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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Private Property and Social Order I

Every thing that tends to insulate the individual- to surround him with barriers of natural respect, so that each man shall feel the world is his, and man shall treat with man as a sovereign state with a sovereign state; — tends to true union as well as greatness.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Because life is dependent upon the use and consumption of property, it is the nature of any property system—whether private or collective in form—to generate divisions between those who will, and those who will not, be entitled to the enjoyment of various resources. It is the entropic nature of life itself, not some belief system, that dictates such harsh realities. The competition that invariably exists among all living things for negentropic resources injects an element of conflict into the life process that cannot be wholly excised. There will also be disappointments or even hard feelings over the outcomes of such contests. Nothing in the holographic model of social systems suggests that billions of people will suddenly develop a collective mindset, and agree to allocate resources in a manner that reflects a cheerful unanimity. Such illusions of group-think are what have turned the dreams of utopian thinkers into the nightmares under which others have suffered and died. Society will become more peaceful and cooperative only as individuals transform the nature of their conduct with others. Such changes will arise marginally, at the boundaries where people transact their relationships and exchanges with one another. Like the young boy at the party chaperoned by my daughter, such individual transformations in consciousness are more likely to arise in an environment in which one’s claims to ownership are respected by others. As a means of harmonizing our needs for both self-centered activity and social cooperation, a system of private ownership allows us to experience the deeper meaning of being human.
Again, what is being proposed here is not a utopian ideology, in which humanity will miraculously march off together, in lockstep cadence, to yet another visionary millennium. Utopian thinking is premised on the delusion of universally shared preferences, as well as the idea of a fixed end state. But a creative and vibrant society is a continuously changing one, comprised of people with a multitude of varied tastes, preferences, ambitions, and skills. And as history has demonstrated, creative change is not necessarily favorable to all mankind. There were many contemporaries for whom the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution were not beneficial. The Luddite riots, for instance, were greatly influenced by the reaction of many artisans to the threats that industrialization posed to their established economic interests.
Regardless of the form of the social or political system under which we live, it is unavoidable that each of us will be entitled to use and consume particular resources to the exclusion of everyone else. This is but a fact of existence. Again, we witness the interrelatedness of apparent opposites: both individual liberty and social order depend upon a system grounded in the division that inheres in the nature of property. But lest any be inclined to treat this only as a paradoxical feature of privately owned property, it must be noted that collective ownership fosters the same divisiveness, but without a concomitant benefit to our sense of individuality, a topic to be explored more fully in chapter nine. Whether we live in the most ideologically repressive Marxist state, with its insistence upon state ownership of all productive property, or in a stateless community of cooperative, uncoerced individuals, some method will have to be arrived at for determining the answer to the question: who gets to make decisions about what resources? Whether the process involves voluntary, marketplace negotiations among competing interests, or the arbitrary determinations of bureaucratic agencies, the use of a given item of property will be enjoyed by some to the exclusion of others.
Given the nature of property, there must be some arrangements for deciding who gets to stand or sleep or work or play within a given space and period of time, and who gets to consume what resources to the exclusion of everyone else, in our efforts to sustain ourselves. One thing is clear: all five billion of us cannot sleep in one bed at the same time, or eat the same hamburger. Whether I decide—by my act of asserting a claim to and taking control of previously unowned resources, or by purchasing the claim of another—where I am to live and sleep, or whether this decision is imposed upon me by some state bureaucrat, the inescapable fact remains that I will end up someplace, if only by default, and to the exclusion of everyone else on the planet. What this means is that any method of making such decisions will always separate the “occupier” or the “consumer” from the “non-occupier” or “non-consumer,” the best intentions of the market participants or the noblest state housing commissar to the contrary notwithstanding.
Whether property is to be controlled privately by individuals, or collectively by the state, tells us much about our existential sense of being. Are human beings ends in themselves, or only means to the ends of others? Do we regard ourselves as unique individuals, or as undifferentiated parts in some giant piece of social machinery? Are our individual interests to be considered inviolate, or subject to preemption by those who enjoy power?
Private property, as a system of social order, reflects the extent to which we are willing to acknowledge one another’s autonomy and to limit the range of our own activities. Private property is the operating principle that makes real Immanuel Kant’s admonition: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.”2 It is a tenet that not only diffuses authority in society, but helps us reconcile our seemingly contradictory natures as self-seeking individuals who, at the same time, require some form of social organization in order to survive. Such a system of social individualism reflects the paradoxical nature of reality, in which self-interest finds expression in cooperation with others.
Respecting the inviolability of the boundaries that enclose our neighbors’ property claims accords them our respect for the autonomy that is essential to any meaningful form of individual expression. In acknowledging one another’s realms of unimpeded activity, we not only confirm our sense of their self-justifying existence but, in so doing, dissolve the barriers of distrust that separate us. Only in a condition of such mutual respect can we expect to find a reasonable basis for social harmony. Knowing that our claims to immunity from trespass are likely to be respected, and being aware of the advantages of cooperation, we are more inclined to organize ourselves in peaceful and productive ways than we are when, as now, organization tends to be grounded in fear and the violent and divisive assumptions of coercive power.
