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Monday, March 18, 2013

Property and the State

For what property have I in that which another may by right take when he pleases to himself?

— John Locke

Different people invariably have different interests, perspectives, and tastes in mind when it comes to the uses to be made of particular forms of property. A real estate developer, a naturalist, a farmer, and an artist, may each have a different opinion as to the use that could best be made of a given parcel of land. Furthermore, what one person regards as her sense of artistic expression in the design of a house on her land may be considered a nuisance by her neighbor. Given the diverse range of preferences we humans exhibit, it is the height of arrogance for any of us to believe that our peculiar tastes and states of awareness are so intrinsically valid as to be entitled to coercive enforcement upon the rest of mankind. The idea of state formulated, uniformly enforced “master plans” to coercively direct the development of entire communities, is a collectivist concept that should be relegated to the past.
Because the essence of ownership lies in control, whoever exercises the ultimate decisional authority over any subject matter of property, even if a thief, must, in the most realistic, functional sense of the word, be acknowledged as its “owner.” Perhaps the fragmented and dualistic nature of our thinking has made it easier for us to accept a division between formalized “title” to some entity, and our “control” over it. It is easy to see how our confusion over the meaning of property ownership has paralleled the increased loss of authority and control over our lives.
The focal point of all political systems is found in the conflict generated over how property is to be controlled. This is why all political systems, in varying degrees measured by the extent of their claims over property, are divisive and violence-prone. The principal disagreement between the advocates of private capitalism and state capitalism has to do with whether the ownership of productive property shall remain in private hands or be confiscated by the state. It is wrong to characterize the Marxists as being opposed to property. Marx, himself, was preoccupied with the interconnected relationship between private property and power, an alliance intensified by the rise of capitalism. One searches Marxist literature in vain for the expression of any values that are not tied to a condemnation of private ownership and its replacement by collective ownership. The Marxists only oppose privately owned property, and desire to get their hands on as much of it as possible. The first thing any Marxist regime has done when it seized power was to begin confiscating, on behalf of the state, hitherto privately owned property. Their passions to expand control over property have been no less than those men of industry whose motives and actions they sternly condemned. Unlike private capitalists who, as long as they operate within a marketplace, rely upon voluntary, contractual exchanges of property claims with others, the Marxists have resorted to naked violence to achieve their ends.
Nor are intrusions upon privately owned property confined to avowedly socialist regimes. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the overwhelming recourse to governmental regulation and confiscation of private property has come from within the business community, from persons who are the first to scream “socialism” when such practices emanate from “leftist” ideologues. “Mercantilist” or “corporate-state” political systems are no less grounded in a disrespect for private property simply because they have come from men of commerce and industry.
No form of tyranny accomplishes its horrors in purely abstract ways. Rather, all political systems direct and compel people in how their lives, their bodies, their incomes, their accumulated wealth, their lands, their tools and personal belongings, their homes, their businesses, their crops and livestock, their savings and investments, their books and newspapers, their methods of communication, and their vehicles and systems of transportation, are to be used, disposed of, or transferred to others.
Because property has been one of the most misunderstood of our social practices, and because of the central importance it plays in fostering liberty and order in our world, attention must be devoted to clarifying the nature of this concept and practice. The importance of doing so becomes all the more crucial as we move toward unstructured, decentralized systems of social organization.
As we saw earlier, whether we are considering abstract “ego-boundaries” or concrete property interests, conflicts occur along boundary lines, out of a failure to respect the inviolability of another’s interests. Such conflicts arise out of state-generated fears and uncertainties regarding those whose ego identities confront our own. Believing that the state can resolve such anxieties, most of us are eager to confer upon it expanded powers over our lives. As Randolph Bourne informed us, it is our reaction to such concocted fears that is essential to the exercise of state power. Because of our willingness to huddle at the feet of political officials whenever we feel ourselves threatened, the state will feed us an endless supply of fear-objects with which to assure our continuing submission. This is why the wellbeing of the state is dependent upon the war system.
To presume that uncertainty provides a justification for state intervention in our lives is to retreat into childhood. As we become more familiar with the dynamics of complexity, we will likely increase our awareness of the uncertain and unpredictable nature of our world. Because our understanding of complex systems is unavoidably limited, when we allow the state to make decisions for an entire population, we run the risk of utter disaster should the basis of such actions prove wrong. Such is one of the many lessons deriving from the studies of chaos and complexity. In an inconstant world, we need all the options our minds are capable of mustering, from which each of us can choose our most appropriate path of survival. We need to heed the warnings provided by history regarding the dangers of collective actions taken on the basis of limited information. We need, as well, to pay attention to the lessons that biology offers concerning the anti-life implications of trying to stabilize and standardize life processes. Life expresses itself in the explosion of energy—perhaps a reverberation of the “big bang”—that occurs only within the autonomous and spontaneous nature of individuals, not collectives. Mankind needs nothing so much as for each of us to shift our thinking away from the arrogance of having power over others, to a more humble contentment in living harmoniously with our neighbors as mutually-respecting, self-controlling individuals. We need, in other words, to learn to respect one another’s boundaries.
