I am striving … to discover whether man still has a place in this tangle; whether he still has any authority among these colossal masses in movement; whether he still can exert any force whatever on the statistics which are slipping from his hands into the abstract and the unreal. Can he have a place, authority, and the possibility of action on a better basis than ill-founded declarations of hope or blind acts of unreasonable faith?
— Jacques Ellul
We are living in “interesting times.” The question is how do we respond to the tumult in which we find ourselves? Most of us, caught up in the important but narrowly detailed matters of our lives, fail to stand back and observe the broader canvas upon which larger events are playing themselves out. As our present social systems continue to collapse around us, our very existence demands that we examine and discover alternative models for social organization.
Our world is undergoing major processes of decentralization, changes that can provide peaceful, liberating, and creative opportunities if we approach them intelligently and without fear. There will, of course, be those with intense and unquestioning attachments to the old order who, like their Luddite ancestors, will strike out with fear and anger at whatever portends a deviation from the familiar. The state—the incarnation of the status quo—will continue to insist upon its destructive divide-and-conquer games in a desperate attempt to continue its power over us. It will provide various groups with differing benefits, e.g., subsidies for one, special privileges for another, tax breaks for yet another, and lucrative government contracts for still another, in an effort to preclude us from developing a sense of common interest.
It is for each of us, however, to see through such contrived divisive practices, and to rediscover our mutual interests. We can find a genuine sense of community in our need to respect and defend the inviolability of each other’s lives, property, and autonomy. And that experience of community would be fatal to the political classes. An etymological dictionary informs us of the interconnected history of the words “peace,” “freedom,” “love,” and “friend.”1 What might our ancestors have known about the nature of relationships—an understanding that has long since been lost by allowing the state to repress our sense of community? Might people who treat one another as “friends” generate the “love” that produces a “free” and “peaceful” society? If so, how would we expect those who exhibit such traits to regard their neighbors’ interests? Is it possible that the ongoing decentralization of social behavior will allow us to reclaim our humanity with one another?
In a period of significant change, we must be prepared to engage in significant learning, rather than just reaffirming what we already know. We need to constantly remind ourselves of the tentative and limited nature of our understanding; of how our thinking is necessarily restricted by our experiences. Such an awareness becomes all the more compelling as the processes of change escalate.
Each of us has a sense of “reality” that can be represented as a circle (see figure 3). At any point in time, what we profess to know about ourselves and our world is contained within the boundaries of our particular circle. Because your experiences differ from mine, the contents of our respective circles will also differ, a fact that not only underlies many of our social problems but, at the same time, creates the diversity that makes cooperation possible. Learning and other forms of creativity involve a continuing synthesis of the known and the unknown. We can expand the range of our understanding only by expanding the circumference of our circle of reality. Throughout our lives, we are confronted by various teachers, who may include parents, school teachers, mentors, writers, friends and relatives, whose own circles of reality can be represented by the dotted line in figure 4.
Such teachers seek to persuade (or cajole) us to expand our definitions of reality by moving from our present boundaries of understanding outward toward theirs. The kind of learning most of them induce, however, is largely linear in nature, consisting of new information or modifications in our methods of analyzing information already known to us. Examples of such learning may be found in taking a survey course in history that is followed by an advanced course in French history, or learning a foreign language after having mastered your own, or progressing from an understanding of simple mathematics to calculus. A metaphor for this kind of accretive learning can be found in the nautilus or the snake, which expands its shell or sheds its skin to accommodate its continuing growth.
Because these linear methods of learning tend to be gradual and evolutionary in nature, they pose no “clear and present danger” to our established patterns of thinking. Through negative feedback, we reinforce—and thus stabilize—our prior learning. To the extent our thinking has been institutionally-directed, these conservative influences help restrict change to within limits that can be accommodated to the interests of such formal systems. But to the degree processes of change are restricted, the negentropic vitalities of both the individual and the broader social system are threatened, producing ossifying tendencies which can eventually bring about the societal collapses previously identified. For an individual or a civilization to maintain its sense of vibrancy, a more fundamental kind of learning must be employed: paradigm breaking. While this kind of learning emerges from what has been previously known, its implications tend to be more revolutionary than evolutionary in nature. Not surprisingly, given the conservative nature of institutions, paradigm breaking has always been resisted by institutional hierarchies, creating the conflicts between individual and societal needs to resist entropy, and institutional interests in preserving their established positions.
