Collectivism, in its varied forms, is dying. For a number of reasons, this top-down, pyramidal model now finds itself in retreat. One cause has been an increased awareness of the inability of large institutions to continue producing the values upon which a society depends for its well-being. Because of their size and proneness to bureaucratic sluggishness, institutions are less adaptable to the constancies of change inherent in all living systems. I have defined “institution” elsewhere as “any permanent social organization with purposes of its own, having formalized and structured machinery for pursuing those purposes, and making and enforcing rules of conduct in order to control those within it.”4
Not all organizations qualify as institutions. As social beings, it is natural for us to freely associate with one another for our mutual benefit. The institutional forms that have contributed so much to the disorder in the world are those that have elevated their organizational purposes above the interests of individuals or informal groups. In so doing, they have become institutions, the most prominent of which is the state, with its coercive bureaucratic agencies, followed by large business corporations that align themselves more with state power than with the unstructured marketplace. Other institutions include most organized religions, schools and universities, and labor unions. In each case, an institution arises when an organization composed of autonomous, cooperating individuals becomes transformed into an end in itself.
It is common to organize with one another for social, business, religious, recreational, or other purposes. From bowling leagues to book clubs to various hobby groups, we form associations with one another that function as tools through which we accomplish shared interests. Such organizations are extensions of our individual purposes, subject to our control. A business partnership, for instance, is a vehicle allowing us to engage in a productive division of labor for profitable ends. But as the organization becomes increasingly successful, there is a tendency to preserve its effectiveness through the creation of hierarchical structures and formal rules of conduct. When the preservation of the organization becomes more important than the informal and spontaneous practices that created it, an institution has been born.
Life is a continuing process of making adjustments and creative responses in a world too complex to be predictable. Because institutions are systems that have become their own reason for being, their interests often consist in efforts to stabilize the environment in which they operate. This need to moderate or even prevent change engenders conflict with individuals seeking to promote their interests through means incompatible with those of institutions. It is at this point that institutions, particularly the state, create enforceable rules and machinery that pit the forces of restraint and permanency against autonomous and innovative processes. These practices necessarily interfere with the efforts of individuals to resist entropic forces. As such restraints metastasize throughout society, they call into question the very survival of civilization itself. As we shall see, such tensions always manifest themselves as conflicts over how property is to be owned and controlled.
Historically, the state has dominated in this struggle between the forces of stability and change. Because of the comparative advantages they enjoy by virtue of their concentrated economic interests, institutions generally prevail over individuals and smaller organizations. With the passage of time, decisions that might previously have been regarded to be within the exclusive authority of private owners to make have been preempted by various legislative, judicial, executive, and administrative branches of government. The consequence of this is that property control has become increasingly collectivized in both the United States and other Western nations, generating a great deal of social conflict.
The tensions between systems of privately-owned property and collectivism are exacerbated by the fact that the nationstate, the centerpiece of vertically-structured systems, now finds its authority in decline. There has been a drastic failure of expectations that the state could generate social and economic order. Twentieth century state-conducted wars and genocides killed some two hundred million people, while state systems of economic planning produced mass starvation, impoverishment, and death; shortages of goods and services; unemployment; inflation; and depressions. The promise that the state would protect individual liberty has been negated by expanded police states, concentration camps and gulags, death squads and death camps, systematic torture, censorship, surveillance of the lives of people, and widespread forms of police brutality. The expectation that the state would protect private property has wilted in the face of the burden of taxation, government regulation of economic transactions and land usage, asset forfeiture, and the powers of eminent domain.