The property principle operates as a buffer, separating the realm of your decision making from mine. We need to have our will free of coercion, and the inviolability of our sense of self acknowledged, before we will feel comfortable enough to cooperate with others and feel safe within groups. Our social organizations must reflect these qualities with a sense of wholeness and integrity before we can live in harmony with our neighbors, instead of the counterfeit forms offered by the state. It is only within systems in which each of us enjoys the unrestrained autonomy to act in furtherance of our individual interests that our personal and social interests can merge. When decisionmaking is decentralized into a system of privately owned property, individual self-interest and cooperation coalesce to maximize personal liberty and social harmony. With authority diffused into the hands of individuals, each of us enjoys control over some portion of the world within which we can pursue our interests in our own way. What we share in common are our individual needs for a sphere of action in which we can be as autonomous, spontaneous, arbitrary, self-indulgent, and as unanswerable to others as we care to be, without being subject to any coercive preemption by others. At the same time, cooperation with others is premised upon sharing or exchanging with one another that which belongs to each of us (e.g., our personal energies or our material resources).
The decentralization of decision-making that is implicit in a system of privately-owned property provides another instance of the unity that inheres in apparent opposites. By distributing authority widely rather than narrowly, private property provides a greater flexibility allowing individuals to voluntarily join with others in concentrated communities in which they can choose to associate with others in pursuit of shared interests. The Silicon Valley, artists colonies, Detroit automobile manufacturing, Hollywood film production companies, and religious communes, are just a handful of examples of the interrelated dynamics of decentralized and concentrated activity.
Whether our relationships with others will be increasingly based upon state-driven coercion, or will find a more creative expression in agreements, depends upon our attitudes about the inviolability of property claims. When we acknowledge property boundary lines, rather than statutes or court decisions, as confining the range of our personal actions, mutual respect for one another’s boundaries integrates our individual and social needs and, as a consequence, generates liberty and order in society.
One need not rely on hypotheticals or theoretical analyses to demonstrate the social, or transactional, negotiation for property claims. There is an emerging field of study in law regarding the role played by social norms—enforced informally by interpersonal pressures rather than coercive state power—in maintaining peaceful and orderly behavior. The Amish have used such methods for decades to provide for an orderly, productive, and mutually-supportive society.3 In Northern Ireland, a nation bloodied by political and religious divisiveness, many of those desiring to end such violence have taken to publicly shaming the participants into changing their ways.4
There is a well-documented history of the respect accorded to property and contract rights along the overland trails in nineteenth-century America. In a harsh and uncertain environment in which there were no courts, judges, prisons, administrative agencies, or other government law enforcement officials, emigrants freely and peacefully negotiated with one another over claims to all kinds of chattels and intangible property interests. High levels of respect were accorded the property claims of both acquaintances and total strangers, even in situations in which scarcity existed. Such negotiated rights were sometimes so sophisticated as to provide for contract terms designed to benefit future wagon trains. In one such case, a wagon train had built a raft for use in fording a river. Upon completion of its crossing, the wagon train company sold the raft to the next wagon train, with the understanding that it would later be sold to subsequent trains at a price no higher than that agreed to by the original contracting parties. When a much later wagon train tried to sell the raft to its successor at a higher price than the original one, the successor was able to successfully invoke the terms of the initial contract to which neither group had been a party.5 Such an example attests not only to the power of social respect for property interests, but to the effectiveness of information systems, even on the undeveloped frontier, in communicating terms of agreements to unknown strangers!
A more recent study involves residents of Shasta County, California and their methods for dealing with damage done to farmers’ lands by ranchers’ cattle. Some parts of this agricultural county were legally defined as “open range,” and other parts were designated “closed range” territories. In open range areas, cattlemen were lawfully free to allow their livestock to wander freely, without being legally responsible for damages that might accrue to the crops of neighboring farmers. If the farmers wanted to prevent such trespasses, they would be expected to build fences to keep out the offending cattle. In closed range areas, by contrast, the cattlemen had the legal duty to fence in their cattle, and would be liable for damages done to neighboring property owners should the fences not keep their animals in.
Those trained in purely positivist definitions of proper behavior would intuit that, if X’s cattle got off his property and wandered onto Y’s land and did damage, the question of X’s liability would depend upon which legally defined area was implicated. It did not. The residents of this county had their own understanding of the rights and obligations of property ownership totally apart from what the formal legal system dictated. It was understood, both by the cattlemen and the farmers, that if X’s cattle caused damage to Y’s property, X was obligated to compensate Y for his loss, even though, in an open range district, he would not have any legally enforceable duty to do so. Because such expectations were contrary to formal legal requirements, the residents developed their own informal, nonviolent ways of enforcing these community standards upon the occasional recalcitrant cattleman. Subtle methods of communication, informal accounting practices, and economic inducements, helped provide the social pressures to keep this system working.6 These examples illustrate how peaceful, long-term systems of order can be voluntarily maintained, not only in the absence of state rules, but in spite of them.
Nowhere was the order produced through mutual respect for property claims more vivid than in the early gold mining camps in the western states. So prevalent was the regard for one another’s property interests that miners’ gold, bank deposits, and even gambling stakes could be freely left in the open by their absent owners without fear of loss. One early scholar observed:

