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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Property and the State II

Since “freedom” and “self-control” are synonymous terms, and because self-control necessitates the exercise of one’s will to be a decision-maker over one’s life, it is possible for us to choose to abdicate such self-control. Again, if you do not want to claim self-ownership, you can be assured that there are others prepared to claim what you do not want. This is what occurs when men and women become “other-directed” people, allowing their thinking and their actions to be directed by others. This is not to deny the inherently self-controlling nature of all human action (other-directed people are always free, in fact, to reassert their self-directed control), but only to point out that people who are not self-directed can appear, particularly to themselves, to be controlled by others. This is why, when external restraints on other-directed people are removed, they often react with violence or other antisocial behavior. Such are the dangers inherent in consensus definitions of reality.
That each one of us controls our own energies, including our free will, and that no other person can ever make us do something, is evident from the contrary responses of young men to military conscription during different wars. Most of us who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s believed, without much thought to the contrary, that the state had a rightful claim upon our lives and could rightfully send us off to war to risk being killed for some vaguely defined or understood “national interest.” If we had been asked whether we had any choice in the matter, most of us would likely have said “no, we are compelled, by the government, to serve in the military.”
If the state was able to literally force earlier generations of young men to go to war, what can be said of the responses of many young men of a later generation who, in the 1960s and 1970s, refused to go along with conscription? These men were faced with the same options those of twenty years earlier had faced: when the state tells us that we must put on a uniform and go off to Lower Ruritania to fight the Slobovian invaders, each of us must decide whether or not to do so. In the 1960s, many men made the conscious choice to not cooperate with the government’s demands during the Vietnam War, decisions whose cumulative effect helped to bring that war to an end.
Government officials are also responsible for the consequences of their behavior, including conditioning us to become dependent upon their judgments. The fact that they, unlike the rest of us, enjoy the exercise of legal force, adds to the moral accountability for their acts. But as they are burdened by the same fear of self-responsibility as the rest of us, they try to shift the responsibility for their failures to a virtual cornucopia of scapegoats. Parents, television, rock music, and motion pictures, are accused of fostering children’s lack of respect for constituted authority, while teachers blame the collapse of learning upon lazy students, unsupportive parents, or the unwillingness of taxpayers to provide more financial support. The “war on terror” is another example of this phenomenon, with the American political system shifting the consequences of decades of its brutal, interventionist foreign policies onto its unwilling recipients.
The division between control and responsibility has become virtually synonymous with all forms of governmental behavior. From the days of the feudal maxim “the king can do no wrong” to its modern equivalent of “sovereign immunity” or “implied powers,” the state insists upon the absolute reach of its authority while, at the same time, greatly limiting, or even denying, responsibility for harms visited upon others as a result of the exercise of that authority. By refusing to be answerable for the injuries it inflicts, the state manifests an ethic no higher than that of a riotous mob. In teaching that responsibility can be separated from the exercise of power, it has helped to foster the alltoo-prevalent attitude among the rest of us that we, too, need not be accountable for the consequences of our actions.
Herein lies the difficulty many of us have with the prospects of a life of freedom: taking the responsibility for our own thinking and actions. Like the teenager who pleads that his friends “made” him do something he now regrets, most of us are uncomfortable calling ourselves to account for our behavior. Neither the IRS, nor the Selective Service System, nor a judge, nor a police officer, nor any other government official, makes us obedient. From at least the time of the Stoics, history has afforded us examples of many men and women who chose suffering or death rather than submit to established authority.