There is a growing awareness that “the system” simply doesn’t work as many people, especially during the time of the constitutional movement of the eighteenth century, expected it would. That movement in a sense legitimized the state. But today, the death rattle of the nation-state reverberates throughout the world. The “Iron Curtain” behemoth that served as the West’s bogeyman following World War II began to erode in the late 1940s, with Yugoslavia leading the way. Later on, the surviving Soviet Union broke up into fifteen independent nations. Yugoslavia no longer exists, its erstwhile territory subdivided into six separate nations. Kosovo recently declared its independence from Serbia. Czechoslovakia—having broken away from the grips of the Soviet Union—has since decentralized into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Secession movements abound throughout the world, with Northern Ireland, Quebec, Tibet, Scotland, and Palestine the more prominent examples. Basque separatism in Spain, and numerous state and local secession efforts in the United States are but a few instances of large numbers of people seeking to withdraw from dominant nation-state systems. In America, parts of various cities have either seceded or sought secession in order to become independent of the principal city. Though not rising to the level of secession, a number of states and cities have been defying federal restrictions on such matters as the medical use of marijuana and the importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada.
At the same time, while nationalism continues to be a major political force in the world, many people are increasingly identifying themselves with and organizing their lives around various abstractions that transcend nation-state boundaries. Religion, ethnicity, culture, lifestyles, race—even membership in urban gangs—are some of the categories by which people identify themselves other than by nationality. The Internet is helping to dissolve political boundaries in favor of economic, philosophical, entertainment, political, lifestyle, and other criteria by which individuals create cyber-communities with like-minded persons throughout the world. “Societies” are beginning to be thought of less and less in purely geographical terms, and are increasingly being defined in terms of shared subdivisions of interests that do not necessarily correlate with place. Effective decision-making is becoming more personal, with authority moving outward, away from erstwhile centers of power.
The decentralizing processes by which individuals are increasingly gaining control over their own lives run deep. Decentralization of management in business organizations that helps to generate more profits to companies by placing increased decision-making in the hands of employees has been going on for over fifty years. Manufacturing is increasingly done in smaller, more resilient firms, with massive, specialized factories becoming part of a growing “rust belt” in many industrialized cities.5 Many business entrepreneurs are experiencing the benefits, in terms of both business success and lifestyle satisfaction, of the “small is beautiful” perspective. They have foregone the allures of corporate bigness, with its trappings of collective responsibilities to outside investors, and retained ownership and control of their smaller enterprises allowing them to operate in pursuit of a wider range of values than monetary profits alone. These people are discovering the practical advantages of living within the decentralized world of privately-owned property.6
Centrally-managed corporate farms, with their mass-produced, mass-marketed, standardized fare, are experiencing increased competition not only from “farmers’ markets,” but from what is known as “Community Supported Agriculture.” In the latter case, individual farmers and buyers enter into contracts for the sale and purchase of weekly-supplied farm products (e.g., vegetables, fruit, eggs, milk, flowers, etc.). This practice—which was estimated to have grown to over 1,500 farms by 2005—provides not only enhanced qualities of food, but a more personal relationship between farmers and consumers than is found in supermarket systems of distribution. In some cases, buyers even agree to do a limited amount of farm work during the growing season as partial compensation for what they receive.7 Yet another example of the decentralized supply of life’s basic necessities is found in user-owned and controlled electric generators as supplements or alternatives to the inconstant performance of national power grids.
Even more significantly, the traditional business model that stressed stability and linear patterns of growth of a hierarchically-structured firm, is giving way to every institution’s worst nightmare: the constancy of inconstancy. The success and profitability of an enterprise is now dependent upon its being able to make responses to fluctuations whose combined influences are too complex to allow for the illusion of predictable outcomes. Management thinking that once emphasized the preservation of the status quo, is giving way to a rational spontaneity—the ability to work within informal, parallel networks that shadow, and often challenge, the formal structured authority of the firm. Advancing technologies are helping to decentralize the business environment, with computers, fax-machines, and cell-phones making it possible for more and more people to work from their homes, and for teleconferencing to connect people from different cities or countries for meetings.
