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Sunday, March 10, 2013

Private Property and Social Order II

It is the distinction between crimes in which there are property trespasses, and those in which such trespasses do not occur, that constitutes the difference between “victimizing” and “victimless” crimes (once again, a failure to heed Pynchon’s warning about the adverse consequences of asking the wrong questions). So accustomed have we become to blurring the meaning of property in our lives that we have reduced the distinction to a vague abstraction that begs the question of what kinds of acts these are. Stated in property terms, a victimless crime (e.g., drug use, gambling, prostitution, pornography, smuggling, etc.) is one in which the state, for reasons of its own, chooses to criminalize conduct that would not otherwise amount to a property trespass against another. Criminalizing such conduct, in fact, violates the property interests of the purported criminal as well as his customers by depriving them of the legal right to exercise control over their own property.
The same analysis can be applied to other types of injuries. The tort of injuring another through the negligent operation of an automobile, for instance, amounts to a trespass to the boundaries of the victim, as well as to other interests (e.g., the victim’s car) damaged by the defendant’s act. The defendant’s wrong was not that he had been driving in a negligent or reckless manner—even though such behavior may have produced the injury—but that he had failed to control his property in such a way as to prevent a trespass upon the interests of his victim. A world organized on the principle of the inviolability of property interests is a world that reduces injuries to others. Responsible behavior is thus encouraged, as the scope of one’s liberty to act ends at his or her property boundaries.
Likewise, a breach of contract action arises out of an alleged violation of a property interest. A and B enter into an agreement by which A is to sell B her claim to the ownership of a new television set, and B agrees to pay A $500 for the set. When it comes time to perform, A delivers B a used television set. Because a contract is nothing more than an agreement to transfer ownership claims, B has not received the ownership claim for the agreed upon property.
Most of our societal problems arise from a failure to stay out of one another’s way. Schools interfere with children’s learning, not only by thwarting their wills, but in replacing intellectually significant learning with politically-based indoctrination; government agencies impede our lives by economic regulations that increase production costs which, in turn, generate higher prices and increased unemployment and, as a consequence, foster greater tendencies toward concentration that accelerate entropic processes;14 state-licensed medical professions and the Food and Drug Administration dictate what health care services we may lawfully select, and what treatments and medications we may consume; governments hinder the free expression of ideas and lifestyles; and countless coveys of people-pushers demand legislation mandating standards of personal behavior ranging from child-rearing practices to smoking, to the kinds of food and other substances we may ingest, to our safety, to our bodily weight, to how we speak to one another, to whether we can own guns, and other practices that are regularly added. This madness has gone so far as to produce a bill in the California legislature making it a crime punishable by as much as a one-year prison sentence to spank a child.15 Whether as parents, or in social relationships, or in efforts to make the world better, we insist on getting in one another’s way because we have not learned that most important of social graces: respecting the inviolability of one another’s boundaries. Like young puppies, most of us are not housebroken. We babble our bromides about the insignificance of property principles, because to do otherwise would limit our ambitions to control the lives of others and reveal our mutual contempt for one another’s independence.
Such attempts to micromanage the daily lives of others seem to be part of the continuing effort by adherents to the vertically-structured social model to maintain its established position. As suggested earlier, the continuing process of change that is bringing about decentralized, horizontal networks poses a threat to members of the institutional order who are disinclined to participate in the transformation. To such people, social systems that run themselves without formal direction and superintendence is not only disturbing to their ambitions for power, but represents a form of fanciful thinking. With an effort that approaches a kind of religious reaffirmation of the old order, the statists resort to a constant repetition of their centralist, coercive methods at ever more detailed levels of human behavior. Such conduct is reminiscent of the behaviors Abraham Maslow saw exhibited by brain-injured patients who, in their repetitious patterns “manage to maintain their equilibrium by avoiding everything unfamiliar and strange and by ordering their restricted world in such a neat, disciplined, orderly fashion that everything in the world can be counted upon.”16
Much like Maslow’s patients, statists see their world of centralized power structures being enervated by life forces over which they are losing control, and imagine that the rote repetition of familiar patterns will reconfirm its vibrancy. At an unconscious level, perhaps, it may be sensed that if the ancien regime is undergoing its decline and fall, the dying model might be revivified—or at least its vital signs made to so appear—by the proliferation of new, centrally-imposed restraints upon the lives of unfettered men and women. Such obsessive efforts seek to reconfirm the validity of an antiquated system that no longer satisfies people’s expectations. War, of course, is the most dramatic expression of politically-structured violence as well as being an undertaking that brings fearful people back into a herd mentality, which is why it has become the cornerstone of modern statist efforts to preserve power over people. Perhaps this is why expansions of the war system have been such frequent precursors to the collapse of previous civilizations.