This point can be illustrated with the example of a late friend of mine, Howard Moore. During World War I, he was ordered to report for military service. Howard refused to do so, declaring that he was conscientiously opposed to war. He was prosecuted, convicted, and given a twenty-five year prison sentence for his refusal. At each step in the proceedings, he was given the opportunity to change his mind, to finally admit, in other words, that the state owned his life. Howard refused all such offers. When he arrived at the federal prison in Utah, he was ordered to participate in such prisoner activities as cleaning up the grounds. Again, Howard refused such commands, for which he was tortured, beaten, and made to sleep on a concrete floor. After the war, the sentences of conscientious objectors were commuted, and Howard was one of the very last to be released, because of his continuing refusal to acknowledge the authority of the state over his life. Even though Howard had been born two months prematurely, with a defective heart, he lived to the age of 104. He was too kind a gentleman and too respectful of life to have taken any delight in having outlived all those who had subjected him to such treatment. It would also be incorrect to suggest that he had lived as long and as well as he had “in spite” of his painful insistence upon maintaining his own sense of integrity: I like to think that he lived this long because of such resolve!3
Whether we remain as free individuals or not depends upon how strongly we insist upon respect for our claim of self-ownership. For men like Howard, it is the determination to insist upon our own inviolability that is a predicate to any meaningful experience of freedom and self-dignity. The implications of such attitudes for our survival are reflected not only in Howard’s life, but in the experiences of Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps. Frankl observed that “under the influence of a world which no longer recognized the value of human life and human dignity,” people “lost the feeling of being an individual, a being with a mind, with inner freedom and personal value.” Those who managed to survive the concentration camps, said Frankl, were those whose lives were more centered, and who understood that what “makes life meaningful and purposeful” is a sense of “spiritual freedom,” which he went on to describe as “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”4 If we choose to accept whatever definition of “rights” our masters bestow upon us, how does our condition differ, in any meaningful way, from the status of slaves?
When we assert a “right” to be free, we are making a claim, which we hope others will respect, to be the exclusive decision-maker over whatever is subject to being controlled, by us, toward some end that we have chosen. In making such a claim, we desire others to acknowledge the propriety of our claim and, in the process, respect our claim to immunity from being trespassed by others.
The necessary interconnectedness of individual liberty and decision-making concerning property should be apparent upon examination. Whether freedom of religion, or of the press, or of speech, or of assembly, exists in any society, centers on the question of whether individuals will be permitted to own and use church properties, printing presses, speaking facilities, or assembly halls. The freedom to travel, or enjoy privacy, or operate a business, or to raise one’s children, or to select one’s system of health care, all presume the unhindered exercise of control over some claimed property interest (e.g., one’s body, or home, or relationship with one’s children, or productive assets). This is why no serious objection has been raised concerning the freedom of people to believe what they want to believe. Because the state has thus far been unable to directly control individual thinking processes, judges and other government officials are willing to make this concession as evidence of their liberality. But if such thought processes could be controlled, you can be assured that the state would be working to implement control mechanisms to do so, using the same rationale it now uses to constrict our other liberties: “rights are not absolute.” Only its own power does the state consider to be “absolute,” knowing no limitations other than what it chooses to acknowledge.
Minds that have been trained to believe that the competing interests of individual liberty and state power can be reconciled through a process of “balancing,” overlook the fact that the “balancing” is done by the state with its legal monopoly on the use of force. The “balancing” concept is one that has been employed by the courts to reconcile individual and political interests, a trick that begs the question as to whether—and by what means—the state has ever acquired a legitimate claim over the lives of people. What is unavoidable in this relationship is that the struggle for liberty ultimately reduces itself to the question of whether property principles or the coercive mandates of state power will be regarded as absolute. One or the other must prevail. The existence of the state depends upon conflicts that it promises to resolve by restraining people’s lives and other property interests. Lenin understood this quite well when he observed that “it is nonsense to make any pretence of reconciling the State and liberty,”5 a position essential to the collectivist system he was helping to create. To believe that liberty can be compromised and “balanced” with the demands of monopolistic force is to further the kind of illusory thinking that the history of constitutional government has shattered. Like a wolf entrusted with balancing its interests with those of a sheep, the outcome of the arrangement ought not surprise intelligent minds.
In a holographic system in which private property principles prevail, individuals and other minorities need not fear being at the mercy of more numerous groups enjoying the exercise of coercive power to advance their interests. With each of us assured of the inviolability of our own lives, social behavior would move from “majority rule” divisiveness toward consensus-based associational activity, wherein mutually beneficial decisions can be arrived at through general agreement, and without the use of force. “Consensus” derives from “consent,” and implies a “unanimity” or “group solidarity in sentiment and belief,”6 all of which negates any sense of being coerced into submission. Those who favor a particular program would be free to pursue it, and to attempt to persuade others to join their efforts, while those who did not, would not be obliged to participate in it. Respect for property boundaries keeps one from acting beyond the limits of what he or she owns which, by definition, also sets limits for the actions of others. Respect for a principle of inviolability would free us from a need for defensiveness and allow us to become more willing to consider cooperating with others.