Decentralization and flexibility are apparent in a variety of other areas as well. Alternative schools and health care practices continue to draw support away from institutionalized educational, medical, and pharmaceutical interests. Lawyers are increasingly turning to alternative, decentralized methods of resolving disputes, including arbitration and what is emerging as “holistic” or “collaborative” law practice. At the same time, there has been increased interest in the use of “jury nullification,” by which members of a jury ignore the instructions they receive from a judge and adopt their own legal standards for guilt or innocence. Research in “nanotechnology,” with molecular-scale robots performing microscopic level tasks, is stimulating interest in technological problem solving at the smallest possible level. A number of cities and regions in Europe have taken to abolishing traffic signs, leaving traffic decisions to be made by the interplay of motorists. One advocate of such change has said that “[t]he many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior.” This new policy has led to a dramatic reduction in traffic accidents.8
The banking industry—perhaps the most institutionalized sector in private business—has engaged in limited experimentation with “micro-lending,” a system designed to provide small loans to impoverished people who have no material collateral. The collateral upon which lenders rely is found in the promises of a handful of the borrower’s fellow villagers to repay the loan. While the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh—along with its founder—won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for such efforts, there remains some question as to whether these systems can sustain themselves without either private or governmental subsidies. Nevertheless, the fact that such decentralist practices are being put to the test—a century and a half after first being proposed by Lysander Spooner9 —provides encouragement that further experimentation may produce a more refined system that will be self-supporting in the marketplace. In recent decades, investment practices have evolved to provide individuals with more independent decision-making than had existed in more traditional brokerage-house practices. For instance, the emergence of mutual funds was followed by on-line discount brokerages, and later by exchange-traded funds. These and other changes have led to decentralization in the investment process.
The Internet, cell-phones, fax machines, iPods and iPhones, Tivo, websites, and blogs are the better-known technologies that increase, exponentially, our capacities for accessing and decentralizing the flow of information and decision-making proficiency among people. It has been estimated that there are over one billion personal computers and some twenty-two million blogsites in existence throughout the world. The established news media is firmly challenged by technologies that allow anyone not only to become a news source, but to be able to identify and even force corrections of erroneously reported news stories and photographs. Individuals with their own video and cell-phone cameras provide pictorial coverage of catastrophes and other events that centralized news sources do not. The lies, deceptions, and corruption that arise within various institutions, particularly the state, are being disclosed not so much by government officials or the so-called “mainstream media,” as by independent journalists, Internet reporters, and Internet websites. Some major newspapers—confronting a diminished base of subscribers and the advertisers who depend upon that base—have turned to Internet reporting of news. Websites and so-called “niche publications” provide localized news stories or topics of personal interest to readers. In turn, the readers become active, two-way participants in both reporting and generating stories, a process that has led to increased readership and advertising.10 There are also websites, such as Snopes.com and Hoaxbusters, that analyze and expose urban myths and hoaxes. Increasingly, the content of news is being subjected to supervision by consumers.
Authors need no longer rely on large publishing houses, as “publishing on demand” has become a viable alternative. The site, MySpace.com, is creating opportunities for musicians to circumvent established record companies and put their work online. The inexpensive availability of video cameras has decentralized the visual reporting of events, particularly over the Internet, and also spawned the widespread growth of documentary film-making as well as the phenomenon known as YouTube. Low-priced cameras and digital printers have opened the photography profession to more people. Satellite radio and cable television now vigorously compete with government-created broadcasting monopolists. Stock- and commodity-market investors control their own purchases through computers, rather than having to rely on brokerage houses. One expression of a politically unrestrained marketplace, eBay, provides a means for people to buy and sell virtually anything through Internet transactions with total strangers, trading over great geographic distances.
Furthermore, PayPal is available as an alternative method for the payment of goods and services in a horizontally connected world. At the same time, some sixteen privately operating regional currencies have appeared in Germany as an alternative to the state-created euro, with sixty percent of the earnings derived from one such currency going to local charities.11 The Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia is a continually updated system that allows visitors to edit subject-matter content, a system that has been emulated by digg.com for the reporting of news stories. Craigslist is an online service through which millions of people buy and sell items, seek employment or housing, develop social relationships, or pursue other interests. Members, themselves, provide discipline to this website by a system of flagging. On a more frivolous level, “flash mobs” make use of cellphones and the Internet to organize strangers to participate in some pointless act and then disband. One can only imagine the spontaneously creative uses to which such methods might one day be made. Perhaps no phenomenon better exemplifies the emerging decentralization of life than the success of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. After the publisher initially put a few hundred of these books on the market—without much publicity—they became popular with children, whose playground discussions of the books snowballed into a marketplace demand that has earned the author millions of dollars.
