Boundaries of Order


What constitutes ownership? This is the central question which all individuals in a given society must answer. Is ownership of material property a god-given right, or natural right? Is it purely the invention of men seeking power over others, or does the answer to these questions lie in a more fundamental, primordial concept? These are the questions that Butler Shaffer seeks to answer in his marvelous new book, Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System.

This treatise covers an enormous amount of ground in its 325 pages, but remains focused like a laser on the core issue of what property is and how private ownership of resources is essential to the survival of our species, and indeed, all life itself! Professor Shaffer argues that property is not something that exists because of any “natural law,” but is in fact a part of reality itself that manifests in the struggle of life to exist. Not only is life subject to physical boundaries in that it must occupy space to the absolute exclusion of all other entities, but in order to sustain itself, life must also exclusively control and consume scarce resources. This is a biological fact that cannot be denied.

It is from this basic fact of life that the property principle can be derived. Property is life’s expression of its autonomy. Modern man has created the most complex social systems ever known, and in so doing has muddled its own understanding of the property concept. Cutting through the confusion in his crystal clear prose, Professor Shaffer demonstrates that in human society, the concept of property can be boiled down to three specific elements: Boundary (what can be owned), Claim (the will to own), and Control (authority and decision-making power). Having dedicated a full chapter to each of these elements, the author clearly demonstrates that all questions of rights are defined in terms of property, with any political question boiling down to, “Who has the authority to do what with what?” Liberty is an idea that can only be defined in terms of property and decision-making power. As Shaffer puts it, “To the degree control over property is decentralized among individuals, we can be said to have a free society. Liberty, then, is defined not in terms of how much property you own, but how much authority you exercise over what you do own,” (Shaffer, 128).

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The idea of ownership is not revolutionary to libertarians; however, the basis for such a principle is often overlooked or misunderstood. As Butler Shaffer demonstrates, the legitimacy of the ownership claim need not rest on ideological commitments to “natural law” or “god given” rights, but that, “ the need of all living things to occupy space and ingest energy from their external world offers an adequate explanation, and justification, for their assertion of exclusive interests in property,” (Shaffer, 133). This property principle can be observed in all levels of nature, with organisms of every levels of complexity staking out territorial claims for themselves. Far more important than the simple fact that members of each species have developed means of claiming territory, has been the fact that members of each species will respect these claims, and allow the exclusivity of control over resources. Furthermore, the fact that these claims only seem to apply to members of the same species should be enough for humanity to realize that the social rules of the property principle are a natural phenomena, not a quasi-mystical moral code invented by men. In the author’s words, “In a culture that dotes on material values, the ‘claim’ element appears to have mystical qualities. It has certainly been the most difficult concept for my students to fathom. But there is nothing any more mysterious about human beings proclaiming themselves to be the owners of things than there is for wolves to urinate, birds to sing, or elk to bellow their respective territorial claims,” (Shaffer, 133).

While the property concept is grounded in the fundamental facts of reality, it is not a law of nature. It is a social code of conduct that can only exist if species respect ownership claims. Central to all political issues is whether or not the claim of self-ownership can be legitimated. Self-ownership is a claim of authority by the individual to the exclusive control of his or her body and actions. It is a claim of individual self-direction, a principle that institutionalized legal organizations reject outright. At the core any political issue lies the question of whether authority and decision-making power is to be exercised by the individual or the state. The state, by very nature of its coercive function, is a de-civilizing institution that makes a claim to exercise control over the autonomous individuals within its “jurisdiction.” It is only due to the fact that humankind has been so quick to deny claims of self-ownership that the state can exist. By hierarchically structuring decision-making authority in a given society, and using coercion and force to violate claims of the principle of self-ownership (a principle clearly demonstrated in the life act itself) the state sabotages the ability of humankind to adapt to the constant flux of changing circumstances in the world. The state therefore, is necessarily an anti-life institution. Statism represents the suppression of the life process itself, and the destruction of humanity. The reader need look no further for evidence of this simple fact than taking a short survey of the history of the 20th century; a century in which states across the world managed to end the lives of more than 170,000,000 human beings during peace time.

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Statist ideology, and the denial of the self-ownership principle are premised on a model of reality based upon reductive materialism; a theoretical model of reality which states that all things are composed of fundamental building blocks (say, atoms) which simply move and react to one another, and are predictable and controllable. This idea has given legitimacy the vertically oriented, or pyramidal, power structures that state authority uses to enforce its will on societal groups, and has been the core foundation of all such organizations the world over. Unfortunately, scientific discoveries in the fields of quantum mechanics and complexity (chaos) theory have thoroughly shattered this reductive, mechanistic outlook of the universe. The very foundations upon which we view the functioning of the universe are being fundamentally challenged, and a new model is replacing the old. Mechanistic laws of motion are no longer the basis for the formation of order; rather, spontaneity, and unpredictability, seem to be the foundational elements in its emergence!

These new discoveries have a profound impact on the way in which we must now come to view the world. Pyramidal power structures which are by their very nature slow to react to changes in the world, are rapidly giving away to decentralized, informal forms of societal governance. Shaffer argues that the pyramidal model is being replaced by a more holistic model represented by a spherical, or holographic, shape in which decision-making authority is no longer structured in a top-down method, but through laterally defined social relationships. This decentralization is happening so quickly due to technological advances, that people are less and less defining themselves in terms of nationality only, but by other, informal relationships. The spontaneity and complexity of human civilization has reached a point where states can no longer even hope to control it. The more that state institutions try to regulate and control human society through processes of standardization of social conduct, the more they destroy the very foundations for the order they seek to establish. Through violence, states inhibit the free expression of the life process, a process that can only flourish under the liberty of private property relationships. Until individuals realize that the respect of self-ownership claims is essential to the foundations of an orderly society, institutions such as the state will continue to murder and enslave people across the world. Only by refusing to participate in such violent and destructive acts will human-kind, the planet, and all life flourish.

The conclusions of this incredible book are crystal clear. It is up to all individuals to decide whether or not they will accept the liberating idea of self-ownership and autonomous direction, or whether such authority over the lives of individuals will lie in the hands of others. The character of a society can never rise above that of the individuals that comprise it, and if society wishes for peace, then all people must disengage from exercising coercive authority over others. Rejecting the property principle is rejecting the very basis for the proliferation of life itself, and can only end in the destruction of everything that we hold dear.

I cannot stress enough the importance of this book. As Jeff Tucker, editor at the Mises Institute put it, “It is the treatise on liberty and property for the digital age.” This masterwork of property theory will become a lens through which you view the world, and is the kind of intellectual challenge to collectivism that only comes along every few decades. I tried to take quotes from the book to include throughout the review, but I found myself pulling content from entire pages and trying to work it into the body of this post. I failed to include much of Professor Shaffer’s own words because of the sheer volume of quotes and material I found. Every sentence of this book is important. And the best part of all? The entire text has been made available for free online through the publisher.

Simply put: Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System is one of the most important books I have read in my entire life. This work belongs on the shelf right next to Human Action.