One of the numerous rationales used by the state to justify the extension of its control over property has been the idea that resources are “scarce,” and state regulation is required to avoid their depletion. The conservation movement, though largely fostered by business interests as a way of restricting competition,7continues to feed itself on this notion. Such thinking is commonplace among socialists, who operate from the premise that wealth of all kinds is in a fixed supply, and has been “unfairly” distributed into the hands of a few people through marketplace mechanisms that they do not begin to comprehend. The idea that new wealth can be created, and that what we call “natural resources” is a flexible concept, forever changing as our inventiveness and technology change, rarely enters the minds of such persons.
Government-mandated conservation programs are grounded not only in the dogma of scarcity, but implicitly (and often explicitly) in the collectivist premise that natural resources belong to the nation. Long-standing common law principles have recognized oil, gas, and minerals to be part of the boundary of a parcel of land and, therefore, to be the property of the surface owner. For resources discovered in unowned territories (e.g., ocean floors), the first person to take control of them under a claim of ownership would be the recognized owner. What underlies such common law thinking is the idea that individuals are entitled, as self-owning beings, to lay claim to previously unowned resources; that their purposes and strategies for overcoming entropy and pursuing what each regards as a meaningful life, provide a sufficient basis upon which to claim some portion of the world.
When one examines the legislative history of government conservation policies, however, they discover the hand of many business corporations using this fair-sounding theme—coupled with state power —as a means of curtailing production by their competitors and, thus, stabilizing prices. Such efforts have often paraded under the banner of preventing “waste.” That the owner of any valuable resource has an incentive not to waste but to protect it, is a point often lost in legislative chambers. But upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the “waste” industry members often sought to prevent was not physical in nature, but economic. Resources were being put into the marketplace by some firms at prices lower than what their competitors found comfortable. Thus did the president of Standard Oil (Indiana) testify before a congressional committee in 1934:

Mr. Cole: You say there is an excessive supply of crude oil today. Where does it go?
Mr. Seubert: Well, speaking for my company, it is going into storage, both crude oil and refined products.
Mr. Cole: Then, speaking of the man who does not have storage facilities, where does it go?
Mr. Seubert: Well, it finds its way to the market.
Mr. Cole: None of it is wasted?

Mr. Seubert: Well, it is wasted in the fact it is put in the market at demoralizing prices and is wasting to the extent of demoralizing the general industry.8

The economist Fritz Machlup has observed that “[t]he chief purpose of production restriction is price maintenance, which is … made possible by large-scale collusive activity between oil companies and governmental authorities.”9 In such self-serving ways have members of the business community been a dominant force in the expansion of state power over the ownership of property.
Since at least the time of the ancient Greeks, humans have feared that a rising population would soon threaten mankind with mass starvation, a fear that failed to account for improved methods of agriculture that have made possible increased levels of production from increasingly fewer acres of farmland. When radio and television broadcasting first began, government regulation of such media was rationalized on the grounds that the airwaves were “scarce”, and, of course, in yet another manifestation of collectivist thinking, belonged to “the people.” But with changing technologies (e.g., fiber optics, cable systems, satellites, etc.), such explanations for government regulation have disappeared—but the regulation has not. The ghost of Thomas Malthus still whispers his outmoded economics to modern conservationists who, at the same time, ignore current voices who speak of the destructive consequences of planning and regulating complex systems.
Such thinking reflects an ignorance of the fact that all resources are, by definition, “scarce.” This is what creates a market demand for their use and consumption. Is oxygen scarce for most people in a city? Clearly not, but for a heart patient, or someone atop Pikes Peak, it might be, thus creating opportunities for suppliers to sell this resource. Furthermore, “scarcity” is largely a function of our minds; a deprivation of some desire produced by our thoughts. Things become scarce because we want them, and we often want them because we have psychological attachments to things outside ourselves. Was there a scarcity of electricity in ancient Babylon? Did Henry VIII experience a scarcity of computers or CD players? Did the emigrants on the Oregon trail experience a scarcity of automobiles or television sets? Is there a current shortage of witch-doctors or stagecoaches in London? Does the depletion of wild game that led the Man-a-hat-a Indians to sell to the Dutch, in 1626, the island that bears their tribal name, continue to impoverish modern New Yorkers?