The dispersal of human action manifests itself in still other areas. For decades, men and women have voiced a continuing decline of confidence in politics and the political process. With the emergence of websites and blogsites, however, many have begun to discover countervailing influences to the “democracy” of smoke-filled rooms, media-controlled political campaigns, and staged “debates” between establishment-certified candidates. Political parties find themselves having to contend with questions that concern ordinary people, rather than just the leaders of various political action collectives who presume to speak for others than themselves.
But with the decentralization of human action, politics has become a less relevant means for many people to accomplish ends that they value. Part of the explanation for this decline in the importance of politics is found in the fact that political systems have historically defined themselves geographically, while the world is becoming more holistic and beyond the limitations of geographic territory. Men and women are discovering in informal and voluntary forms of association, more effective means of bringing about social changes than those that rely on sluggish, corrupt, and coercive political machinations. While members of the political establishment chastise, as “apathetic,” those who withdraw from state-centered undertakings, the reality is that increasing numbers of men and women are redirecting their energies, with an enhanced enthusiasm, to pursuits over which they have greater personal control. This redistribution of authority is both liberating and empowering, a continuing process that is generating interest—in exponential terms - in less formal systems of social behavior.
One of the more interesting phenomena is the practice, in some communities and other groups, of reaching common objectives through consensus (i.e., where everyone must agree with a proposal before it is undertaken). Caspar, California, an unincorporated town of some two thousand people occupying twelve square miles of territory, is one such community in which decisions are made through a process of “deliberating until we can find a way that satisfies all.”12 As with most Amish communities,13 Caspar confirms the benefits that can derive from smaller, face-to-face associations. This consensus-seeking process also exists in much of Somalia, where consensus decisions are insisted upon not only as a way of achieving harmony within a community, but to make certain critical opinions are heard so as to have more information available for reaching a more sound decision. In the words of one observer:
Decision making in the Assembly involves no casting of votes. Rather, the Assembly members keep on talking until a consensus is reached. That is why the meeting can last a long time, sometimes several months. The reason why the Assembly operates by consensus is easy to understand: it prevents the Assembly from taking decisions that would infringe on anyone’s freedom and property rights.14
The dismantling of hierarchical structures has cosmological significance as well. Is there a life force—a will to exist—within the universe? If so, does it emanate from a supreme intelligence and flow, in a top-down manner, to subordinate beings? Or, does it arise autonomously, as an interconnected interplay of matter/energy? Was the universe created, as a product of intelligent design, or did it evolve without intention? Are our lives subject to the power of a divine authority, or is each of us the director of our behavior and destiny? Are the laws under which we live “a gift from God;”15 a “Divine Law” derived from biblical revelation,16 or are they, as Oliver Wendell Holmes said of the Common Law, the product of experience?17 The answers to such questions are at the center of how we regard ourselves and our relationships with other people and social entities in our lives. How we respond to such inquiries will depend upon the content of the metaphysical models from which our thinking derives.
