Liberty, the Mother of Order

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Nobody, not
even those in the government, knows what is going to happen in life.
People are not automatons. There is a certain regularity
to life; the earth revolves on its axis such that the sun “rises”
every morning and “sets” every evening, but neither my life nor
yours repeats itself exactly as the day before. I can leave my place
of businesses wondering whether we will have work to do the next
day. When I return the following morning, before we even open, people
appear: one needs chicken feed, another horse feed; two have cars
that need repair; one wants a transmission flush; another needs
four new tires. All this unscheduled work appears overnight. People’s
desires change; babies are born; people die; there are new inventions;
people have accidents; people make new discoveries (they have a
flat tire, they have run out of feed). If one were a government
planner, one could either react to this with amazement and wonderment
or disgust. Should people have the liberty to do what they
want with their bodies and property or should there be some central
institution that tells them what to do and controls all this
activity? Does private property provide us with a means to a peaceful
and prosperous world? Or should things be “dictated” by the State
and its directives? Is liberty the mother of order in our human
societies? As Wendell Berry once wrote, is the “attempt at total
control … an invitation to disorder [and disaster]” or just what
humans need?*

Butler Shaffer
in his new (2009) book, Boundaries
of Order: Private Property as a Social System
, argues that
"individual liberty and social order are obverse sides of the
same coin." (xiii) A harmonious society can only come about
if people are not coerced by thieves, muggers, murderers, gang members,
or government agents, who in the process of exercising violence
force people to do what they would not otherwise choose to do. In
other words, voluntary exchanges take place only because both parties
expect to benefit. The spontaneous actions of millions of individuals
aim at nothing less than the improvement in their well-being. But
people can only act if they have property to act with. They must
use their bodies in some specific space (even if they do
nothing but think with their mind, they are somewhere).
That is why private property constitutes a social system, and why
such a system brings about higher standards of living. People are
not always successful, but in the vast majority of exchanges they
do better themselves.

The underlying
theme of his book, as Shaffer describes it, is "that our traditional
institutional model [of government] is not only no longer useful
to, but actually destructive of, the purposes for which we have
long embraced it. This book will suggest and explore an alternative
model for the peaceful and productive conduct of society."
(25) This paradigm is based "on the principle of the private
ownership of property; that freedom is possible only when private
ownership claims are respected”; and that the very "existence
of political systems" means that private property has been
violated. (xiii) Using private property as a yardstick three critical
questions need be answered in any social conflict – 1) Whose
property is it? 2) Who has aggressed? and 3) Who has been aggressed
against? With a slightly different twist, one can determine the
amount of government aggression in society by asking – how
much of a criminal does one become by minding one's own business;
and to what extent do government employees confiscate property?
In short, if you can ignore the government, by using your own property
as you choose, and if the government does not put you in jail or
seize your property for failure to pay your taxes, then you're probably
facing an institution that possesses little coercive power.

One of the
recurring observations throughout this book is that regardless of
"[w]hatever system of ownership is in place, someone will
exercise decisional authority over property." (6) Whether one
is living under Hitler's national socialism, Stalin's communism,
Britain's Fabianism, or American democracy every political system
must answer the question: "how are decisions to be made in
the world, and who will make them?" (9) The reason for this
is the “need of all living things to occupy space and ingest energy."
(133) "Each of us must be able to exclude others from the use
and consumption of resources necessary for our survival." (123)
In other words, private property “is at the core of” our humanness
and “our well-being.” (133) We must own ourselves and then the property
that we require for survival.

A perfect
example of how a collectivist system must answer the question “who
decides on the use of scarce resources” is found in a short scene
from Nien Cheng's Life
and Death in Shanghai
(pp. 406–407 in the 1988 edition).
The author, after having been imprisoned for six years, was released
and wanted to have a brick wall constructed in order to create a
small bedroom in her hallway. In order to do so, she had to bribe
the driver of an electrical utility truck to help transport the
bricks. In answer to the author's query as to whether this was legal,
and whether or not the mileage and gas consumption of the truck
was checked, the driver answered

"Don't
forget, in a socialist state, everything belongs to the people.
You and I are part of the people." …

"Well
to tell you the truth, I feel uneasy about using this truck, for
my private purposes. I don't really think it's right."

"We
have public ownership in China. Right? Who is the public? We are.
Right?"

So despite
the long-standing claim of collective ownership in a communist society,
the driver of the truck decided who could make use of it as a tool
of transport. Someone has to decide, whether it is an individual,
or a committee, or a politician, or a policeman. The idea that there
can be societal-wide collective ownership is a propaganda
myth. Furthermore, as Shaffer points out, the ultimate test of ownership
comes down to this: "who can decide, without getting the permission
of another, to destroy […]his property?" (171) The
truck driver could not decide whether or not to destroy the people’s
truck, nor could the utility manager. Ultimately, Mao Zedong
or someone or some group of people within the Communist Party held
that decision-making power.

As in his
earlier works, Shaffer refers to chaos and complexity theory, and
points out that an orderly system may arise out of apparent disorder.
(65) "[T]he substance of social order is found in the regularities
that arise, spontaneously and without any intention to do so, from
the interplay of [voluntary] human behavior.” (73) Three important
observations in this regard are: first, that each person's capacity
to obtain accurate information on which to make decisions is limited;
second, that the further a person is from the actual source of knowledge,
the more likely there is room for error; and third, that “when we
allow the [S]tate to make decisions for an entire population, we
run the risk of utter disaster should the” decision be wrong. (44,
280) Decision-making by those who risk their own property not only
localizes the impact of wrong choices, but allows people everywhere
the freedom to copy those who succeed. (42, 84)

Boundaries
of Order is the result of many decades of the author's thinking
about the interrelatedness of social order and private property.
He clearly comes down on the side of voluntaryism, arguing “that
liberty and order imply one another.” (297) In other words, voluntaryism
comes about naturally if no one does anything to stop it. This book
is not for a budding, or even beginning, voluntaryist. It requires
deep concentration, patience, and assumes a basic familiarity with
the concepts of self-ownership and homesteading. Although Shaffer
embraces the idea that the first to claim and use an un-owned resource
thereby becomes its legitimate owner, he also recognizes that without
the support of one's neighbors, one's claim to ownership will never
be respected. As Rose Wilder Lane explained in The
Discovery of Freedom
(pp. 109–110 in the 1943 edition),
the protection of our property ultimately depends upon human decency.

The only
safeguards of property seem to have been possession of the property,
individual honesty, and public opinion.

… [C]abins
were never locked on the American frontier where there was no
law. The real protection of life and property, always and everywhere,
is the general recognition of the brotherhood of man. How much
of the time is any American within sight of a policeman? Our lives
and our property are protected by the way nearly everyone feels
about another person's life and property.

With that Butler
Shaffer would surely agree.

*Numbers within
parentheses refer to Shaffer’s book unless otherwise noted. The
expression “Liberty, not the daughter, but the mother of order”
was attributed to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon by Benjamin Tucker, who
used it as the flag on his anarchist paper, Liberty, for
many years. The quote by Wendell Berry is attributed (by James C.
Scott in his book, Seeing
Like a State
[1998], p. 288), to Berry’s book The
Unsettling of America
.

November
11, 2009

Carl
Watner [send him mail]
is an independent scholar and businessman residing in South Carolina.
He has published THE VOLUNTARYIST
newsletter since 1982.

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