Because the power of the state directly correlates with the extent to which it usurps control over privately-owned property, political and legal systems have little interest in generating a fundamental respect for property principles. As we have seen, alternative rationales (e.g., “health,” “safety,” “offenses against the state”) are offered as the basis for resolving wrongs or disputes that would otherwise be subject to a property analysis. When “reasonableness,” the “balancing of interests,” “fairness,” “justice,” and other amorphous vagaries become substituted for an owner’s objections to a more clearly defined trespass, it becomes quite easy for people to call upon the state to force a neighbor to cease doing what a property principle would otherwise allow him to do.
This is how the violation of property interests underlies most of our social difficulties. Conflict arises from the failure of people to effectively identify or to respect property boundaries. When we regard one another’s ownership interests as inviolable, interpersonal conflicts do not arise. But as we have seen, every act of the state involves a forcible intrusion upon the interests of property owners. Whether such governmental action takes the form of regulations that restrict an owner’s control of his or her property, or forcibly transfers ownership claims to others (e.g., eminent domain), or amounts to outright confiscation (e.g., taxation), actions by the state invariably produce conflicts between owners who seek to control their property for their own ends and non-owners who use state power to force owners to conform their behavior to their purposes. The state, whether through statutory enactments or judicial holdings, thus introduces contradiction and conflict into society. The peaceful and harmonious relations that would otherwise follow from a respect for property claims, collapse into a formal system of predation, with people organizing into groups to achieve what would otherwise have to depend upon contracts among owners.
Intellectuals, most of whom have their own preferences for political intervention into people’s lives for redistributive purposes, have not been very supportive of a system that would extend liberty into the realm where people most need it: the conduct of their daily lives. In the world of ideas, where intellectuals are most protective of the inviolability of their boundaries, most accept, as an expression of the essence of liberty, the principle erroneously attributed to Voltaire: “though I disapprove of what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But why are such sentiments so narrowly confined to intellectual matters, and rejected when applied to the more mundane actions that are central to and comprise so much more of our daily lives? How much freer would both our intellectual and material lives be if we were to modify the aforesaid proposition by telling our neighbor: “though I disapprove of how you conduct your life, as long as you do not violate the property boundaries of others, I shall defend to the death your right to act as you choose”? We might then move beyond the empty bromides by which we feign “love” for our fellow humans while, at the same time, seeking ways to force them to conform to our expectations.17
Social order arises not so much from learning to love our neighbor, as in learning to respect him. We do not exhibit such respect when, in order to accomplish our purposes, we insist upon violating his will regarding what is his to control. Neither do our professions of love for others mean much when we are prepared to deny others their existential individuality. There is nothing quite so destructive of social harmony as arrogant, selfrighteous men and women mobilizing against the tastes and lifestyles of their neighbors.
When we insist upon the use of legalized force to address what we perceive as social problems, we not only subvert the conflict-resolving role property plays throughout much of nature, but we foreclose any alternative practices. The assumption that only coercive intervention by the state is worthy of practical consideration in such matters ignores the role of informal, interpersonal methods of resolving our differences with one another. Worse still, our resort to force sends a message of contempt to our fellow beings whose purposes we find incompatible with our own, further alienating ourselves from one another and fostering more conflict. We have too often failed to heed the warning of Emerson: “Good men must not obey the laws too well.”18 We have also overlooked the value of our own life experiences for lessons in resolving disagreements without having to resort to formalized coercion.