All learning—even that which is linear—generates uneasiness, as we move from comfortable confines into the uncertainties of the unknown. As I tell my first year law students, the most important factor in learning is to become comfortable with uncertainty; to welcome the unknown; and to be willing to look foolish in the eyes of others. Drawing upon the study of chaos, learning consists of having your thinking put into turbulence, then looking for patterns that bring order out of the resulting tumult. The alternative, of course, is to simply give up and allow the turbulence to collapse into entropy. Having sufficient experiences with linear learning, we are disposed to tolerate the distress it produces—not unlike learning to tolerate the discomforts of dental work.
But with paradigm breaking, the learning is nonlinear in nature. Again, as the study of chaos illustrates, any system, including our learning, can reach a bifurcation point, at which it moves from its regular, linear state into turbulence and irregularity. Operating from a particular model of reality (e.g., Newton’s mechanistic description of the universe), we continue our gradual accumulation of information. But over time, exceptions to such mechanistic interpretations begin to appear. For a while, such deviations are dismissed as “measurement errors” and conveniently ignored. But with the passage of time, such exceptions become more numerous and more difficult to explain away under the prevailing model. Then, as Kuhn reminds us, a paradigm breaker emerges and suggests not simply a linear accretion to a body of accepted knowledge, but a more fundamental transformation of the previous model. Settled and regularized patterns of thinking are then thrown into a turbulent state. A new paradigm is presented for consideration (e.g., quantum mechanics, or chaos theory).
Whereas the role of the linear teacher is represented by the dotted line (figure 5), the paradigm breaker can be represented as being at point “x,” far outside—but still related to— the older circle of reality. At such a point have stood the likes of Copernicus, Newton, Pasteur, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and now, apparently, those working in the studies of chaos and complexity. By being so far removed from the accepted range of understanding, however, the paradigm breaker is more easily seen, by those within their respective circles of reality, as outrageous, dangerous, or even insane. Thus have avant garde poets and artists been called “madmen;” inventors and pioneering scientists labeled “crackpots” and even “criminals;” and philosophers and religious teachers stigmatized as “heretics” or “deluded paranoids.” From the persecution of Socrates to Lenny Bruce, from Galileo to Wilhelm Reich, from Jesus to Ezra Pound, defenders of the institutional order have exhibited little tolerance for those who dared to expand the existing circles of human understanding.
We tend to forget that many major discoveries and creations produced by mankind, whether in the arts, the sciences, agriculture, business, medicine, technology, philosophy, religion, or social practices, have come about only as a consequence of a few men and women being willing to stand far outside the accepted circles of understanding and appear to be outrageous to their contemporaries. These people did not create what they did by remaining faithful to the prevailing thinking of their times. Such outrageous people moved outside their circle of understanding, which, like the forces of gravity, pressure us to return to the status quo of the center, and teased or coaxed the rest of us to step outside our existing circles in order to gain a different perspective on reality. As we amass the courage to do so, we also learn something about the transient nature of all paradigms.
We are presently moving into a fundamentally new social environment, one as dissimilar to that into which we were born as today’s world would be to that of my grandparents. How we choose to respond to such changes will tell us much about the future of our civilization. Perhaps we can take a lesson from the astronauts who first landed on the moon. They had crossed the boundary into a frontier known to no other human. While their safe return home was dependent upon the linearly-structured spaceship that had brought them to their destination, their behavior on the moon was—like that of the earthbound pioneers on the overland trails—governed by the thinking and values they had taken with them. There were no familiar freeways upon which to drive their vehicles, no speed limits to obey, nor any “safety-net” to protect them from unanticipated problems. They had to adapt themselves to new experiences with the lunar gravity which, unlike the earth’s, was not as constraining. What an apt metaphor in our efforts to discover a world lacking in what has become familiar to us.
Learning, as with other processes of change, can be likened to the “cutting-and-filling” functions of a river. As the river pursues its meandering course, the centrifugal forces on its outer side are stronger, and cause the river to eat into the surrounding banks, bringing dirt, gravel, and silt into the flow. On the inner side—where the force is weaker—silt accumulates to form new land masses. Through this process, the river continues to redefine its boundaries and move into new territory.
