Property

A simple way of distinguishing Left from Right: the Right believes in property and the Left doesn’t. What does it mean to believe in property? That there are things that can only be used and enjoyed by one individual, insofar as they are not used and enjoyed by another—and that social order is only possible if that reality is recognized. Let’s say we were to establish the principle of communal property—nothing is owned by anyone individual, but, rather, food, clothing, housing, entertainment is provided in a regulated manner according to shared rules. Food is distributed at regular intervals and consumed in a common area, implements are made available accordingly, even if you sleep in the same bed more than one night in a row a change in collective priorities (leaving aside for now how they are established) can have you rousted from it at any time, and so on. It may be that some Israeli kibbutzim actually came closest to realizing that principle. Even under such conditions, though, private property will reassert itself: I might want to try your dinner, and you mine, and so we trade—each of us would have to recognize a certain informal title of ownership in the other to make that possible. One could imagine the kind of totalitarianism needed to make that impossible: mealtimes (and every other time, because food could be saved and shared elsewhere) would have to be supervised with panoptic comprehensiveness and punishments severe enough to deter such “traders” (or you could make sure everyone has the same meal—which wouldn’t so much abolish property as make differences in property irrelevant, which means one would be working backwards, frantically negating the reality of property while recognizing that reality—could all the meals really be identical, even if that were the intention?). The same for, say, books or magazines—they could only be read in libraries (and there would have to be enough copies for all, otherwise one could have at least momentary possession of a text desired by another—which I suppose leads one to consider universally required and scheduled reading). Perhaps you could imagine stamping out or rendering impossible all exchanges (“exchange” and “property” being reciprocally constitutive concepts), but such an incorruptible system would be impossible and unlivable, if for no other reason than they depend upon a cadre of established or informal enforcers who themselves have a kind of property in the means of enforcement at their disposal—someone, somewhere, will take a cigarette or piece of chocolate so as to allow another to share another with a friend. James Madison summarized it very succinctly in Federalist # 10: different capabilities and interests distributed across humankind lead to different results and products and, hence, property, and diverse forms of property. As Eric Gans has noted (in The End of Culture?), war is the first market, where one differentiates oneself from others through performance and receives corresponding rewards—but if war, why not hunting and gathering, or rearing children, or any activity in which one could distinguish oneself? Imagining what it would take to stamp all that out would be an interesting exercise in imagining the most minimal forms of human being and becoming.

The Right, understanding the resentments that have on occasion actually led to attempts to construct such leveling systems, focuses on making the right to private property “sacred,” that is, beyond political caprice. This has had some unfortunate effects—for example, the blurring of lines that enabled many conservatives to accept slavery as a form of property, fearing that allowing the state to expropriate the slaveowners would legitimate further expropriations. However unjustified slavery is, that worry was not without foundation. But the Right has a language within which slavery can be delegitimated, insofar as the slaves’ right to property can also be asserted (and in fact would be evident in their interrelations with each other), and seen to be incompatible with their being slaves. Only theories of racial superiority, which go from questions of property to questions of biology (and race theories might care about “territory,” but not property), could definitively override that argument.

The Left, meanwhile, sees all property as being held by the grace of the community—reasoning backwards from the communal recognition and regulation of property, the Left figures that the community creates property, and can therefore recreate or abolish it according to whatever means of communal decision making are in play. Very few leftists today argue for expropriating all private property, but that doesn’t mean they believe in it—it just means that they assess that, under current conditions, given the available options, a certain (never to be precisely defined) amount of private property provides for the best way of producing and distributing wealth. If they determine that there are better means within their grasp, they will take them. The Left’s starting point, though, is always with illegitimate uses and users of private property—with who uses their wealth improperly, or who doesn’t really deserve it. They want the presumption of guilt to color our view of private property owners, even if they allow for some to be exonerated, for now. Indeed, for the Left property is never free of the taint of theft (rewards from the community for services rendered is another matter, of course.)—even if they were to accept the argument for the inevitability or “naturalness” of property I gave above, and acknowledged that the desire for property and some mutual recognition of it will always emerge, they could never endorse the fact that it has emerged in the particular way that it was—there is always a perspective from which it can appear that someone elbowed someone else aside to get a larger share, and then conspired with other elbowers to protect it. (Ultimately, we’re dealing with calibrations of resentments here, not arguments.) Which is really a way of saying that the Left could only accept an originary scene as a kind of conspiracy, whereas the Right could accept such a scene, even with all the rough edges we might imagine it to have (maybe there would be a bit of elbowing). Our ability to refrain from theft even when it is physically possible and risk-free on the assumption that the other will do the same (and without calculating the ultimate utilitarian value of such restraint) is distinctly human, and makes sense in terms of the originary scene—for the Left, that scenario only makes sense insofar as those involved have their eye on someone else’s property. This is why the Right is an inherently limited, and the Left an inherently unlimited, mode of politics: for the Right, a state of things in which theft and violence are relegated to the margins is at least possible in principle; for the Left, whatever looks like enterprise, ingenuity and informed cooperation is really a more sophisticated design on someone less able to defend their own property—and there will always be enterprise, ingenuity and informed cooperation.

Although Madison doesn’t say so explicitly, the “factions” he unsuccessfully attempted to preclude from the new constitutional order are always organized against someone else’s property—it is always possible to contend that while property in general and of course one’s own is perfectly fine, that other’s property has been stolen from its rightful owners. And, of course, there is theft, on petty and grand scales. It makes a big difference whether the theft was carried out through fraud or force, though—if by force, or if one insists that it was by force (pure force without at least a bit of fraud is very rare), then violence (civil war) becomes the only remedy; if by fraud, then a revision of the rules governing exchange and the enforcement of those rules (or, perhaps, simply heightened vigilance) can be the remedies. Here is another dividing line between Left and Right: when the Right cries “force,” it is referring to the state and when the Left cries “force” it is referring to property owners; when the Right cries “fraud” it has a model of just exchange to aid in proposing remedies; when the Left cries “fraud,” it really means “force,” once again. The Right can therefore imagine civil war of property owners against overweening state; the Left imagines perpetual civil war, of the (relatively) propertyless against the (relatively) propertied.