On a grimmer note, the processes of decentralization manifest themselves in destructive activity as well. We have learned, in recent decades, that nation-states no longer enjoy monopolies in their conduct of war: guerilla tactics, suicide attacks, and localized insurgencies have turned war, itself, into a decentralized undertaking. Powerful state military forces, armed with bombers, missiles, tanks, naval vessels, and tens of thousands of oldiers with sophisticated weapons and computerized tools, are proving to be no match for informal, decentralized, horizontally-networked groups that covertly attack and defeat them. These militia and guerrilla groups operate autonomously, each being free to quickly adapt to immediate circumstances without having to resort to direction from a centralized leadership. Militarily superior state forces with hundreds of billions of dollars of support, including the use of massive aerial bombing—the most literal example of pyramidal power—have been resisted and defeated by localized insurgency groups: the French in Indo-China and Algeria; the Soviet Union in Afghanistan; the United States in Vietnam and Iraq; and Israel in Lebanon. What makes so-called “terrorist” groups so difficult to identify and deal with is their informal, dispersed, nonhierarchical form of organization. Recall how nineteen men, armed only with box-cutter knives, were able to attack the World Trade Center buildings and precipitate the insanity of the United States’ war against the Iraqi people.
Law enforcement and anti-terrorist officials in various parts of the world have noted the emerging phenomenon of informallyorganized mini-groups—sometimes consisting of only two or three persons—made up of people who become angry and react violently. Such groups—which have been labeled “BOGs,” meaning “bunch of guys”—spontaneously appear and disappear. Their lack of formal leadership or hierarchical organization makes it difficult to identify such persons.18 At the same time, urban gangs have effectively displaced governmental police in controlling parts of many inner cities as well as prisons.
All of this is to give a cursory flavor to the forces that are bringing about a redistribution of decisional authority in the world, a trend that established institutional interests resist. Placed in the context of this book, these changes bear a direct relation to the changing question of how, and by whom, authority is exercised over the lives and property of people.
The implications of such decentralist trends have not been lost on the political and economic establishment. The so-called “war on terror” appears to be a desperate effort by those with a vested interest in the politically-structured status quo (e.g., the state and major state-connected corporations) to resist the movement toward what I shall later explore as horizontally-networked systems. This “war,” to which its promoters have given a prognosis of permanency, could more accurately be termed a “war for the preservation of the old order.” If the pyramid is collapsing into horizontal networks, it is supposed that expanded police and regulatory powers, increased surveillance and torture, RFID chips19 and GPS systems that can track the movement of individuals, restricted due process and habeas corpus rights, and other coercive means, might reinforce its crumbling foundations and reverse the decline. Despite the demonstrated failure of systems of state economic planning, the George W. Bush administration proposed broadening and further centralizing the Federal Reserve Board’s powers to regulate all marketplace financial practices in order to deal with the problems this agency had caused!20
When the Bush administration renamed this “war” the “Global Struggle Against Extremism,” it admitted to its purpose of perpetuating a pyramidally-structured society. While “terror” is a strategy of violence, “extremism” has no necessary relationship to coercion or destructiveness. Indeed, one dictionary defines “extreme” in terms of “exceeding the ordinary, usual, or expected,” then adding “situated at the farthest possible point from a center.”21 If the preservation of centralized, institutionalized, command-and-control systems is to be regarded as a social value, the voices or systems that represent the processes of change will be considered “extremist” influences to be marginalized or destroyed. History informs us of the men and women who have been labeled “heretics,” “seditionists,” “terrorists,” “radicals,” “counter-revolutionaries,” “possessed,” “traitors,” or “extremists,” who have been punished or killed for conduct or opinions that deviated from a sacred center. Because our hierarchically dominant world is, by definition, the “center” from which to measure the deviations that define “extremism,” the institutionally self-serving nature of such campaigns should be evident.
Perhaps the earliest, and most far-reaching, indicator of the emerging decentralization of society was the collapse of politically planned and directed national economies. Nowhere has the pragmatic contrast between private ownership of property and state collectivism been more sharply drawn than in these diametrically opposed approaches to the organization of economic life. A stark distinction has been established as to both the quantitative and qualitative conditions under which humans are to live in society by comparing the real-world consequences of systems grounded in individual liberty versus those premised on coercive authority. As the marketplace reestablishes itself following decades of dismal utopian experiences with state socialism and centralized planning, inquiries into the nature of spontaneously derived order have energized thoughtful minds. The experiences of the twentieth century have made it clear that the material well-being of humankind is better served through voluntarily organized marketplace systems than through political direction and supervision. That the foundations of either such system lie in the question of how property is to be owned and controlled in society will be the dominant theme throughout this book.