The miners needed no criminal code. It is simply and literally true that there was a short time in California, in 1848, when crime was almost absolutely unknown, when pounds and pints of gold were left unguarded in tents and cabins, or thrown down on the hillside, or handed about through a crowd for inspection. … Men have told me that they have known as much as a washbasinful of gold-dust to be left on the table in an open tent while the owners were at work in their claim a mile distant. … There was no theft, and no disorder; few troublesome disputes occurred about boundaries and water-rights.7

A writer from that period, Sarah Royce, stated: “I had seen with my own eyes, buckskin purses half full of gold-dust, lying on a rock near the road-side, while the owners were working some distance off. So I was not afraid of robbery.”8 Based upon his personal experiences, an Idaho attorney from this period declared that “life was safe, property was safe” in the mining camps.9
Although another student suggested that widespread honesty among the miners was brought about by a respect for “the summary justice likely to be dispensed by the crowd,”10 such presumed fears did not seem to dissuade the criminal types who swarmed into California following the discovery of new gold fields in 1849. The divergent behavior of the early miners and the plunderers was more likely due to dissimilarities in character of the two groups, as is reflected in the observation of one contemporary that the latter group “were a different kind of people; more of the brute order.”11 Such behavior differences demonstrate, as Carl Jung and others have insisted,12 that the quality of life in any society is the consequence of the character of the people who comprise it—that social order is a product not of the fear of unishment, but of the respect neighbors accord one another’s interests. In our dealings with the state, we do not negotiate from the position of an uncoerced free will, but are compelled by threats of violence to our interests. In contrast, our informal, social negotiations are premised upon a mutuality of respect for our individualities.
Such examples provide evidence of how individual liberty, social harmony, and responsible behavior are measured by the respect we accord to one another’s property interests. Likewise, tyranny, social disorder, and irresponsible conduct derive from property violations, which become formalized as the modus operandi of all political systems.
If we are to learn to live responsibly, we must begin by understanding that the “wrongs” others perpetrate upon us, and from which we desire protection, are nothing more than trespasses to our property interests. A peaceful social order consists, in major part, of men and women conducting their affairs without causing injury to one another, an end that requires us to focus our attention on understanding the social implications of property. Such crimes as murder, rape, assault and battery, and kidnapping, are not—despite the pronouncements of government officials—wrongs committed against an amorphous, collectively-defined “society,” but violent trespasses against the property interest the victim has in his or her person. When we declare such actions to be “crimes against the state,” we are implicitly recognizing the state’s claim to the ownership of our person.13 Likewise, acts of burglary, theft, embezzlement, arson, forgery, and shoplifting, are not offenses against the state, even though the state brings the criminal action against the accused, but invasions of the real or personal property interests of an owner.

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

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