The Right can agree to limitations on property—limits on how one’s property can be used and disposed of—but only in the interest of enhancing the sacrality of property as a whole. The Right is always vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy—while the Left never has to restrain its own desire to punish and harass private property owners, even (or especially) when such efforts are impotent, the Right often finds itself in situations where, for example, the community might be so invested in the traditional uses of a particular property as to violate the general principle that the property owner can use it as he or she likes. For example, the community might band together to prevent a developer from buying a revered Church and turning it into a McDonalds, or a strip club. Hence, zoning codes, and various environmental and esthetic restrictions on uses of property. The Right can never adequately square such exceptions with the sacrality of property, and the Left can point out that the ubiquity of such restrictions until very recently demonstrates the artificiality of the sacrality of property as such—property, on this argument, has always been restricted in accord with contingent ethical, esthetic, religious and other concerns. The argument, then, seems to be reduced to semantic chicken-and-the-egg style quibbling best settled pragmatically, on an ad hoc basis. The Right will always lose those arguments, though, because abuses, real and putative, by those who have a lot of property can therefore leave a big footprint, are visible and palpable; while the long-term benefits of the unfettered use of property, much less the principles underlying its sacrality, are invisible and abstract—you have to “believe” in property.

However effective, the only real argument for the Right is that the preservation of private property requires a community of people who respect each other as people deserving of a presumption of innocence in their uses of property, and it is this necessity that leads to the aforementioned exceptions: for private property to be sacred, other things must also be held sacred in common, and what those must be will indeed be historically contingent: houses of worship, traditional or revered buildings, works of art, portions of nature, and so on. The Left is correct to say that restrictions on private property were loosened drastically through the 19th and into the 20th century—but that simply might mean that the threshold of reciprocal trust needed to have everyone invested in the mutual defense of property lowered as well. Still, since that threshold has been rising steadily from the mid-20th century on, it might be better to start using the principles of private property to defend those commonly held tokens of reciprocity, rather than relying upon the state, which provides an opening to the Left—so, if a community would like to preserve a park, rather than having it sold to developers who want to set up a shopping mall, let them put in a bid and purchase the land corporately. Some bids will be lost, of course, and the wealth of the community perhaps diminished when they are won. There will be free rider problems, but these can be solved by having voting rights in the newly corporate property be based on stock ownership. Arguments about future uses of the property will surely follow—perhaps that is where political energies will come to reside. If so, those energies will be far more productively engaged than they are at present.

Issues regarding sexuality (marriage, homosexuality, birth control, abortion) and personal morals more generally (intoxicants of various kinds) raise the same problems—on the one hand, many libertarians, who also defend private property as a first principle, have good reasons to be perplexed at the “social conservative” insistence that the community, “society” or the state can regulate what people do with their bodies (presumably the most basic form of property) and how they manage their intimate relations. And this is especially case given the implication of these norms in the infamous patriarchal “property in women.” But it’s not that hard to see the effects of promiscuity and a relaxed regime of marriage on the maintenance of a culture in which property can be preserved: divided loyalties, unclaimed and uncared for children (heirs), a lowering of inhibitions in one crucial area of life that can readily lead to their lowering elsewhere all interfere with the clarity and predictability property requires. (As an aside, “women’s studies” could, if it were so inclined, explore the extremely varied relations women have had historically to property, their own, their husband’s, their father’s, their children’s, so as to see how women’s full participation in a restored private property regime could be ensured. [I do assume a certain bias toward men in strict private property arrangements.]) Similarly with intoxication, which even more obviously renders people unreliable and unfit to tend to their property or respect that of others.

Like hierarchies in rank (aristocracy), which also follow logically from a commitment to property (more property translates directly into more social and political power—which may be more orderly than the currently indirect ways in which such translations occur), however, it seems these fences built around the regime of property can no longer be manned. The forces of anti-property (which, ultimately, whatever we choose to call them or they choose to call themselves, means communism) are already inside the fences. A further retreat on the part of “propertarians,” which might turn into a new offensive at some time, would involve converting these once socially established and inherited distinctions and prohibitions into privately and contractually established and negotiated ones. If social norms of marriage cannot be maintained, then, insofar as the moral state of those with whom one interacts matters, and insofar as marriage (and family ties) serves as a marker of that moral state, private individuals and enterprises can demand the absolute right to interact with whom they will and therefore to recognize which marriages (and divorces) they will. Winning such a right may be difficult, but it will certainly be easier than trying to turn back the tide of same-sex marriage (much less no-fault divorce) nation-wide. Similarly, if, as seems to be the case, laws against drug use are not long for this world (how the FDA will survive this dismantling of the legal regime governing “controlled substances” is a question I have not seen anyone raise), then property owners would have to demand the right to drug test those whom they hire, or educate, or allow onto their premises (say, a shopping mall).

In these ways, perhaps the most fundamental lesson of property will be relearned: the premises undergirding property ownership can only be preserved and protected by property owners themselves, acting in concert through contracts and covenants; the attempt to slough off such responsibilities—for keeping order and policing its moral preconditions—onto the state was an experiment destined to fail, and in the end nothing more than a Trojan Horse for communism.

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