Given the apparently insatiable appetite for material things in our culture, it may be said that there is a greater scarcity of goods in modern America than there is in more undeveloped cultures in which people seem content with the fruits of their hunting and gathering efforts. This failure to satisfy our seemingly unlimited expectations of material rewards accounts for a good deal of the anger and frustration of people in our modern, industrialized world. Even though each of us enjoys goods and services that even the most despotic of ancient monarchs could not command (e.g., air conditioning, telephones, electricity, television, the Internet, automobiles), as long as our fantasies remain unfulfilled we will be attracted to the dogmas of “scarcity.” Such an attitude helps to keep us subservient to the institutions that promise us a steady flow of such externally derived benefits in exchange for our continued submission to their authority.
Of course, the statists would never entertain the countervailing argument that “authority” is a scarce resource that has become “unfairly” and increasingly concentrated in the hands of political officials and ought, therefore, to be “redistributed” to the many. It takes little imagination to see that the case against private wealth is grounded in hostility to private ownership, a system that forever stands as a barrier to those with ambitions for power over others.
As our world has become increasingly politicized, another form of “scarcity” has materialized: the reduced opportunities for people to evade the reach of state control. As we saw in chapter four, the frontier once served as a territorial refuge into which independently minded men and women could move in order to live relatively free of formal restraints. The image of the pioneer, or the mountain men, or traveling peddlers, or the cowboy, or the “traveling people” of Ireland, remind us of ways of living vastly different from the constantly regulated, policed, fingerprinted, searched, surveilled, licensed, identificationnumbered, and documented modern society. The song, Don’t Fence Me In, reflected a frame of mind that valued spatial and personal independence.
An ancient tradition known as “sanctuary,” was grounded in the recognition of the inviolability of certain property boundaries. It once served as a check upon the authority of the state. There were recognized places, usually churches, wherein individuals could find refuge, free from the powers of arrest or legal process. A parallel practice has long prevailed in the world of nation-states in the form of “neutral” countries, which could provide sanctuary for persons caught in the middle of wars, or allow warring nations to indirectly deal with one another. The same practice has been used by some parents in recognizing a “safe place” (e.g., beneath a table, or in the child’s bedroom) to which the child could repair for refuge from parental authority.
Each of us has a need for space that is recognized as immune from the trespasses of others, a role served by the practice of privately owned property. The maxim “a man’s home is his castle” is a reflection of this need for sanctuary. But such claims to inviolability are increasingly disrespected by autocratic states that insist upon their powers to engage in the surveillance of homes, wiretap telephones, break down doors, engage in “sneak-and-peek” entries without the knowledge or consent of the owner, and otherwise regulate the behavior of individuals within their own homes. The contrast between the respect our ancestors showed for sanctuary within churches, and the modern American government’s willingness to burn to death Branch Davidians who resisted violent attacks within what was both their home and church, illustrates how far removed we are in our thinking from any understanding of the important role property principles play in the maintenance of free, peaceful, and humane social systems.
If social conflict erupts because of the failure of individuals to respect the inviolability of one another’s boundaries, and if we believe that political systems are necessary to deal with such transgressions, why should we assume that government officials—who are as self-interest motivated as other people, and whose methods consist of coercion, threats, and other trespasses—have any greater awareness of the importance of respecting one another’s impregnability than the rest of us? Are we imbuing political authorities with a greater disposition for such respect than we have ourselves? Do centuries of politically organized strife and butcheries warrant such confidence? Carrying such an inquiry into the international arena, would a world government end such conflict and violence or only redefine it? Why should we expect such a super-state to function any differently than local or national political systems? Do we believe that while nation-states are incapable of planning and directing the behavior of tens of millions of persons to achieve predictable ends, government functioning on an ever-more-complex world level, involving billions of people of even more diverse cultures and interests, could do so? And are our judgments so unburdened by history as to lead us to imagine that the corporate interests that have manipulated the machinery of national governments to suit their ends, would be disinclined or unable to employ the powers of international governments for the same purposes? If conflict and violence can end only within the consciousness of each of us, why would we expect any authority to be able to compel an end to our disorder?