We live in a culture in which people like to imagine themselves on the “cutting” edge of change, a function that would include “paradigm breaking.” But like the ongoing life of the river, attention must also be given to the role of the “filling” side of change. After all, it is on the filling side of the river that the silt gathers to provide a bed for the growth of new plant life.
The cutting and filling interplay finds expression in the roles played by linear and nonlinear forms of learning and thinking. The architectural genius Frank Lloyd Wright engaged in nonlinear, outside-the-circle behavior in designing his buildings. At the same time, he relied upon more linear, mechanistic thinking in addressing such matters as structural supports, the most efficient distribution of building forces, and other physical ways in which form and function became integrated into pragmatic forms of artistic expression. Painters and sculptors have to become disciplined in specific skills in order to give an outward embodiment to their inner sense. All creative acts depend upon such interaction.
An example of the creative interplay between the forces of change and stability implicit in the “cutting-and-filling” metaphor, was the emergence, in the 1960s, of a number of independent social movements that challenged the established mindset. Fundamental changes in thinking began to arise among people interested in civil rights, peace, libertarian systems, the environment, the role of women, and a variety of alternative social practices and lifestyles. I vividly recall the dynamics occurring during these years. There was a highly-energized, spontaneous flow of ideas emanating from a mixture of intuitive insights, emotions, unbridled speculation, and the observations of earlier philosophic thinkers. It was initially an exciting period of self-discovery, in which inquiries from within became the focus of our questions to the outside world. “Why have we allowed ourselves to live in ways that served systemic interests rather than our own?” was asked in each of these social arenas, as we continued cutting into the banks that surrounded us.
Rather quickly, however, attentions shifted to the filling side. Abstract conclusions were drawn from what often turned out to be superficial insights, and new belief systems emerged. Free and open speculation became structured into ideologies, moralistic dogmas, political movements, and, ultimately, statutory mandates. New “isms” were thus born, as men and women surrendered the joys of imagination and exploration for the security of attachments to new sets of fashionable doctrines. In the words of Frank Chodorov, expressed during this time period, far too many limited themselves to “wanting to clean up the whorehouse, but keeping the business intact.”2
The question mankind has always faced is how to maintain the dynamics of this “cutting-and-filling” interplay. Previous successes have a seductive quality that attracts us to make permanent the forms that produced past benefits, a temptation that gives birth to institutions and endangers opportunities for continuing creativity. It is the interconnected processes of change that sustain an individual, a business firm, a society, or even a civilization. If surrounding conditions are not receptive to such changes, they may fail to take root and become instruments for growth. The Greek engineer Hero of Alexandria who died in 70 A.D., invented a steam engine that was seen as little more than an object of amusement. It was not until the seventeenth century that the practical implications of this tool began to develop. So, too, the Industrial Revolution flowered in England and America, rather than such countries as France and Russia, for reasons that included opportunities for creative undertakings.
While Western civilization appears to be in a state of rapid decline, the societies that have housed this culture are not destined to collapse. Historians are fond of addressing “the decline and fall” of earlier civilizations, as though their deaths ended their influences upon humankind. But in much the same way that our biological descendants continue our genes long past our lives, so-called “dead” cultures retain their influence in the present. Ancient Greek philosophers still provide a starting point for most modern philosophic studies, just as Greek thought and language influenced Rome’s culture in the years following its decline in the west. Roman law and engineering inform current practitioners in these fields; and the Saracens introduced Europeans to the concept of “zero,” which, itself, had been borrowed from India, making possible not only more sophisticated forms of mathematical analysis, but modern computers. The Saracens also brought paper and papermaking from China to the West, and replaced Roman with Arabic numerals. Along with the Greeks and Romans, the Saracens were significant contributors to one of Western civilization’s most creative periods, the Renaissance, a word meaning a “renewal” or “revival” of classical influences. Human language, regardless of its specific form, continues, like a meandering river, its ongoing processes of change and adaptation, deriving its contents from centuries of interconnections. In varying degrees of influence, the history of mankind will continue to perform its filling functions as we go on with life’s game of challenging the familiar with the novel.
