But in the real neighborhood in which I live, why would any of my neighbors have an interest in defending my ownership claims should my interests be threatened by a wrongdoer? Why would they be motivated to get involved in any way? In a world in which we have become content to allow political and legal processes to define our interests and resolve our disputes, we have forgotten the capacity of informal systems, such as neighborhoods and communities, to provide for social order. Whereas the interests of political systems are separated from those of the rest of us, within the neighborhood there tends to be an interconnectedness among neighbors, born of face-to-face relationships, that fosters mutual support and protection.
Because neighbors are less inclined to separate their interests from one another, they have a common fate in matters involving societal relationships. What this means, with respect to property questions, is that each of us has an interest in supporting those claims to property, made by our neighbors, that are consistent with the property claims we want to assert. In other words, our neighbors have an incentive to support what they perceive as our valid property claims, as a way of reinforcing the community recognition of their own claims. This is how our personal and social interests are fundamentally harmonious: respect for my claim depends upon my respecting yours. At the same time, our neighbors have a motivation to reject what they see as the invalid claim of an interloper who has ousted a recognized owner, so that the rest of the community may be inclined to come to the assistance of one who is faced with a “claim jumper.” There is more than just a theoretical rationale for such practices, as early gold-mining claims in California were established in such informal agreements among neighbors.15 The ways in which we bargain with others for recognition of our claims are not as formal as when we engage in buying a house or obtaining employment. Rather, they tend to be quite informal, a part of the socialization process that begins in infancy and continues throughout our lifetimes. Anyone who has raised children has observed their need to understand the appropriate range of their behavior. They want to discover principles that help them define the limits of their actions, and so they keep testing the boundary lines of what they may and may not do. They continue to ask us “why?” as they struggle for explanations to provide them with a rational and predictable basis for identifying these boundaries. They almost beg us for this information, and we often do a poor job helping them because we haven’t discovered such principles for ourselves.
Children continue this negotiation process with their peers, particularly when they are at play with one another. Jean Piaget’s studies of children’s playgroups are most illuminating here.16 The spontaneous and usually peaceful manner in which children informally bargain amongst themselves for the modification of rules to make a game more competitive or beneficial to all players, tells us much about ourselves that we have forgotten. Such child-directed practices should remind us of the developmental importance of allowing children to control their own play, rather than having it organized and directed by well-meaning adults who, without intending to do so, help their children learn how to be managed by others.
One expression of this informal process has arisen around ATM machines, in which people, without any formal direction, have developed the practice of standing a number of feet behind the person using the machine, so as to allow him privacy in his transaction. Contrary to the “social contract” fictions through which we fantasize the creation of massive nation-states, these informal processes have an authentic quality about them: they arise out of face-to-face dealings between and among people who may be total strangers to one another, and who bargain with the glance of an eye or the wave of a hand.
The prospect of bargaining with one’s neighbors for a recognition of property interests may sound unfamiliar to most of us but, on the other hand, we must already negotiate with the formal legal system for a determination of such rights. When we go into a court of law, we are trying to persuade a judge to confer upon us a “right” to some legally-protected interest. Lobbyists are also employed by various interest groups in an effort to convince legislators to enact statutes that will confer desired benefits upon their clients. The question now before us, in a decentralizing society, is whether our lives will be better served by having to deal with a representative of the state, or with our neighbors, for a determination of our interests. The process is the same in either instance: it is simply a matter of determining to which audience we wish to make our case. Our experiences with both the state and the marketplace, however, ought to apprise us as to where more abundant personal benefits and capacities to control our interests are to be found.
Some may suggest that it doesn’t matter whether we are appealing to the state or to a community of our neighbors for acknowledgment of our claims, that in either event, we are relying upon the judgments of others. But social negotiation for the recognition of property claims differs from politically recognized claims in one important respect: in the former system, there is no coercive, institutionalized means of enforcing one’s claim. They arise not out of a fear of being trespassed, but from the social need to relate to one another. Political systems are, by their nature, intrusive; their officials desire to advance their interests by expanding the range of their authority, an appetite that necessarily places them in conflict with our lives and property interests. Such conduct arises not from a need for genuine relationships with other persons but from the need to compress all of humanity into abstract categories so as to make them manageable for the system’s societally-defined ambitions. The distinction between the marketplace-focused study of microeconomics, and the politically-collectivized nature of macroeconomics, comes to mind.