When we understand that liberty and order imply one another, we will end the division and conflict our thinking has created. Self-control, reinforced by respect for property boundaries, defines the conditions for social harmony, and helps to explain why political systems, which substitute coercive state regulation for individual self-control, destroy the symmetry between peace and liberty, producing the social destructiveness that now characterizes our institutionalized world. Defenders of the established order may argue that concerns for individual liberty are exaggerated, that the state rarely exercises such a degree of control over us as to substantially diminish the quality of our lives. But the hundreds of millions who have been made victims of wars, genocides, police brutalities, and government regulation of economic behavior (whose hidden costs are not shown on the eleven o’clock news shows) would contend otherwise.
Furthermore, such a defense by institutionalists misconstrues the nature of life, treating it in purely materialistic and mechanistic terms. Contrary to the commercial and industrial footings upon which our modern culture has been built, life also has its spiritual and emotional dimensions. As Viktor Frankl reminds us, the sense of degradation that accompanies the violation of our personhood by the forcible preemption of our free will, diminishes life every bit as much as a physical trespass, if not more. The feelings of humiliation suffered by rape victims, beyond the physical pain and injury, express this psychic dimension to life. But such inner qualities reflect the idiosyncrasies and temperaments of individuals that do not translate into resources available for institutional purposes. Consequently, their costs tend to be disregarded in favor of collective, mechanistic calculations of organizational policies and practices. How, after all, can such nonquantifiable costs be taken seriously in a “bottom line” society that regards the nonmaterial as immaterial?
As we are discovering from the study of chaos and complexity, the universe is inherently orderly, regardless of the particular courses of action we pursue in our self-interests. Most of our politically-engendered social problems are occasioned by two factors. The first is reflected in the fact that the diversity of our interests fosters a variety of competing definitions of orderliness. What the buyer of a low-priced widget regards as an expression of an orderly marketplace, the manufacturer might treat as an example of “predatory price-cutting” to be punished by the state. The second factor arises from the tendency to regard our ignorance of the complex interconnections of our world as manifestations of “disorder” to be rectified by governmental intervention.
We have, unfortunately, failed to circumscribe the limits, if we admit to them at all, as to what is appropriate for each of us to control in our efforts to create order in our lives. Unless we simply give in to the arrogance of power, and allow some to define their sense of order at the expense of others who are not allowed to do the same, we must discover principles of conduct that are fundamentally different from those that plagued our public life in the twentieth-century. But to undertake such an inquiry requires that we explore the deeper philosophical and spiritual question of whether we regard each person as his or her own reason for being, worthy of pursuing their respective self-interested ends. In this regard, we might wish to revisit the civilizing attitude of “tolerance” for others, a concept that has long been shouted down by strident voices who angrily and self-righteously contend with one another at the boundaries of their respective “ego identities.”
Is there a principle by which social order can emerge as the unintended consequence of people pursuing their own interests and freely negotiating with one another for those patterns of regularity that serve their mutual purposes, but without presuming to forcibly impose those patterns upon others? Can our thinking transcend its own conditioning, and imagine order arising without anyone’s intention to create it?
If the political means of endeavoring to impose orderliness upon society via property trespasses has produced the conflicts, wars, economic recessions and dislocations, and other disorder in our world, is it not time to rediscover the social means? We must begin to consider that a system of individually owned property, wherein each of us enjoys an unhindered authority over what is his or hers, an authority that necessarily ends at each person’s boundaries and thus respects the inviolability of one another’s interests, may be the only means of experiencing the kind of orderliness that serves us all, rather than just the arrogant few who control state systems of power.
What impact will the continuing transformation of our social systems likely have upon the state? In an age of computerized information and transactions, as well as other technological creations that allow us more rapid and individualized dealings with one another, life will take on too great a speed and range of expression for government planning and direction to have much functional relevance. The state will become increasingly seen as but an agency of destructive violence, while the changeful forces of complexity will intensify the unintended and uncontrollable consequences of political decision making.
Now that the decision to start a world war is no longer the prerogative of presidents, prime ministers, and chairmen, but can be made by a handful of angry men representing no formal political system; now that the obliteration of a city can be accomplished by one man with a nuclear suitcase, or a vial containing a biological agent that can be dumped into a water supply; and now that it is beyond the capacity of governments to either predict or control such acts, it is time for us to acknowledge that the state has reached a terminal condition. The decentralization of destructive power, occasioned by the contradictions and inefficacies of vertically-structured forms of organization, is producing a decentralization of political power, … and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will be unable to put the system back together again!

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

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