Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reflections on Private Property and the Politics of Economic Freedom

Those who argue that private property is by its very nature a cruel defiance of the public will, and the thwarting of a possible utopia where the fruits of an economy are shared openly and "equally," rarely carry out the implications of their arguments to their logical ends. Some, following Proudhon, have gone so far to argue that property is by its very nature "theft" (though this does not logically follow; one must have the legal institution of property for theft to exist). The historical record that shows that men by nature compete for scarce resources is brushed away by socialists with such lofty statements as the famous Marxist dictum "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Utopians tend to quite desperately patch up their political theories with the vacuous hope that men can be reprogrammed into altruistic beings who will sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the "common good."

Specious socialistic reasoning persuades so many in this country that it is acceptable for the state to "redistribute the wealth" from the rich to the poor (rather than merely allowing the rich to create productive jobs), not recognizing that one's own security is inherently bound up with the private property rights of rich and poor alike. Once one consents to the state arbitrarily and wantonly plundering the economy for the cause du jour of the masses or the supposed intellectual elites, then one consents to becoming a subject under an increasingly powerful state.

Far from being a legalistic pretense that reinforces a status quo of haves and have-nots, private property is an indispensable institution that undergirds a political system respecting the agency of each individual, and an economy of mutual exchange that rewards the innovative and productive, rather than the amoral and the power-hungry.

When private property is a serious barrier to legalized or illegal theft, with the threat of imprisonment or serious penalty awaiting the violator of it, then prudent considerations dictate that one's own property be attained through moral means. By this I mean, one must exchange one's time, labor, or ideas in kind for what one needs or desires. After all, the products and services in an economy are not created out of thin air (as opposed to the manner currency is created in an economically corrupt one). A healthy respect for the time, labor, and rightfully-gotten property of others, and therefore the life and personhood of others, prompts one to contribute to the economy (and to society through the mutual exchange of needed or wanted goods) through the application of one's labor. Indeed, rationally directed self-improvement in a market benefits mankind because it is intrinsically tied up with one's ability to provide one's fellow men with what they need or want.

The following are a number of reflections on private property that one might benefit from if of the free market orientation, or that one should openly and honestly confront if of the statist bent.

From the Mises Institute, Garet Garrett on Henry Hazlitt's classic Economics in One Lesson:
But if it is intended for those who believe in another way of organizing society they will say, and say rightly, that there is no such thing as an economic system. There is first a political system and then the economics of it. So you may have a totalitarian system and its economics or a system of free private enterprise and the economics for that, or anything in between. Mr. Hazlitt says, in italics,

The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.

Very good. But you may define economics also as the study of how people produce, exchange and consume wealth; and when you have so defined it you see at once that when, as in a free political system, people feed and clothe and house themselves, provide their own security, pursue their own profit and absorb their own losses, the economic canons will be very different from those of a totalitarian system in which people are fed and clothed and housed and minded in their work and in their play by the omnipotent state. [Continued]
Framing the debate between statists and free marketeers in terms that brings front-and-center the economic ramifications of the political organization of society acknowledges that men are indeed capable of rationally engaging their world. (Marxists, on the other hand, see politics as a a reflection of class inequality and the dialectic of material forces; while neomarxists, following Gramsci, see the economic base as strongly influencing the superstructure of culture).

The free market approach emphasizes that man is responsible for his actions, and is not a pawn of forces beyond his control and understanding. Organizing a political system is a rational and conscious act, and philosophical consistency dictates that man should be allowed to exercise his rationality in freedom, lest civilization collapse under the nihilism that proceeds from a self-effacing mutual dependence.

In another recent article, Mises contributor Mateusz Machaj comments on a relevant work by Hans-Hermann Hoppe:
One of my favorite books, and among the most important for my intellectual development, was Hoppe's A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, which could be labeled "property economics in one lesson," and, in the opinion of the present writer, is as important an introduction to Austrian economics as Hazlitt's classic. After reading Hoppe's book, one understands that political economy and comparative analysis of economic systems are about the external effects of different property regimes.

As Hoppe proves, society and economy are themselves great positive external effects of private property, whereas socialism and interventionism are associated with negative external effects that eventually lead to destruction of society and economy.
Thus we can see the proper organization of an economy and polity for an individual who desires to live in freedom and security from both directions: From the macro-level political organization of free private enterprise, and the concordant economic and societal effects that proceed from that legal-rational structure; and the micro-level unit of private property, which is the guarantor to each individual that the expenditure of his time, labor, and creativity will not be in vain.

As is so often the case in contemporary political debates, the worldviews of the two opposing sides, the statists and the free marketeers, can be reduced to a classic political debate between Hobbes and Locke.