The ultimate “bargaining” tool of the state is the threat of violence—which its devotees believe is the cement that holds society together. To the extent political mandates conflict with the expectations of members of the community to have their property claims respected, social discord will ensue. Over time, a politically-grounded society infects the community in destructive ways, as fear, force, confrontation, punishments, and other socially discordant practices manage to trickle down into all levels of social conduct.
By contrast, the thinking and behavior of our neighbors— when they are not organized politically—tend to be more conciliatory and respectful of one another’s interests. Voluntariness, negotiation, and cooperation, practices that are reflective of mutual respect for one another’s inviolability become disseminated throughout a community of people who regard themselves as neighbors rather than citizens. As with other transactions in the marketplace, there is no assurance of a sufficient support among one’s neighbors on behalf of one’s claim. Some may choose to acknowledge the claim, and some may not. But in a non-politicized setting, such as one sees among the Amish, for example, the refusal to respect another’s claim is more likely to be expressed in terms of a withholding of respect, or of ostracism, neither of which involves a trespassory intrusion upon the life or property of the other. We may not be able to count on the support of all our neighbors, but, unlike our experiences with the state, we will be less likely to have to fear their violent intrusions upon us.
It is such lack of general support that bothers many people, who look to the state to provide through its judiciary, consistent and standardized enforcement for such claims. But political definitions, and enforcement, of claims fosters a uniformity of thought and behavior whose standardizing influences, as we have seen, may prove to be detrimental to the well-being of both individuals and civilizations. As with marketplace transactions in general, decentralized rules of conduct—as negotiated within contracts—are more suited to the diversity of behavior inherent in individual tastes and preferences.
Because we are so accustomed to thinking of our “rights” as some fixed set of objectively-defined categories—rather than a plea for our subjective preferences that we try to get others to respect—we are uncomfortable considering that they may derive from the same processes as our economic interests. Just as we are able to satisfy our demands in the marketplace without the participation of everyone else, the strength of our property claims depends only upon enough of our neighbors being willing to respect and support such claims. In the same way that our neighbors help to determine the prices of goods and services in economic transactions, they also determine the value of our property claims by the intensity of their willingness to recognize them. I have no “natural law” right to insist upon your goods or services, no matter how important to my interests I may regard them. In order to obtain such a right, I must negotiate with you. That such a transactional approach is consistent with human history is confirmed by anthropologist E. Adamson Hoebel, who observed:
although an individual may be the possessor of some valued object, … that object does not become property until the members of the society agree, tacitly or explicitly, to bestow the property attribute upon the object by regulating their behavior with respect to it in a self-limiting manner.17
The idea of negotiating with our neighbors for a definition of our respective rights —rather than relying upon the state for such a determination—is no more implausible than the established practice of negotiating in the marketplace for our economic interests, instead of having the state make such decisions on our behalf.
Those who insist upon a politically-based structuring of property rights, out of a sense that formal, legal standards will be more certain, should be aware that state enforcement of claims is anything but consistent in either defining the criteria for claims, or applying such standards to a given set of facts. The state does not resolve the problem of inconstant support for property claims. For example, a court of law that laid down a principle recognizing A’s right to divert water from a river onto his land, might have its opinion reversed on appeal. Or, this principle might be overturned, years later, by another court, or be repealed by a statute enacted by the legislature. All that political enforcement adds to the recognition of claims is the coercive backing of the state to protect the claimant. While the property owners who benefit from such protection are happy over the result, those whose claims were denied by such decisions are upset. It is simplistic to believe that a political determination of rights assures any consensus or uniformity as to the propriety of such claims.
Nor ought we to forget that many troublesome practices in our society, including the defense of slavery, the denial of land claims acquired from Indian tribes, and the abortion issue, have been grounded in the formal, legal definition of property claims in spite of varying degrees of public controversy regarding the propriety of such holdings. Those who are inclined to celebrate the virtues of legal positivism should recall that the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were carried out pursuant to legally defined criteria and mandates. We too often assume, to our later regret, that state enforcement of values and the protection of interests will necessarily and permanently result in our values and interests being upheld.
The same process of social negotiation takes place in our adult relationships with family members, friends, neighbors, work colleagues, or total strangers. We negotiate with one another for space on freeways, elevators, or checkout lines in grocery stores; we assert claims upon those who try to crowd into a line at a movie theater, or whose cell-phone rings during an operatic performance. We usually find it sufficient to enforce our demands with little more than a glance that conveys to the other person the message that he or she has transgressed some established social norm.