Western civilization is in a state of turbulence, and seems to have reached a bifurcation point at which the thinking that underlies it, and the forms such thinking expresses, will either generate systems that are more supportive of life, or collapse into an entropic death. Technological changes continue to astound us, and may provide a base from which a social metamorphosis might occur. We humans are a pragmatic lot, and have ways of borrowing from other cultures and civilizations methods that are useful to our efforts to sustain ourselves. As individuals, we will find Roman engineering more suited to our purposes than Roman military techniques. Our creative efforts will, of course, be resisted by weak and destructive people who continue to dream of empires and conquest, and work to dam up the river lest it cut into new territory. But, as with any dam, the river will eventually prevail, providing the rest of us with opportunities for filling in and adapting creative changes to our daily lives.
The life force, in whatever form it finds expression, has always been adept at circumventing barriers placed in its way. Plants and trees maneuver themselves around rocks or fence posts in order to get more direct sunlight. In human affairs, the marketplace has long found ways of satisfying the demands that the state chooses to make unlawful. Why we tolerate the erecting of restraints—which increase the costs to life sustaining itself—is a question deserving of inquiry, particularly in assessing the conditions necessary for maintaining a vibrant civilization.
We are intelligent and resilient beings who can, and do, find new ways of achieving our productive ends. At the same time, we are social beings who require organization and cooperation with one another not only to survive, but to maintain our sanity. Our present institutionalized practices, however, do not serve such needs well. Our traditional model of a centrallydirected society, in which order is presumed to be the product of rules imposed upon mankind by coercive means, may be all but defunct. Because of the sharp contrast between institutional interests in stability and uniformity, and individual interests in autonomously-directed variation; and because most of us have accepted the conflation of institutions and society into a single entity, with the former being the expression of the latter, we have managed to make social conflict a nearly universal feature in our lives. Those who can only confront the resulting violence, economic dislocation, institutional bureaucracy and ineffectiveness, anger, depression, despoliation, alienation, despair, and other symptoms of social discord, with an intensified outpouring of proposals grounded in the same interventionist premises that have produced these problems, fail to grasp the fact that our institutionally structured world is in a state of utter disrepair.
Naiveté alone sustains a faith in the capacity of traditional thinking and institutional systems to overcome the disordered and destructive world they have produced. Our world is in crisis, and only a fundamental shift in our thinking can reverse our entropic course. Thomas Kuhn’s analysis—in chapters one and three—of the history of scientific inquiry may provide a beginning point for understanding the social transformations currently taking place in our world.
Beginning at least in the late nineteenth century, and continuing throughout the twentieth, the anti-life implications of the established model became apparent. The most virulent manifestation of these symptoms, the state, became increasingly expansive in its systems and mechanisms of power, as well as more destructive of human life, not only through wars and genocides, but through the regulation of economic activity which it was presumed state authorities had the capacity to direct for the sake of human well-being.
Many social and political philosophers who antedated the twentieth century had, through their insights and reasoning, warned us of the dangers inherent in depending upon state systems. But, like the alcoholic who does not see the long-term implications of short-term conduct, most of us failed to allow such warnings to affect our illusionary expectations. Now, in recent decades, our idealized hopes have collided with the harsh reality that the playing out of such systemic premises has proven destructive of the conditions necessary for the survival of mankind.
In hindsight, one can see that Plato’s pyramidal archetype was ill-founded. The state has long depended for its existence upon the popular illusion that it is capable of planning for and controlling events in order to accomplish desired ends. But as we become more aware of the uncertainties inhering in complex systems, the futility of trying to regularize our lives in conformity with this belief becomes increasingly apparent. Political history, whether in the realms of foreign or domestic policies, economic regulation, or other aspects of life subject to governmental authority, is a testimony to the failure of this traditional model to achieve expected ends. Inability to account for outcomes inconsistent with such expectations produces a crisis— “turbulence”—to which a response must be made. Either of two options then seems available: (1) to bring about no change at all, and allow the system to collapse into total entropy, or (2) to generate a basic “paradigm shift” that will produce a more sophisticated, orderly system. On the assumption that an intelligent response to the present organizational crisis will obviate the first alternative, the next question becomes whether there is a sufficient basis in our thinking for bringing about the necessary transmutation. As Kuhn has made clear, such a paradigm shift will occur only if a better model is available to overcome the failures and shortcomings of the prevailing one.
