Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Property Is Silence


- You've heard the slogan, property is theft?
- Sure.
- If we all live in common, holding onto something only for oneself is stealing from others opportunity to use it.
- Some things should be only for our own use.
- For example?
- Right to care for our own children. Right to live in our own house while we care for our children.
- And wouldn't the reason for these exceptions be that others, if they thought things through, would agree with us that it was better parents care for their children and families have one house to live in while raising children?
- House and children would be our property and not stolen because other people would not, should not want them.
- And we would not want to give them away either for the same reason. When we talk, we are giving away our words, and we are giving our attention to the other's word. When we are silent, refraining from giving and from expecting to receive, we expect it to be understood we cannot always be speaking. In the same way, we cannot always be passing back and forth the things we live with and among.
- Exchanging things is only one out of many human activities.
- Yes. We give and receive things not for the mere sake of it but to make our lives better and more beautiful. We refrain from sharing at times because we do not live for the purpose of sharing.
- Property is then not theft but a thought-through exception to sharing.
- Or a taboo*, if established by tradition.
- Property is silence that allows us to speak better.

* Taboo: that we have anything is because our ancestors had us, a mystery that expresses the exceptional nature of ownership. To the extent we can be said to own anything our ancestors own us.


The Great Transformation Karl Polanyi:
The outstanding discovery of recent historical and anthropological research is that man's economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships. He does not act so as to safeguard his individual interest in the possession of material goods; he acts so as to safeguard his social standing, his social claims, his social assets. He values material goods only in so far as they serve this end. Neither the process of production nor that of distribution is linked to specific economic interests attached to the possession of goods; but every single step in that process is geared to a number of social interests which eventually ensure that the required step be taken. These interests will be very different in a small hunting or fishing community from those in a vast despotic society, but in either case the economic system will be run on noneconomic motives.

- Ready?
- As always.
- Private property, we said, is a thought-through exception to sharing. This has very interesting consequences.
- What?
- We lose property rights in anything we take outside our home and bring to market for buying and selling. Everything including our own bodies.
- Why?
- Sharing authorizes, for the sake of sharing itself, the exclusion of certain property from sharing: in ourselves, our children, the houses we occupy for raising children. Since what goes on in the market is the opposite of sharing, each merchant attempting to gain an advantage over the other, rights to the exception that private property is cannot arise.
- But the rule of law protects everyone's property while they seek personal advantage.
- But what is the rule of law based on?
- Human nature?
- Human nature is to share.
- The rule of law is a social contract to play the game by its rules.
- And what forces individuals to abide by the rules?
- Police and army.
- And what prevents individuals from attempting to gain control of the police and army?
- Laws written to prevent that from happening.
- Which will be subverted by the same individuals.
- Whether it works perfectly or not, still there are the rules.
- But what is property under those rules?
- What do you mean?
- That property in the market place, not protected by social good, instead only by "rule of law" is hardly a "right". It is not something inalienable. In fact, it is constantly alienated.
- How alienated?
- You can't go out in public without clothes, you can't take into public with you a machine gun. The possessions on your own body are controlled. Your possessions at home are regularly taxed by the government and taken away by threat of force. Torture, the elimination of property rights over your own body, is said by the government to be "enhanced interrogation". The government takes possession of all your email, telephone calls and internet history, no walls prevent observation. And according to the President himself, when companies are big enough if they lie for profit to the people they do business with that too is not a crime. You have no sure property rights to things in your house, to your own body, or to what you carry on your body outside the house. And all this because while playing a game of exchange for profit you are not sharing and so not protected by the private property exception authorized by sharing. Still with me?
- Yes.
- Your property, your body, your private communications, your possessions, once they leave the house and offered to trade for profit, are protected solely by what practical considerations demand. In the game of public trading you are safe in from torture, your messages safe from being stolen, your possessions safe from being tricked away from you, only so long as that is to the profit of your trading partners. When it no longer is, the good times end, you are cheated, tortured, spied on, and robbed. And then you start over, everyone, cheaters and cheated, tortured and torturers, spied on and spies. Security builds up, possessions seem to be safe, everyone makes their profits, until again the end approaches and the time for being nice is over. Simple game theory.
- Then what do we mean by "rule of law"?
- Law is a claim of social life's precedence over private life. But when you define public life as free from the demands of cooperation, "rule of law" is without meaning. Or to be exact: no one obeys "rule of law" while playing the game of exchange for profit, except when it is to their advantage, other than those indoctrinated, trained into a habit of submission.
- So you are claiming private property only exists in the home. Am I over simplifying?
- No. That's right.
- I think I see where you are going.
- Where am I going?
- Redistribution of wealth.
- Taking from the rich, and giving to the poor. An intolerable offence to private property.
- Except there is, according to what you say, no private property in the public life of exchange for profit. No intolerable offence occurs.
- Private property remains sacred and intact in the home.
- You've argued in the past that under current law profit made from crimes is to be confiscated. That authorises taking from the rich who have broken the law. Private property is not violated. And now you want to argue in addition that any property thrown out into the world of exchange for profit is not entitled to the claim of private property in the first place. Is that a fair summary?
- Yes. 
- The first is for the indoctrinated, the second for those capable of understanding. Both arguments say, "Take It Back!"

Things held onto for the sake of trading for profit, because used in an activity done for its own sake, by definition are never eligible for the exception "private property". Private property and trade for profit are principles fundamentally at odds with each other. Profit can claim no property right unless, as Aristotle allowed, it is made not for itself but for the sake of private life. Since the exception of property for private life depends on public good, the amount of profit taken into private life is limited to an amount which serves public good, beyond which profit becomes public.

Further Reading:
The Conquest Of Bread, Peter Kropotkin