We learn so much about ourselves from the responses others have to us. We know, also, the psychological problems experienced by persons who are kept in isolation. Sociopaths (e.g., serial killers, terrorists) are frequently described by neighbors as “loners.” Perhaps by living in isolation, such people have not maintained sufficient, continuing negotiations with others that will help them identify the boundary lines of proper behavior. We may also wonder whether the state’s efforts to expand the range of regulations over our lives, both as children and as adults, short-circuits these negotiating processes. When the propriety of our conduct is defined not by transactions we personally conduct with others, but by rules coercively imposed by institutional authorities, we may become socially isolated from one another, members of what David Riesman termed “the lonely crowd.”18
Many of our social difficulties arise from our failure to understand the importance of insisting upon the inviolability of both our own and others’ ownership claims, an attitude into which we are conditioned from early childhood on by repeated admonitions against “selfishness.” The pursuit of self-interest is the fundamental nature of all living beings, and yet we have been taught to deny this characteristic, a lesson that fosters an inner conflict that gets projected into our social relationships. We have been trained to put aside our personal interests and cooperate with others, unaware that true cooperation can occur only among people who respect one another’s inviolability. As marketplace economics continues to demonstrate, it is in our respective self-interest to cooperate with one another, a truth whose broader implications have been explored in Robert Axelrod’s study illustrating the beneficial strategies of cooperation.19
My youngest daughter witnessed an interesting example of this complementary interplay of selfishness and cooperation, with respect for property claims providing the catalyst. She was helping at a party for young children when she saw a small boy, between two and three years of age, playing with some toys of his own that he had brought to the party. A small girl was attracted to these toys, and when she reached out for them the boy grabbed the toys and said “mine!” The boy’s father, who was seated nearby, assured his son that “you don’t have to share your toys if you don’t want to; they are your toys and you can do what you want with them. It’s up to you.” The little girl wandered away and began playing by herself. A few minutes later, this boy took his toys over to the girl, sat down and began placing them in front of her, and the two started playing together.
I cannot know what the boy might have been thinking, but I suspect that, being secure in the recognition of his own claim of ownership, he had nothing to fear from sharing his toys with the girl. There was no separation, no contradiction between the boy’s ownership and his authority over his property. Contrast this example with that of so many children who, after having been browbeaten by their parents into not being selfish, can only clutch or hide their toys from others in an effort to protect the property interests that others have not respected. When we are allowed to express our self-interest, we are more willing to share; when we are compelled to share, our resentment intensifies into conflict-ridden greediness.
I mentioned this incident in one of my seminars, and a woman student of mine said: “I’d have whacked the little boy across his backside for not sharing,” an attitude that doubtless reflected her own upbringing. Other students immediately responded, pointing out that (a) such an act would have interfered with the boy’s ownership interest, and (b) the boy did eventually share his toys with the girl, voluntarily, without feeling resentment at having been forced to do so. The first student then said: “but if he was going to share, anyway, how would it have hurt to force him to do what he eventually did?” I asked her if she saw any fundamental difference between “rape” and “seduction,” which seemed to make the point clearer. The assumption, in her remarks, was that the result was all that mattered; not recognizing that the process leading to the result is not only what truly matters, but in a world of wholeness, is the result.
The incident involving these two young children provides a microcosmic illustration of our basic nature: we are social beings who have a fundamental need for cooperation with one another. But the price of our cooperation is in knowing that we have nothing to lose in doing so. As the experience of this young boy teaches us, what we really expect from having our property claims respected is not so much the exclusion of others from the use of what we regard as ours, but only to have others acknowledge the inviolability of our sense of personhood. When we are able to freely negotiate our interests and differences with one another, we retain the power over our lives that which is lost when the state intervenes. Each of us, I suspect, is far more amenable to cooperate and compromise with others when we are approached peacefully and with respect for our being, than we are when confronted with threats of force and violence.
To claim personal ownership of anything is to express a sense of existential worthiness one expects others to respect. It is to assert to the rest of the world a claim to something of far greater significance than a given item of property, namely, one’s inviolability. It is a claim to have the self-interested and self-directed nature of our being acknowledged by others, as we endeavor to sustain ourselves through the exercise of autonomous control over some portion of the world. It amounts to an insistence upon our rightful authority to exclude all others from making decisions about the use of such property interests unless consented to by the owner.