The very existence of the state helps blur the boundaries that separate our respective realms of decision making. Politics is born out of the belief that neither the lives nor property interests of individuals are inviolate, but remain subject to the claims and control of others, a proposition that renders the boundaries of one’s authority uncertain. When the state is permitted to share control over property with private owners (e.g., zoning laws, housing codes, etc.), or when it engages in more blatant disrespect for boundaries (e.g., eminent domain, conscription, asset forfeiture, etc.), there is a confusion of the lines that separate our respective areas of decision making. This helps to produce the boundary disputes identified by Perls as the causes of conflict.
Because political systems are dependent upon conflict, it is no surprise that the interests of the state have always necessitated confusion as to the meaning of words, including the concept of property. One sure way of generating conflict is to blur the boundary lines that separate one word (or other abstraction) from another. Most of us have learned from George Orwell how easy it is to distort the meaning of words, and how such corruption of language produces the conflict and confusion that is essential to all forms of tyranny. Since our willingness to sanction political power is entangled in words and the images they connote, the state has been able, with the aid of both intellectual obfuscators and our own sloth, to expand its powers by corrupting the meaning of words beyond their inherent haziness to embrace meanings we would reject if done forthrightly. Such phrases as “war is peace,” “freedom is slavery,” and “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others,” have their modern counterparts in the Strategic Air Command’s “peace is our profession,” police departments’ “to serve and to protect,” and the Defense Department’s Vietnam War policy of “destroying villages” in order to “save them.”
The inherent ambiguity in language has helped delude us into thinking it possible to limit the powers of governments by writing words on paper. The United States government is the most powerful political system known in human history, and yet it functions under a constitution theoretically designed to limit its powers. A most sincere effort was made by the drafters of this document to limit the boundaries of the federal government by dividing political authority into three discrete branches, each with its jurisdictional boundaries and insulating, through a “bill of rights,” the boundaries of individual liberties that the government was not to violate.
But even a cursory reading of this document reveals that it is replete with the vaguest of words—”justice,” “domestic tranquility,” “common defense,” “general welfare,” “unreasonable,” “due process of law,” “necessary and proper,” “probable cause”—whose haziness creates a vacuum of understanding that the state, through its courts, is all too willing to interpret to suit its interests. Indeed, the government, through the judiciary, has presumed such powers of interpretation without any language in the document establishing such authority. The accepted definition of every government is that it is an institution with a monopoly on the use of force within a given geographic area. When such an entity is further acknowledged as having the power to define the boundaries of its authority, nothing but mischief should have been expected to ensue.
We pay too little attention to history, and fail to understand that the power to exercise absolute control over our lives is implicit in the state’s assertion of authority to control our lives and property for even the most limited of purposes. Just as “the power to tax involves the power to destroy,”1 the sanctioning of state authority to regulate even one percent of our conduct is to admit its authority as to the rest. The reason for this is that—as Korzybski warned us—any words delineating governmental authority will, by the inherent nature of language, have enough vagueness to them to require interpretation. If the state enjoys the ultimate power to interpret such language, it requires little imagination to see that the construction will proceed from the self-interested motivations of the state itself, as well as from the institutional interests that profit from having access to such power.
Unlike relationships grounded in contract, which involves a voluntary negotiation for the transfer of property claims between or among owners, political authority is grounded in force, which is not a respecter of claims to immunity from trespass. A lawful monopoly on the use of coercion negates, by definition, the principle of the inviolability of private property. A monopolist must have tangible assets upon which to exercise its exclusive power. Because the state generates no wealth of its own, but only confiscates that produced by others, the property interests over which such coercive authority will be exercised will always be that of private persons. Thus, a conflict of decision-making authority will necessarily ensue. If the owner resorts to force in order to resist the use of state power, the latter will, as the acknowledged lawful monopolist, be entitled to prevail. By warring with the property interests of individuals, the state always engenders conflict within society.
Because your voluntary consent is irrelevant in political behavior, once you sanction the state’s power to impose its will upon you, is it not evident that it can extend such authority at its will, at least up to the point where you are able to successfully resist it? Once you admit to the principle that permits the state to decide, without your agreement, how you are to spend as little as five minutes of your time each week, is it not clear that it can increase the scope of its authority—by being able to interpret such powers—to ten minutes, or to twentyfour hours, or for the entire seven days? Is it not evident to you that this, in fact, is precisely the way in which the power of the state has expanded in America, and that no change in the language of the Constitution was needed to bring this about? It is our willingness to give up authority over our own lives and property, not the increments in which it is given up, that has been the threat to our liberty.
