Property and Order

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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.

We have been conditioned to think of political systems in terms of their placement on a horizontal continuum that defines positions according to a false polarization of "Left" and "Right." According to this view, the communist regime of Joseph Stalin was the polar opposite of the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler. But Stalin and Hitler were each playing the same deadly game and with the same vicious tools. Each presumed the authority to use state power to despoil private owners of their lives and other property interests. They were no more opposites of one another than are two groups of organized criminals fighting over territory within a major city.

The question of how — and by whom — property is to be owned and controlled, involves the more fundamental question of whether we, or the state, own ourselves. I ask my students this question on the first day of my property class each year. I also tell them that, by the end of the year, however they have answered this question will make them most uncomfortable: if they answer "yes," then they will have to ask themselves why they allow the state to preempt the decision making over their lives. If they answer "no," they must then have to explain why they would have any complaint for anything the state — or anyone else, for that matter — might do to them. In matters involving property and individual liberty, the question always comes down to this: who gets to make decisions about what?

Because all political systems are wars against the private ownership of property, statists must redefine social and political issues to exclude "property" as the defining factor. Thus, a manufacturer who is disposing of industrial wastes by releasing them into the air, or dumping them into rivers, is charged with "pollution" or an offense against the "environment." To correctly characterize his actions as property trespasses against those who either breathe in the smoke or gas, or whose lands are damaged by the waste, would be to focus on what politically-minded people know would threaten their regulatory schemes. If the wrong engaged in by the manufacturer is defined as an intrusion upon an individual’s property interests, people might soon begin to regard governmental action as property invasions as well. It is safer to treat the act as some hazy collective wrong to "the environment," an approach that raises the more interesting question: do environments — whatever that word might mean — enjoy "rights" of non-transgression that individuals do not?

One can go down the list of other "social" problems occasioned by the refusal to recognize the inviolability of property boundaries as the underlying cause. The distinction between victimizing crimes (e.g., murder, rape, robbery, arson, etc.) and victimless crimes (e.g., drug use, prostitution, gambling, etc.) is that the former category involve violations of individual property interests, while the latter do not. In fact, properly understood, the criminalization of any voluntary action is a violation of individual property interests.

Should prayer be taught in schools? Who owns the schools? If a school is owned privately, there is no conflict: the owner will decide, and those who either do, or do not, want prayer in schools will make marketplace decisions that affect only themselves, not others. The same response can be made to the Alabama Supreme Court Justice who insisted on having the "Ten Commandments" at the entrance to the courthouse.

In both the above examples, a conflict is created because of the state’s existence: if government schools and courthouses are owned by the state, and if we believe in the lie that "we are the government," then each of us will want governmental policy to reflect our desires and interests. If these facilities are "mine," why shouldn’t they conform to my values and purposes? Of course, someone who disagrees with what I want the schools to do will be equally insistent that "his" school abide by his preferences. It is in this way that politics invariably generates conflict.

Taxation and eminent domain involve the forcible expropriation of private property. If a street mugger took your property in such ways we would refer to it as "theft," but our political conditioning will not permit such candid responses to confiscations by the state. We have also been trained to regard government regulation, zoning laws, and urban development policies as "necessary" forms of planning to counter the dread terror associated with people doing their own planning, and making their own decisions as to what they own.

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.

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.

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