The spiritual undertones to this inquiry into the question of self-ownership go to the essence of how we conceive of human life. Is it the nature of life to express itself as variation, diversity, autonomy, and spontaneity, or as permanence, uniformity, and restraint? Is each one of us a sufficient reason for being, for pursuit of our own individual purposes; or are we simply resources for others to employ in furtherance of their self-interested objectives? Do we regard one another’s lives as having a fundamental sanctity, a respect essential to any decent and peaceful society, or do we look upon each other, mechanistically and materially, as only so much protoplasm to be exploited for our purposes?
As important as our industrial and commercial productivity has been to our physical well-being, it has been of little significance in satisfying our inner needs for spiritual fulfillment. We have learned to accept monetarily-defined values as a substitute for transcendent ones, and are no longer aware that we gave up the latter for the former. It is little wonder that, in our world of material comforts and resplendent wealth, so many of us confront an inner bankruptcy.
Despite the foot-dragging of socialists to admit to the fact, mankind has figured out how to maximize human well-being. The empirical record of performance by free-market economic systems, compared with the stultifying consequences of statesocialism, has resolved the pragmatic question of how best to satisfy our material needs. As thoroughly as the heliocentric model replaced the geocentric one, socialism retains its viability only within the minds of ideologues. Indeed, I suspect that it is our having answered the pragmatic material question that is giving rise to an examination of our inner, spiritual sense of being. Who are we?
Are we little more than organic matter to be fed, watered, and maintained so as to remain serviceable to others, or is each of us an expression of a more encompassing life force, a sacred center that is nonetheless ubiquitous? Our claim to self-ownership, in its fullest meaning, is the assertion of our will to become and remain spontaneous and autonomous in our individual efforts to discover and experience transcendence. Such an intuitive sense of awareness will not arise out of the mouthing of new platitudes, but requires the integration of our outer and inner being. Stoicism provides a necessary reminder of the importance of listening to the voices that speak to us from deep within, but it is not sufficient for living the transcendent life. One will never find a sense of wholeness in a fragmented life, wherein either the material or spiritual become subordinated to one another. To dissolve the boundaries that separate such expressions requires us to insist upon the inviolability of our claim to a place in the world.
There are others, of course—most notably those in control of political institutions—who regard the rest of us not as self-justifying, autonomous beings, but as resources to be exhausted on behalf of their interests. In order to overcome our self-interested nature, they have helped condition us in the alleged virtue of being “selfless”—of placing the interests of others ahead of our own. Political systems, organized religions, and ideologies, have been the principal exponents of this pernicious and demeaning doctrine. A friend of mine told me that he had been lecturing his young son on the importance of this belief: “we are here to serve others,” he informed the boy. The father was awakened to the absurdity of such a proposition by his son’s asking: “then what are other people here for?”
Trying to harmonize the irreconcilable notions of “selflessness” and “self-interest” creates a sense of division and conflict within the individual. Having been rendered weak and confused by an idea whose substance we had not bothered to explore, we are left without a clear sense of direction in our lives. In the renunciation of the primacy of our own sense of our self, we look to the state, or a church, or an ideology, to restore the wholeness that only we are capable of discovering. So spiritually and morally corrupting is the doctrine of “selflessness,” that many of us learn to accept our dismemberment on a battlefield as the essence of a “heroic” life, or to regard the act of tax evasion as “cheating” the state!
Whatever the nature of the social system in which we live, our claims to various “rights” are the products of our relationships with others. If those “others” are political or judicial officials of the state, the power to determine our interests will be centralized in those who enjoy a privilege that we and our neighbors do not, namely, of enforcing their preferences by coercive means. On the other hand, if those “others” are our neighbors, who enjoy no greater power over us than we do over them, then social power has been effectively decentralized into the hands of individuals. The contrast between command economies and the marketplace offers more than just an analogy. It expresses the fundamental choice we must always make between violent and peaceful systems of social behavior.
For people who have become accustomed to having most of their social questions dealt with through political means, rediscovering the informal, social means of establishing claims may take some effort. Not unlike the experiences of many tourists who, accustomed to dealing with the administered pricing practices in shopping malls, feel discomfort in haggling with merchants in third-world countries, there may be some initial anxiety in taking direct control over one’s affairs. Just as new technologies cause us to redefine how we deal with one another, learning how to negotiate for our interests will involve a good deal of trial and error. But as we learn to give to the opinions of our neighbors, with whom we share common interests and a sense of existential equality, the same regard we now have for the edicts of political authorities, who presume to command us, we may discover our lives becoming more peaceful, free, and cooperative, and more individually empowered.