As the destructive and dehumanizing twentieth-century history of a politically-dominated world has demonstrated, the crisis in our lives is caused not by events, but by the thinking that produces and interprets such events. Our understanding of the world is unavoidably tied to the images, the models that our minds have created to describe it. In the words of Richard Weaver, “ideas have consequences,”22 and it is to our thinking that we must repair if we are to emerge from the present crisis that is destroying our world.
We have long fooled ourselves that we can relate to nature and events in some “objective” fashion, like a camera that faithfully records what it observes. Contrary to such a view, our understanding of the universe, or the society in which we live, or even ourselves, is inextricably tied to subjectively-crafted models put together by our thinking. The content of our consciousness is largely the product of an intermixing of our unique, personal experiences; what our parents, teachers, friends, and the media have taught us; books we have read; and the abstract concepts we have put together in our minds to create as consistent a paradigm as possible that explains the complex nature of our world. If our lives are to change to more beneficial ends, we must look to the models upon which we have constructed our world. We have learned to see the universe in a particular way, and each of us has the capacity to transform such thinking. The underlying theme of this book is that our traditional institutional model is not only no longer useful to, but actually destructive of, the purposes for which we have long embraced it. This book will suggest and explore an alternative model for the peaceful and productive conduct of society.
Perhaps a valuable lesson can be learned from the history of scientific thought. As Thomas Kuhn has observed, scientific revolutions, which he defined as paradigm shifts that cause scientists to view their world differently, begin in crisis. Earlier scientific theories become increasingly unable to explain anomalous events in the world, leading some scientists to begin a search for new theories. In words relevant to our inquiry herein, Kuhn states that “[f]ailure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones.”23 The crisis begins to escalate into a state of turbulence, generating “the essential tension” associated with trying “to live in a world out of joint.”24 For example, the inconsistencies between Ptolemaic astronomical theory and pre-Copernican observations of the heavens represented such a bifurcation point. Through the interplay of the forces of “stability” and “change,” scientists began to develop a more complex model that helped to accommodate the earlier theories to the anomalies. As established thinking was confronted by new explanations, the systemic chaos provided the catalyst for developing a more complex and orderly system of understanding. But, as Kuhn is quick to emphasize, the older theory is never rejected just because it no longer conforms to nature. Only when a better model is available will a paradigm shift occur.25 Even then, the new model need not be superior in all respects to the old, but only comparatively better.
Similar dynamics are at work in our understanding of social behavior. Contrary to some of our simplistic notions about human progress, significant changes in our thinking have arisen not through gradual, accretive processes, but by the revolutionary overthrow of older paradigms by newer ones. The belief that governments were ordained by God collapsed, at least in Western society, as people turned, instead, to the idea of a “social will” arising out of a “social contract.” Being better equipped to resolve inconsistencies evident in the traditional model, the new paradigm supplanted the old. Such changes occur rather abruptly, being followed by relatively stable periods that will later be interrupted by yet another paradigmatic coup. Such punctuated processes have been observed in other fields of study as well, such as Stephen Jay Gould’s models of evolutionary change.26 The influences of stability and change continue to work their syntheses.
For the same reasons that led members of the scientific community to respond to crises by transforming their thinking, we are now in need of a better model upon which to base our understanding of social systems. Our traditional model has proven itself too destructive of life to any longer satisfy even the most meager definitions of pragmatic purpose, much less those more profound inner needs that are subject to neither measure nor calculation. Nor is it any longer capable of rationalizing its inherent contradictions. There is a growing crisis in confidence, as reflected in the turbulence of modern society, to which humans must respond if civilization itself is to be salvaged. Such a response can no longer be of the cosmetic nature of political “reform,” but must amount to a fundamental change in our assumptions about how societies come to be organized.