Like passengers shipwrecked on a previously undiscovered island, or our ancestral pioneers entering a new frontier, we must explore uncharted territory. As in survivalist stories and training programs, we bring with us a variety of tools that may prove to be either useful, or a hindrance, in our efforts to sustain ourselves in a new society. We will also bring with us, of course, our prior thinking, derived from the formal learning and other experiences that have produced our fragmented and limited understanding. Should we try to concoct an alternative model out of a reshuffling of abstract ideas, our efforts would suffer from the same shortcomings found in all utopian thinking. Unless we are consciously aware of the influence of Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” at work upon our minds, our efforts may accomplish little more than to confirm the prior thinking that got us to the troublesome place where we find ourselves. A belief system can never rise to a higher level of authenticity than the thinking of its creators. The unintended consequences resulting from our acting upon belief systems— which, by their nature, are inherently limited by our prior experiences—may lead us to produce the kinds of paradigm shifts discussed by Kuhn. An awareness of both the limited nature of our understanding, as well as how our acts of observation influence what we see, may help transform our hubris into humility.
If our explorations are to be a catalyst for change, rather than a hindrance, we must be prepared to think outside the circle of prior learning and find comfort in the uncertainties that accompany our endeavors. As with the advance of scientific understanding, regularities that can be more readily explained by a new paradigm will likely bring about a shift in our thinking. We may discover patterns by which living systems organize themselves without conscious, external direction. Will the order upon which our lives depend be found within the regularities that arise, spontaneously and without design, from the interplay of human behavior; or shall we continue to seek such patterns within consciously formulated rules crafted in furtherance of the interests of those with access to the systems of power that generate such mandates? Will orderliness, in other words, express the central importance of autonomy and differentiation in human affairs, or the premises of a systematically directed uniformity? Will its emphasis be a reflection of the importance of social processes, or of institutional forms?
How we answer such questions will tell us how our lives and other property interests are to be controlled. We may discover that a self-organizing society can function only on the basis of decision-making authority being diffused into the hands of individual actors, each of whom will pursue their unique purposes in the concrete circumstances before them, a condition that necessarily implies the private control of property.
We must begin by casting aside the illusory thinking that sustains the collective systems that are destroying us. The pursuit of self-interest, which expresses itself in individualized spontaneity and autonomy, goes to the essence of all living things; such dynamics drive life in its varied manifestations. Coercion is anti-life, for it forces life to go in directions it doesn’t want to go.
As long as we regard the lives and property of one another as interests to be forcibly exploited in furtherance of our respective ends, we ought not wonder why our world is fraught with wars, genocides, suicide bombings, rapes, street-gang violence, riots, murders, terrorist attacks on skyscrapers, robberies, and all the other atrocities we so unthinkingly accept as “human nature.” Such behavior is the product of our assumptions about how human society is to be organized, which, in turn, are brought about by our thinking.
As command-and-control systems continue to erode, it is time to consider whether a holographic social model might be better suited to our purposes. Drawing upon the metaphor of Indra’s Net, can we think of our relationships with others in terms of horizontal interconnectedness rather than the divisive categories to which we have been conditioned? Can we learn that most civilizing of all traits: to respect the inviolability of one another’s person? Will we be able to understand that a system grounded in mutual respect for our claims to immunity from coercion can only be based on the private ownership of property, a concept that goes to the essence of the question of how authority will be exercised among people? Knowing how, and by whom, decisions over people’s lives and property are made tells us whether a given society is organized through individual liberty or political violence.
As we synthesize our understanding of the incalculable nature of complexity with our expectations of social systems, we may develop a deeper understanding of the biological, social, and spiritual necessity for autonomy and variability. Instead of having such values as liberty and diversity tolerated as little more than atavistic expressions of ancient liberal sentiments, we may discover why our very survival depends upon them. Our institutionalized practices have been built upon a distrust of ungoverned life processes, but such formalized systems are destroying human life, society and, apparently, Western civilization itself. We need to reaffirm not just the idea, but the functional reality of spontaneity and dissimilarity within society.
In many respects, as our world has become more industrialized and institutionalized, it has fallen into patterns of uniform, standardized behavior and, what is far more dangerous, standardized thinking. The idea that human conduct should be restrained within templates of institutionally defined regularities is a long-standing article of faith within modern society. Nowhere is this premise more firmly entrenched than in the belief that a monolithic, state-controlled legal system must superintend human affairs.