As long as we live in society, we will always have a need for standards of conduct, a condition necessitated by the property question. If the inviolability of property boundaries is a civilizing standard that makes for a free, creative, and orderly society, the question arises: how is such a principle to take form in the interactions of people? Historically, we have too often turned to the state to have rules of conduct generated by fiat and enforced by coercive means. But when force is employed, property interests are at once violated. The state becomes the very problem it had, in theory, been created to prevent.
But what if rule-making and enforcement is confined to property owners themselves, beginning with the self-ownership principle? What if our respect for the inviolability of property claims began with the recognition that each person was the sole authority over their respective interests, and was obligated to no one else unless he or she had voluntarily chosen to be bound? What if we recognized that, if I wanted to enjoy some property interest of yours, I would have to enter into a contract with you to do so?
This approach raises the question: what if one party breached the contract, or intentionally or unintentionally trespassed the interests of another? How would the inviolability principle be enforced? Would it be possible to do so without the use of coercion, whether employed by the state or the offended individual? Is it possible to use boycotts, ostracism, marketplace pressures, or other social means —which do not forcibly deprive the offender of his property interests—to persuade him to rectify his wrong? Might we also resort to contracts of insurance to compensate us for our losses? Because we are so unaccustomed to thinking in such non-coercive ways, and regard rule-breaking as an invitation to resort to force, we are apt to dismiss these suggested alternatives as “impractical.”
Albert Einstein informed us that “problems … cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.”19If our prior learning leads us to react with an angry “no” to the question of seeking alternative practices, let us remember that such prior learning is what is destroying us! If we are to resolve our problems before they consume us, we might begin by taking the responsibility that is inseparable from decisionmaking control over our lives. To the degree we insist upon directing our own conduct, we hasten the decline of the prevailing model of state authority. In the course of doing so, we may actually generate—rather than just think or talk about —a system of rule-making and enforcement of horizontal dimensions with no hierarchy of authority, and in which all rules arise through the peaceful means of contract, custom, and manners.
As suggested earlier, the property concept qualifies as an informal system of manners, a way of respecting the worthiness and inviolability of others and, in reflection, ourselves. The word “manners” has a common ancestry with the word “manage,” meaning “to control and direct,”20 which has property connotations. Perhaps our more distant ancestors understood what we have chosen to ignore at the cost of the conflict and violence that permeates modern society: namely, that proper and well-mannered behavior is intrinsically related to the decision making of property owners.
Each of us experiences trespasses in our life, although mostly in de minimis ways. A neighbor’s dog makes a mess in our yard, or barks incessantly at night; a teenager annoys us with a “boom-box” turned up as loud as it will play; or we are bumped and jostled as we get onto a subway or elevator. We may feel anger at the disrespect shown to us by the other person, although an apology—which acknowledges our claim to not be trespassed—usually subdues our reaction. Once again, we see the role played by manners in giving respect to individual boundaries in situations, usually of a transient nature, in which property interests are not clearly defined. Unfortunately, in a culture in which people have internalized the idea that “property rights are not absolute,” an appeal to manners often avail us not. We tend to become more confrontational, looking upon every such trespass, no matter how trivial, as a call to more aggressive responses.
Part of learning to live as mature individuals in society consists in our willingness to absorb unintended and relatively insignificant trespasses by others, without developing a selfrighteous need for retribution. Implicit in failing to do so is much of what we see in our current world: the breakdown of harmonious interconnectedness as so many treat every slight or encroachment as a cause for angry reaction if not a lawsuit. But how much of such a reflexive response is occasioned by a widespread disrespect for property interests perhaps leading one who has been subject to even a relatively minor intrusion to overreact to its significance?
Because the control of private property and the corruption of language are central to the functioning of political systems, it is not surprising to discover the property concept twisted in ways that make it increasingly difficult for people to distinguish trespasses by others from crude, ill-mannered, or offensive behavior that does not result in a trespass. Herein are found the seeds of “political correctness.” More and more of us seem prepared to regard repulsive and contemptible language and behavior as we would a physical trespass. In some instances, there is a willingness to impose harsher penalties upon vulgar or abhorrent conduct than upon physically intrusive offenses. Expressions of racial, ethnic, or gender-based hatred or other forms of bigotry; motorists’ “road rage”; or ill-chosen words that do not comport with fashionable attitudes, are often met with demands for punishment that exceed any injury-in-fact.

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

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