What many regard as the most powerful of curses begins, “May you live in interesting times.” We are living in interesting times. Few have the opportunity to observe either the collapse or fundamental transformation of the civilization within which they live. Such an occasion appears to be before us. The world into which we were born will not be the same one from which most of us will depart. Whether our future will be more free, peaceful, and productive; or whether it will be more repressive, violent, and destructive, may depend on the content of the thinking we carry with us.
A focal point of such thinking involves an exploration of the competing interests of individual liberty versus obedience to collective authority. “Liberty” is not some abstract philosophic principle, although it is often incorporated into various ideologies, but a way of describing the autonomous nature of life in its myriad forms. “Liberty” is life pursuing what it wants to pursue, through its self-directed energy. Because liberty and spontaneity express the essence of living systems, this book is about how—and by whom—authority is to be exercised in our lives. Are you and I to have effective decision-making control over our lives, or is this power to reside in others? Because control is the defining factor in the ownership of property, such questions raise the deeper inquiry into where our sense of ownership resides. Whether or not we choose to claim self-ownership has more than an arcane, abstract significance. It goes to the very essence of what it means to be a free man or woman. As we shall discover, individual liberty and self-ownership are synonymous terms; we are free only insofar as we insist upon the exclusive authority to direct our own energies and other resources.
Our assertion of self-ownership confronts the doctrine of eminent domain, a concept essential to the authority of all political systems. Eminent domain expresses the proposition that the state has a supervening claim to all property interests within its domain, which it may exercise at any time it chooses. Such powers are not confined to the more familiar area of real property, but include ownership claims over persons. Conscription, the regulation and taxation of one’s productive activities, control over what substances a person may ingest, capital punishment; and compulsory education, are some of the major instances of the eminent domain principle, which presumes individual interests to be subservient to those of the state. It is this doctrine that is being challenged by the development of decentralized, horizontal, interconnected social practices.
If we are to move beyond the turbulent and destructive organizational models that consume rather than enhance human life, we must make conscious efforts to think in concrete terms about what forms our social behavior will take and what practices it will embrace. One inquiry has to do with the question of how property is to be owned and controlled in our world. Does life belong to the living, or to the institutions that have traditionally claimed a preemptive authority over mankind? At long last, we must explore the most fundamental of social concepts that those who would control the lives of others have insisted we ignore.
This is the kind of examination we have never been encouraged to undertake. In our highly-structured world, authority has been centralized in institutions, particularly the state, none of whom have been interested in our asking such questions. But centralized authority necessarily implies centralized control over the lives and property interests of us all. To the degree our personal decision-making has been preempted, we have lost control, hence the effective ownership, of our lives. But if our world is moving toward more decentralized, horizontal systems, the authority to direct our lives will also become decentralized. Of necessity, this will lead us to a consideration of the questions: do we, in fact, own ourselves, and do we desire to do so?
However we answer these questions will prove most unsettling to our institutionally-conditioned minds. Most of us, particularly those of us of “senior citizen” status who have endured more years of such operant conditioning, will not find comfort in such explorations. Nonetheless, in the face of the many fundamental changes already occurring in our world, even asking such questions will effect a redistribution of authority. It is to engage in mechanistic thinking to suppose that “information” or “technology” will magically transform our lives; only a fundamental change in our thinking can accomplish such ends. We must make a conscious choice to assert our claim to self-ownership. Having done so, with a full understanding of what is implicit in making such a claim, the control over our lives will shift from institutions to our individual selves.