As I have demonstrated, such institutionalizing practices are being challenged—and without centralized direction—across the tapestry of human society. Perhaps as a social expression of Newton’s third law of motion, there has been a countervailing emergence of numerous subcultures within different nations. Such tendencies should remind us of the need for the proliferation of pluralistic values and practices within society if we are to remain vibrant and creative and, in the process, continue to resist our entropic fate. Harmony can arise only out of diversity. Where there is no diversity, no differentiation, there is only monotony. One of the most important lessons that chaos theory can provide is that our culture must become one in which the commitment to autonomy and diversity is the culture.
If the rest of nature has discovered the harmonious implications of the inviolability of property boundaries within a species, what prevents us allegedly intelligent and rational humans from having such an understanding? If property boundaries do not serve as the basis for social order, what will? We need not speculate as to the alternative, nor of its consequences. We need only look at our present world, where constantly changing whims and power alliances of some are forcibly imposed upon others; where differing groups compete with one another for control of the machinery of the state to plunder, coerce, and even destroy one another; and where “intelligence” is considered an integral part of the process by which people ritualistically slaughter one another. The twentieth century’s two hundred million victims of wars, genocides, and “sanctions,” should remind us of the deadly consequences of behavior that knows no boundaries—i.e., of practices not constrained by principled limitations that can reasonably assure each of us an immunity from being violated.
Our institutionally-directed society has taught us to think of “right” and “wrong” social behavior largely in terms of standards that the state promulgates. It is sufficient, for such thinking, that a legislative body or the executive branch of government has formulated rules that the courts are willing to enforce. In this way, liberty and the inviolability of the individual has given way to legalistic notions of “procedural due process” as a principle for restraining state power. Such a politically-based standard allows for any form of conduct, even that which causes no physical injury to another, to be labeled criminal or tortuous if a sizeable number of people object to it. The history of “victimless crimes” (e.g., drug use, prostitution, gambling, etc.) proves the point.
With the invasion of property boundaries as the standard for what is appropriately called “improper” behavior, the opportunities for state-enforced fashions or whims to limit the liberties of individuals is minimized. There is no “wrong” that does not reduce itself to a measurable trespass to private property interests. Indeed, any politically-defined and enforced “wrong” that does not rise to the level of a trespass would, itself, be a trespass upon the interests of those regulated.
This is why a book on property and liberty requires so much attention to the nature and forms of our social systems: these interests are unavoidably intertwined. If we are to live as free, self-controlling people, the underlying premises through which we cooperate with one another must reflect such purposes. Cooperation, the organizing principle of the marketplace, is grounded in a respect for the inviolate nature of each other’s property boundaries. Coercion, the essence of all political systems, is premised on a rejection of the property principle.
It is critical for us to re-examine the basic assumptions upon which our social systems are to be based. What are the values and the practices we are to embrace? We might begin with the inquiry offered by Franz Oppenheimer, who distinguished the two basic methods for acquiring wealth. The first was the “economic means,” which arose from the free exchange of property claims in the marketplace; the second was the “political means,” which consisted of the use of violence to despoil property owners of their property interests.3 As the state has increased both its powers and appetites, the political means has become ascendant in our world. But growing public opposition to wars, eminent domain, regulation of economic life, and taxation, has both encouraged and accompanied the processes of decentralization that are working to dismantle governmental structures.
The political establishment no longer enjoys the confidence that earlier generations placed in its hands. Its response has been to increase police powers and surveillance; expand penitentiaries and prison sentences; build more weapons of mass destruction; and create new lists of enemies against whom to conduct endless wars. The state has become destructive of the foundations of life, particularly of the social systems and practices that sustain life. Were its attributes found within an individual, it would be aptly described as a psychopathic serial killer! But its destructiveness can no longer be tolerated by a life system intent on survival. Unconscious voices are informing conscious minds that it is time to walk away from these instrumentalities that war against life. The state is like a chicken that has just had its head chopped off: it flaps and flails around in a noisy and messy outburst of disordered energy, spreading blood in its trail. But it is all reflexive action with no creative purpose beneficial to the life of the chicken, whose fate has already been determined.
