Friday, October 24, 2003

Property & Order

Butler Shaffer reports on the prerequisite of property rights at LRC...

"Is there any social problem which, at its core, is not produced by a disrespect for the inviolability of property interests? Wars, inner-city gang conflicts, environmental pollution, the curricula of government schools, the 'war on drugs,' restrictions on free expression, affirmative action programs, monetary inflation, same-sex marriages, eminent domain, taxation, gun control, displaying the 'Ten Commandments,' violent crime, rent control, terrorism, government surveillance of telephone and computer communications, zoning laws and urban planning, prayer in schools, government regulation of economic activity, . . . the list goes on and on.

In each such instance, conflicts are created and maintained by government policies and practices that forcibly deprive a property owner of decision making control over something he or she owns. Whether the ownership interest is in oneself, or in those external resources that a person requires in order to promote his or her interests or to otherwise express one’s purpose in life, the state is inevitably at war with property owners.

It is in this sense that every state – whatever its outer form, its constituency, or its rationale for existence – is socialistic. To whatever degree the state exists, it claims the rightful authority to preempt the control individuals have over their property. One can observe that political systems are popularly defined in terms of the extent to which private property is nationalized by the state. Communist systems are premised on the state forcibly depriving owners of all productive assets. Less ambitious socialist systems nationalize only some tools of production, transportation, or communication. Fascism is a system in which title to property remains in private hands, but control is exercised by the state...

Our politicized thinking disposes us to disregard the civilizing importance of the property concept. As a result, when interpersonal violence occurs – manifesting a disrespect for individual property boundaries – many of us are at a loss to understand the causes. Such people – who are often the principal advocates of a more expansive state regulation of people’s lives – can do no more than offer such mechanistic explanations as drugs, television, guns, or the lyrics of rock music. When young men go to their schools and start killing teachers and classmates, the statists refuse to ask the most obvious question: why did they select a government school as their target? Why have privately owned schools been largely immune from such acts of rage?

There is a causal connection between property ownership and responsibility for one’s decision making. As one who makes decisions over my own life and property, I am responsible for the consequences of my actions. But to the degree the state preempts private decision making, it restricts an individual’s sense of responsibility for his or her actions. If the state insists upon controlling our behavior, is it not easy to see how individuals might come to believe that they are not responsible for their acts? Do you begin to understand the dynamics that underlie current society’s preoccupation with 'victimhood?' If 'others' control my life, why should I feel responsible for my conduct?

The private property principle integrates the seemingly contrary notions of individual liberty and social order. Thanks to physicist Niels Bohr’s 'complementarity principle,' it is more appropriate to regard such qualities as reciprocal, symmetrical expressions of the wholeness, rather than divisiveness, in nature. When I am at liberty to do anything I choose with what is mine, I am, at the same time, restricted to acting only with respect to my own property interests. My authority ends at my boundary line. If I want to make decisions regarding your property, I must enter into a contract with you to do so.

It is respect for the boundary line separating your and my property interests that fosters both individual liberty and social order. This is why property, liberty, and social order, are simply different ways of talking about the same thing. We enjoy liberty only to the degree we have unrestrained decision-making over our lives – including the resources we require (e.g., space to occupy; food, air, water to consume; tools to employ; etc.) in order to live as we choose.

This important lesson was finally learned, late in life, by the noted Marxist, Max Eastman, who observed:

It seems obvious to me now – though I was slow coming to the conclusion – that the institution of private property, the dispersion of power and importance that goes with it, has been a main factor in producing that limited amount of free-and-equalness which Marx hoped to render infinite by abolishing this institution.

Those desirous of ending the social conflicts, wars, state-generated economic dislocations, and other societal problems, would do well to heed Eastman’s insights. One might begin by making a list of all the 'problems' to which one has habitually sought solutions in legislative halls or courtrooms, and then ask: which of these problems involves a failure to identify and respect property interests? From such a perspective, one might formulate solutions that do not require you to despoil or otherwise put yourself at war with your neighbor.

No doubt there will be many disinclined to such an approach: men and women who cannot rise above their political conditioning or ambitions for power over the lives and property of others. But the pretense of 'social responsibility' with which the statists applaud themselves and one another will at least be unmasked. One does not encourage 'responsibility' by forcibly restricting the range of people’s authority over their own lives.

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