This book, then, is more than just an inquiry into the nature of property as “things”—including real estate—as the restricted understanding of our materialistic culture tends to suggest to us. Neither is it just about the accumulation of wealth, although it embraces the liberty of men and women to pursue wealth if such ends have transcendent meaning to their lives. “Property” has a far richer human dimension to it than this, something that men and women of ascetic dispositions have often failed to understand. It involves the question of how and by whom decisions are to be made about people and “things” in the world in which we live. The deeper significance of property lies in defining our relationships to one another as well as our personal sense of being, particularly as such factors delineate our respective areas of decisionmaking authority. As the common origins of the words suggest, “property” is a way of describing “proper” behavior: that conduct is “proper” when performed by the individual whose “property” interests are affected thereby, and when such an actor restricts his or her decision making to what he or she owns. This is a book, in other words, about social metaphysics, an exploration of the interrelated nature of peace, freedom, order, and property, and how these factors are dependent upon the nature of the social systems through which we organize ourselves with others. It is an examination of the relationship between property and authority, and of their connection to both individual liberty and order in any society. Property is the most important and yet, paradoxically, the least understood of all our social practices. In spite of the preoccupation that mankind has with getting, keeping, protecting, controlling, buying, selling, regulating, or confiscating property, we live in almost complete ignorance of its functional nature, or of its social and spiritual significance in our lives. The reason for this lack of clarity is understandable: political institutions, which have been the principal architects of our thinking, depend upon varying degrees of preemption of our authority over our lives and property interests. If we really understood how liberty, as well as our material and spiritual well-being, is dependent upon our capacity to exercise control over what is ours, we might never consent to such institutional intrusions upon our property interests.
One could go so far as to state that our understanding of property is, in social terms, still at a pre-Copernican level. Very few thinkers have undertaken a comprehensive analysis of the subject, and most of those have tended to be apologists for existing political and social arrangements, or ideologists of one persuasion or another. Even most defenders of private ownership have failed to identify any firmer foundation for their case than some eighteenth century myths about “natural law” or “moral imperatives.” So weak has been the modern case for private ownership that to even raise the proposition as a sufficient basis for decision making is to risk being labeled a “reactionary” who would “take us back to the nineteenth century.”
It is difficult, in exploring a subject that calls into question both the entire institutional structure and the thinking that pervades our lives, to avoid being charged with expressing one’s subjective, normative preferences. I am well aware, however, of Heisenberg’s warnings about the observer being an integral part of what is being observed. I will go even further and insist that all we can ever know about the world is fashioned subjectively within our minds as products of our prior experiences and formal learning. This is not to suggest that our opinions are necessarily in error, but only that, no matter how much effort or good intentions we bring to bear, we can never fully rise above the content of our thinking in describing and analyzing the world in which we live.
With this caveat in mind, the conclusions I draw herein will be as free as possible from deductions drawn from ideologies, moral imperatives, historical determinism, natural law, right reason, or any other abstract principles by which people have endeavored to explain their opinions. My efforts to avoid resting my conclusions on little more than my own subjective preferences is made difficult by the fact that our scientifically-modeled, materialistic culture insists upon a quantitative analysis of phenomena as a standard for “truth.” As will become evident, much of the approach I take in this book rests upon an analysis of qualitative factors that are essential to an understanding of conditions that make social systems conducive to the satisfaction of human needs. “Peace,” “liberty,” and “social order” are difficult—if not impossible—subjects to be addressed in a purely quantitative manner. On what basis, for example, can one do a thorough, quantitatively-based analysis of Auschwitz, the Soviet gulags, the bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden, or the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis as a reaction to 9/11? How does one withdraw from consideration of the “costs” and “benefits” of such actions the costs to the degradation of human beings which alone allows them to be treated as atrocities? For reasons that go to the essence of what I regard as the humanizing nature of private property, I am both unable and unwilling to separate qualitative values from my description of the human condition.
Though I openly confess to the charge that my views herein represent nothing more than my subjective opinions, they also represent, as do the writings of everyone else, nothing less. Each of us is unable to do otherwise. I will do my best, however, to not hide my opinions behind dogmatic a priori assertions of values disguised as fact. I offer them to you not out of some momentary flight of whimsy, but as the product of decades of focused study and thinking on the subject. They represent the best of what I am capable of contributing to the question now before all of mankind: how can we aid and abet the transformation of our social systems so that they can maximize the opportunities for individuals to satisfy their material and spiritual needs in voluntary cooperation with others? I shall approach the subject as an integrated examination of our material and spiritual, as well as individual and social, requirements for living peacefully and productively in the world.