A late friend of mine, Sy Leon, once provided a vivid example of the futility of limiting state power through the use of words. He proposed a hypothetical constitution in which a government was restricted to the power to regulate time. He then proceeded to demonstrate how Congress could enact laws prohibiting people from spending their “time” consuming drugs, or working for less than a prescribed minimum wage, or driving their cars faster than 55 miles-per-hour, or discriminating against others on the basis of any named criteria. This same power to regulate time could also be used to require people to spend two years of their “time” in military service, or four months of their “time” earning income to pay to the state. Step-by-step he showed how the current breadth of government authority over our lives could be rationalized through interpretations of what innocent minds might consider a “limited” function. His exercise confirmed the observation of Anthony de Jasay when, in discussing the concept of “limited government,” he observed that “collective choice is never independent of what significant numbers of individuals wish it to be.”2
As suggested earlier, a thorough exploration of the selfownership question has very radical personal and social consequences. If you claim self-ownership, why do you tolerate the state controlling any aspect of your life? And if you are not prepared to assert such a claim, what possible objection can you mount to anything another person wants to do to you? Because every political system is grounded upon some degree of governmental taking of private property, those who identify themselves with any political party or doctrine tend to be quite uncomfortable playing out the implications of this question. What does it mean to even speak of self-ownership within a political context? After all, if you and I do not own ourselves, then who does?
Whether we conclude that our lives belong to ourselves or to the state, reflects our attitudes about where we think life has its principal expression and meaning: within the individuals who embody life, or within abstract collectives. Is the power to control your behavior governed by your will, or by that of institutional authorities? Will it be centralized in the hands of the state, or, as suggested by a holographic model of social systems, decentralized among us in the only expression of “equality” that nature seems to have bestowed upon all living things: the capacity for self-governance? These are just some of the questions that are almost never asked, the options that never appear in our institutionally administered multiple choice examinations or public opinion polls regarding alternative sources of authority for our lives.
What aspects of our lives can be said to be immune from state control and direction? The state regulates what substances we may ingest and what products we may purchase; what health care practices we may employ; the terms and conditions of our employment; how we are allowed to spend and invest our money; how we are to raise, educate, and care for the next generation of its conscripts; what occupations we are allowed to pursue, and what businesses we may operate; the risks we are permitted to take; what decisions we may make concerning our home and other property; whether, and to where, we are permitted to travel; what we are permitted to read and communicate to others; and whether we are at liberty to end our lives. Such regulation is in addition to the 40–45 percent of our wealth that is taken through various forms of taxation, as well as the enormous taxation of our estates upon our deaths, and to the conscription of our lives into military service on behalf of the state. We like to imagine that the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery, whereas it only nationalized the practice.
Since control is the essence of property ownership, any exercise of governmental control over people amounts to an assertion, by the state, of its claim of ownership over those it commands. When the state controls our property, it is controlling our lives, for it is limiting the choices we are permitted to make. It constrains us to act within boundaries established by the limited understanding or the special interests of those who enjoy the power to command by force. Every political system reflects a mix of peaceful private ownership and coercive state control of people and their property. Our answer to the question of whether we have ownership of ourselves will determine the future of political institutions. If we answer in the affirmative, the state’s future will be a bleak one. If we answer in the negative, our future will become increasingly bleak!
On the other hand, reclaiming authority over our lives will necessitate our confronting what, for many of us, will be a very troublesome question: is it really possible for others, particularly the state, to control our actions? Can other people make us do things we do not want to do? It is comforting to most of us to believe so, to imagine that we have been the “victims” of someone else’s wrongdoing and, therefore, bear no responsibility for doing what others “made” us do. But isn’t such a response a denial of the existential freedom each of us always enjoys, no matter what the circumstances, to control how we will use our energies? If I do control my energies, how can my response to threatened punishments or desired inducements be anything other than my chosen action? If others can “make” us do what we do not want to do, why do they bother trying to persuade us, whether with carrots or sticks, to obey them? The state does not control us with its threats: rather, it threatens us with the loss of something we value, or the imposition of something we do not want in order to overcome our resistance to its demands. Translated into the language of economics, the policeman, like a mugger, puts a gun to our head in order to raise the costs to us of failing to obey his commands. It may be discomforting to our egos to admit it, but each of us always has a choice under such circumstances, even though we do not like the options available to us. The threat of force, such as a gun, may be a sufficient inducement to secure our compliance, but we have to make a conscious choice to do so: the gun does not make that decision for us. If the state could truly control us, it would not need to have every piece of legislation backed up with threats of fines or imprisonment: it would simply direct us, much as we direct our automobiles or computers, to accomplish its desired ends. That the state must resort to threats in order to secure our compliance, is an admission of its inability to control our behavior.
Our compliance with the demands of those who threaten us may, at the time, be a most prudent act. But for the sake of clear thinking, we must acknowledge the volitional nature of our response. Otherwise, we become habituated to a lifetime of thinking of ourselves not as self-controlling actors, but as passive, non-responsible beings who are acted upon by others. Such an awareness might also cause us to begin questioning the legitimacy of social systems that are unable to secure the participation of people other than through the threatened use of violence.

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

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