Is it possible that the intellectual transformations that have driven scientific revolutions could teach us anything that might help bring about fundamental changes in our social thinking in order to extricate humanity from self-destructive practices? The study of chaos reminds us that our world is, indeed, quite complicated. At the same time, we are beginning to understand that, if we are to live well, our thinking—including the practices and systems that our thinking generates—had better not be complicated. To presume that a complex world can be rendered orderly through the imposition of elaborately structured systems and rigidly enforced rules, is to fail to comprehend nature’s inherent orderliness, as well as the dangers associated with the disruption of such undirected regularities. As we learn more about chaos, including how our inherently limited knowledge and understanding can never keep up with the interconnected complexities of our world, we may discover that the quality of our lives depends on learning how to live with greater flexibility, diversity, spontaneity, and uncertainty than our institutionallystructured systems allow—qualities demanded by the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of a complex universe.
It may be said that quantum physics, chaos theory, or holographic systems have, at best, metaphorical applications to human affairs. But such an objection begs the question, for our understanding of the world has always advanced through the use of metaphors. What our minds embrace as “truth” largely consists of a sophisticated labyrinth of interconnected abstractions, put together by our minds with such detailed consistency as to cause us to believe they represent objective truth. Abstractions piled upon abstractions have produced a base of conscious understanding grounded in metaphor.
It has been our practice to apply metaphysical models as broadly as possible. Hegel’s “dialectic” was used by Karl Marx to explain his social and scientific models. Religious cultures have provided metaphorical explanations for regularities in nature as expressions of a divine will, just as Newton found it useful to interpret such orderliness in the mechanistic form of a giant clockwork. Our organizational practices have also been grounded in analogical thinking. Thus, the pyramidal model of social systems has its origins in beliefs about the nature of order in the universe. If we think of order as a quality imposed upon the world—whether by divine forces or so-called “laws of nature”—we will be inclined to embrace social systems that reflect such a model. As our understanding of orderliness is transformed, we should expect our social systems and practices to reflect such changed awareness. Thus, if the study of chaos, complexity, and quantum mechanics, informs us that order is a quality that arises from—rather than being mandated upon— human behavior, we may find ourselves attracted to a holographic metaphor for society.
The underlying premise of a holographic model is that orderliness is distributed throughout the system as the product of the interconnectedness of its subsystems. The regularities of the marketplace arise not through the designs of planners, nor even the intentions of market participants, but as the unintended consequences of people pursuing their disparate and often contrary interests. The interplay of such varied purposes, with each participant committing his or her resources on behalf of a desired end, generates widespread patterns for which all participants, but none in particular, are responsible. It is the diffusion of authority into the hands of resource owners that gives the marketplace its resiliency and viability. It is this same dispersion of energy that gives meaning to a holographic system.
A spontaneous order arising through adaptability, rather than design, is found throughout non-human nature in animal and plant life not known for being centrally-directed or supervised by outside forces. The concept of evolution is grounded in life forms responding to changed conditions by altering their behavior and/or biological structures, a practice echoed by mankind in the history of industrialization. In the continuing evolution of technologies, we see the same interplay of stability and change producing life-enhancing modifications beyond the capacities of centralized authorities to create.
Perhaps the metaphor provided by the dynamics of a river system can help us transcend our present mindset that so insistently wars against life. The words of Will Durant, with which I began this book, make a fitting contrast between the violence and destruction wrought by the force of the river, whose course has long entertained our dark side as the study of history, and the peaceful activities taking place on the banks where people live and produce the values necessary for the sustaining of life. It has been my purpose to explore the conditions that must prevail on the banks if a free, productive, and humane civilization is to exist.
The question that has always confronted mankind is whether society will be conducted by peaceful or violent means. Our conditioned thinking, however, has kept us from examining the implications of these alternative forms of behavior. The distinction between such practices rests on whether trespasses will or will not be allowed to occur. It is not that property trespasses can produce violence; they are violence, whatever the degree of force that is used. The property principle—in restricting the range of one’s actions to the boundaries of what one owns— precludes the use of violence. As long as we choose to deny the necessity of this principle, we should cease getting upset over the political and private acts of violence that are the unavoidable consequences of failing to respect the inviolability of the lives of our neighbors.
The extent of the social harmony we generate can be measured by the degree of respect we accord this principle. The concept has been tortured, twisted, and misunderstood by people in virtually every segment of society, including political ideologues of both the “Left” and “Right,” as well as by judges and lawyers. The reason for this confusion is rather clear: for men and women to understand the nature and importance of private property would call into question the entire political order, which is premised upon the formal usurpation of authority over people’s lives and property. In our politically institutionalized relationships, divisive thinking manifests itself as coercively structured systems for transgressing one another’s property interests.