Thomas Hobbes' conclusion from his imagined but roughly accurate depiction of man's life in the state of nature as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" was that security and prosperity demanded a "Leviathan," a dominant state that would protect men from threats in the supposed common interest of the ruler and the ruled. This seems to the self-absorbed intellectual as all well and good, as long as a "philosopher-king" along the lines of Plato's Republic is available to wisely and paternalistically guide his subjects. As too often is the case, due to the self-same qualities of human nature that Hobbes describes, political leadership devolves to an abusive relationship where narcissistic rulers or kleptocratic oligarchies exploit their subjects for their own gain.

Systematic abuse and exploitation by the state of its subjects has demoralizing effects on a polity. Men resort to cheating and a state of mutual insecurity, as property is no real obstacle to prevent theft (of every kind) and to encourage relatively honest and productive economic relations. It becomes easier and in some cases, safer, to wed one's livelihood to the all-powerful state than to strike out on one's own to create and produce something of value (as can only be vouchsafed in a marketplace).

John Locke's vision of men, born as equals, co-existing in mutual security out of rational self-interest, with power invested in a limited state to legally and justly arbiter disputes; and cooperating in a society where each man's rights are protected, and thus each secure in his life and the means to sustain it, provides a powerful answer to those who endorse a state-led polity, whether justified by Marxism, or good old-fashioned elitism.

Following the logic of Locke, the state has a limited set of mandates; this proceeds from the assumption of protecting the rational self-interest of each member of the citizenry, and not punishing the whole from want of virtuous men. The state's mandates are primarily encapsulated by the task of providing security, from threats both foreign and domestic. Surely, protection from theft, whether by popular demand, political caprice, or private rapine, falls under that umbrella. As John Locke wrote:
The preservation of property [is] the reason for which men enter into society”... "government" . . . can never have a power to take to themselves the whole or any part of the subject’s property without their own consent, for this would be in effect to leave them no property at all. (Two Treatises of Government.)
Private property is indispensable to the security of all men in society, and not a barrier to the "common good," as the modern Rousseauian, Marxian, Keynesian or even Deweyan statist would have it. Without private property, men are reduced to a state of social, economic and political domination closely approximating a state of nature.

The following are relevant quotes that support the Lockean position:

"Let us therefore lay down a certain maxim: that whenever the public good happens to be the matter in question, it is not for the advantage of the public to deprive an individual of his property – or even to retrench the least part of it by a law or a political regulation." - Charles Secondat de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws

“So great moreover is the regard of the law for private property that it will not authorize the least violation of it – no, not even for the general good of the whole community." William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England

“The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the law of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence”...“Property is surely a right of mankind as really as liberty.” - John Adams, A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States of America

“Property must be secured or liberty cannot exist.” - John Adams, “Discourse on Davila; a Series of Papers on Political History.”

“It is the undoubted right and unalienable privilege of a [citizen] not to be divested or interrupted in the innocent use of . . . property. . . . This is the Cornerstone of every free Constitution.” - John Jay, “A Freeholder: A Hint to the Legislature of the State of New York,” Winter 1778

“Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds: (1) that we cannot be happy without being free; (2) that we cannot be free without being secure in our property; (3) that we cannot be secure in our property if without our consent others may as by right take it away.” - John Dickinson, “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the inhabitants of the British Colonies,” Letter XII

Property is an extension of our lives and our right to live it unfettered by the state. When property ceases to exist, or is no more than a trifling formality to theft, then political, economic, and social disintegration commences. Those who would feign to be able to build a more just order on the ashes, one where power is invested in an all-powerful and presumably benevolent state, or in a roving mob that is constrained only by its whims, is either hopelessly ignorant of history and political philosophy, or is so disingenuous as to be purposefully misleading the public into civilizational decline with more than a middling chance of political hell. Those preparing to adorn themselves with the crowns of political philosophers in the statist-dominated paradise of their imaginations are likewise deluding themselves of their pretended roles in the future state; the wild-eyed extremists who pave the path to totalitarianism are ironically, and perhaps justly, often the first to be exiled or executed.


Reasonsjester said...

Come on, Anonymous, I'm getting lonely...

Anonymous said...

I actually enjoyed this particular work of yours; lately I have been re-examining my life and remembering back to my theatre days and Stanislavsky ( I studied under Henry Kurth in Cleveland, OH). Could the Moscow Art Theatre exist under a pure libertarian state?

Reaganx said...

Look, anonymous, being a Russian, I might perhaps help you out. You see, most of the relatively good aspects of so-called Soviet art are either pre-revolutionary heritage or Western influences. So it has nothing to do whatsoever with the totalitarian nature of the Soviet state. In so far as this totalitarian nature manifested itself, it thwarted all kinds of art and culture, not promoted it. In particular, writing poetry was one of the easiest ways to get killed in Soviet Russia.

Reaganx said...

The base of all property rights, as Ayn Rand said, is a man’s right to the product of his mind. Destroying property rights is destroying the mind.

Reasonsjester said...

Thanks, Anonymous. Feel free to poke holes wherever you can. I like to know what people who disagree with me think. It helps me shape the narrative of my polemics to address issues detractors of the free market approach are likely to raise.