confusion over the nature of property as a system of social order. So insensitive have we become to the role of property as the most important civilizing influence in our world, that we have even learned to regard the infliction of our wills upon the lives and property of others as expressions of “socially responsible” conduct. So aggressive are our ambitions in the world that we do not want to be reminded that they are bought at the cost of our profound respect for the interests—and, hence, the lives—of our neighbors. We eagerly trespass one another’s property interests out of an arrogance that threatens to destroy human society, if not humanity itself.
As Sumner’s observation suggests, there is probably no chasm in human affairs as wide as that which separates our desires for property from our conceptual understanding of it. Property—and how it is owned and controlled—is the most basic and definitive feature of any social system. It provides the only means by which one is able to act in the world. Our behavior must take place within some space, with action directed upon some “thing” or intangible interest that can be controlled in furtherance of some purpose of the actor. Property is considered to be privately-owned when an individual is able to direct the use of a property interest to his or her ends, without having such control preempted by others. In a political context, property is owned collectively when such control and purpose is coercively taken from the individual and directed by an external authority. Unless otherwise indicated, I shall refer to “collective” ownership in its compulsory, political sense, distinguishing those voluntary systems (e.g., religious or philosophic communes, cooperatives) in which owners freely transfer their property interests to an association. Whatever system of ownership is in place, someone will exercise decisional authority over property.
In an institutionalized world dominated by abstract thought, most of us are inclined to regard “property” as a political invention, born of biases of ideology, political power, or “class-consciousness.” As such, we imagine it to be a concept that can be redesigned, twisted, or modified to suit prevailing tastes, without any significant adverse consequences. Like fashions in clothing, entertainment, or lifestyles, we imagine the property principle—as distinct from the choices people make with their property—to be malleable. We treat the concept as little more than a game to be played, not being aware that, like Russian roulette, the outcome can prove deadly. Whether property is to be owned individually or collectively seems, to most of humanity, a matter to be resolved by the outcome of public opinion polls or political referenda. Men, women, and children are now paying a terrible price for the nearly universal ignorance of the nature of property and its ownership.
Property is central to our lives because of the second law of thermodynamics, which advises us that every closed system moves, inexorably, from a state of order to disorder, a concept known as increasing entropy. But living systems are open, not closed, and can decrease entropy, at least in the short run, by ingesting energy1 from external sources (e.g., food). Every living thing—if it is to overcome entropy—requires the enjoyment of those conditions under which external sources of energy are available with sufficient regularity to sustain the individual. These external sources comprise much of what we know as “property,” which every organism must be at liberty to enjoy if it is to survive. Just as there is no collective way for a species to reproduce itself, reversal of entropy can be experienced only by individual organisms. This doesn’t guarantee, of course, that each being will be successful in such endeavors. The wildebeest who is busy consuming grasses may have its efforts at overcoming entropy interrupted by a lioness who is trying to do the same thing at the wildebeest’s expense. Here, we begin to see a phenomenon to which we shall return later: the seemingly contradictory nature of reality. Life must consume energy if life is to continue, but such life-sustaining energy is found only in other living things. The entire life process thus becomes what has been termed a “mutual eating system,” leading us to confront the harsh paradox that life can be sustained only if, in the process, life is destroyed! Might this existential fact provide an explanation—perhaps, in the minds of some, even a justification—for our mutually destructive political systems?
The answer to this question may be found elsewhere in nature. It is commonplace among species, although not universal, that the consumption of other living things be confined to members of other species; cannibalism tends to be discouraged. It is this tendency that gives rise to the need for a property principle to identify energy sources that members of a given species will respect vis-à-vis one another. Within a species, “life” becomes inseparable from the property question, a fact reflected in practices that deter intra-species trespasses—a topic to be examined later. Not only does our physical existence depend upon each of us occupying space to the exclusion of everyone and everything else, but requires our being able to consume energy from other living sources. The entropic nature of life, in other words, demands that we control and consume resources if we are to survive. Among members of the same species, it also requires a system for respecting one another’s claims to resources. No species would long survive if its members habitually looked upon one another as energy sources to be consumed.
Despite the urgings of a materialistic culture, however, we are aware that life has more than just a biological, survival meaning: survival as what? Identifying and maintaining the conditions that keep us alive is necessary, but not sufficient for the meaningful life. There are men and women in penitentiaries and mental hospitals who are fed, clothed, given medical care, and provided with places to sleep, and yet few of us would regard these as fulfilling environments. Likewise, many people, kept bodily alive by life-support systems, long to have their lives end. Others, in anticipation that such a fate might await them, write “living wills” expressing their desires that machines not be employed to maintain them in a vegetative condition. The Terry Schiavo case2 was compelling for its questioning of our sense of the meaning of “life” in a technologically-wondrous culture. Entropy, in other words, expresses itself in more than purely physical ways.
The property question has an additional, yet related, meaning beyond its relevance to individual liberty and the need to overcome entropy. Its further significance is to be found at the nucleus of a fundamental transformation now occurring in the nature and design of political and social systems. For various reasons to be explored herein, our world is rapidly becoming decentralized, with vertically structured institutions being challenged by horizontally interconnected networks characterized by greater spontaneity and increased personal autonomy. Society is taking on the dynamics of a giant centrifuge, spinning increased decision-making authority and control into the hands of individuals. As so much of human behavior is expressed within a material context, the implications such deconcentration will have for how property is to be owned and controlled should be apparent.
The central question in any social system, therefore, comes down to the property inquiry: how are decisions to be made in the world, and who will make them? What kinds of organizations should we employ so that we can enjoy the advantages that come from a division of labor without sacrificing the individual liberties of others when pursuing our personal interests? What is the nature of social order, and what kinds of systems best promote a peaceful and orderly society? Are individual liberty and social order conflicting values that must be “balanced” by political systems, or are such qualities expressions of a symmetry whose patterns remain obscured through clashing belief systems?
These are just a few of the questions being asked at a time when the world is undergoing major changes in political and social organization. Social systems are as subject to the forces of entropy as living organisms. Their failure to remain resilient and adaptive to the processes of change that define life itself, can bring about their collapse. Indeed, such is the condition now confronting our institutionally-dominant world. Traditional, vertically-structured social systems are eroding, being replaced by lateral webs of independent but interlinking individuals and associations. The pyramid, with its top-down, command-and-control system of centralized authority, has been the dominant organizational model in Western society since at least the time of Plato. The assumption underlying this model is that social order can be achieved only if major decision-making is centralized within established institutions, most notably the state. This view provides the foundation for “collectivism,” defined by one source as “a doctrine or system that makes the group or the state responsible for the social and economic welfare of its members.”3 Through the exercise of vertical, unilater-ally-directed authority, institutional officials are presumed to be capable of channeling the turbulent forces of human society to productive and harmonious ends. The pyramidal model functions in a chain-of-command fashion, where decisions “trickle down” from institutional leaders to the rank-and-file members at different levels in the hierarchy. Because the authority of pyramidal systems is inseparable from their control over the lives and property of people, the threat of decentralist tendencies for institutional power cannot be overstated.