Although we continue to recite bromides about our culture’s commitment to the private ownership of property, most of us have little understanding of the nature of ownership, or how the state regularly transgresses such interests. The depth of confusion on the part of most Americans about private property was brought home to me a number of years ago when I was visiting London. While waiting for my wife and daughters in an indoor mall, I decided to check on the amount of film remaining in my camera. As soon as I took the camera from its case, a security guard came up to me and said, quite politely, “I’m sorry sir, but you cannot take pictures in here.” After assuring him that I was not intending to take pictures, I asked why there was such a prohibition. “Because it’s private property,” he informed me. As I reflected on his response, I pondered how a security guard in a shopping mall back home in California might have responded to such an inquiry under similar circumstances. I imagined replies ranging from “because those are the rules,” or “because I said so,” to “I don’t know: that’s just what we’ve been told.” I wondered how many American shopping centers I would have had to visit before finding a security guard or building manager who would regard it an adequate answer to respond “because it’s private property.” How ironic—although it may provide but another instance of the unity in apparent opposites—that, in a socialistic nation such as Great Britain, it should be considered a sufficient explanation that a property owner does not allow photographs to be taken.
The most compelling case for the private ownership of property lies in its implicit affirmation of the primacy of individual interests as the focus of any social arrangement. The measure of any society’s respect for the innate worthiness of individuals is found not in abstract platitudes, but in the degree of commitment people have to the maintenance of exclusive realms of decision-making within which each of us is free to direct our own lives and pursue our dreams and ambitions. No society can reasonably claim to be humane and decent as long as the purposes and desires of individuals are regarded as secondary to any collective undertaking. Until we are able to grasp this fundamental point, and learn to move beyond our attachments and subservience to institutional identities, human society will never amount to much more than a form of bondage—of forced servitude and plunder carried out through “due process of law.”
What I have endeavored to express herein is not just a new set of ideas, and certainly not an ideology. The property principle is a reflection of how the world actually works. That other living things follow such practices—with no known belief systems or dogmas to direct their behavior—should suggest to us some underlying principle common to life itself.4 But mankind, whose collective arrogance presumes a special dispensation from nature, has ignored such a principle to its detriment. Only a very intelligent species has been able to construct systems, practices, and beliefs that have placed us and kept us in a state of perpetual war and misery with one another! Perhaps the awareness of what we are doing to ourselves will energize our intelligence and generate new patterns of living.
The study of both physics and economics informs us that there are costs associated with every activity. The fundamental conflict between a system of privately owned property and a political system is this: where private property interests are respected, the costs of human action are borne by those who desire a given activity and are prepared to pay the full costs thereof by committing their resources to its achievement. The nature of politics, on the other hand, is to forcibly transfer such costs to others. When we compel others to commit their lives and other property interests to programs they do not wish to support, we foster social conflict, which reveals itself in the form of trespasses against individuals. There is an integrity to a system of private property in that the costs borne, and the benefits received, by a given course of action are experienced by the owner. There is no integrity in political action, however, as the relationship of costs to benefits is fragmented.
Contrary to the polemics of Hobbes and other statists, every political system is an institutionalized means of forcibly transferring control of property from owners to non-owners. Of course, this is too candid and unvarnished a statement for most conventional, formally educated men and women to comfortably consider. The price of admission into the antechambers of the philosopher kings has been one’s tacit agreement to never call a thing for what it is, for truthfulness and clarity would allow others to apprehend the nature of the game being played at their expense. Because we prefer our illusion that politics is a noble, socially responsible undertaking, we resist these more pedestrian explanations, or dismiss them as “simplistic thinking.”
But what practices are more “simplistic” than those grounded in the belief that social order can be generated by an institutionalized elite using formal tools of violence to compel individuals to act as the elitists choose them to act? What arrogant assumptions underlie both the propriety of employing such methods and the belief that sufficient knowledge of means and outcomes lies in the hands of those enjoying the use of such coercive power? As we are discovering, life is far too complex and subject to far too many perturbations to any longer permit the illusion that human society can be organized and run from the top-down. It is time we gave Plato a decent burial.
If there is any period one would desire to be born in, is it not the age of revolution; when the old and the new stand side by side, and admit of being compared; when the energies of all men are searched by fear and by hope; when the historic glories of the old can be compensated by the rich possibilities of the new era? This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson