Monday, September 14, 2009

More on the Origins of Private Property

"The first man [sic] who, having enclosed a piece of land, took it into his [sic] head to say, "This is mine", and found people simple enough to believe him [sic], was the true founder of civil society. The human race would have been spared endless crimes, wars, murders, and horrors if someone had pulled up the stakes or filled the ditch and cried out to his fellow men, 'Do not listen to this impostor! You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone, and the earth to no one!" - (Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality)
A while ago, I posted on the origins of private property and aired out a couple of broad questions raised by the sort of thoughts articulated above by Rousseau: why was the original privatization of parts of the earth not a theft of what rightly should (have continued to) be held in common?

As Cohen puts it, "in the history of anything that is now privately owned there was at least one moment at which something privately unowned was taken into private ownership." Thus, if "someone claims a right so something they legally own, we may ask, apart from how they in particular came to own it, with what right it came to be anyone's private property at all".

Now most of the time this is a topic that the Right does well to avoid. When topics like the nationalization of natural resources are broached, the Right-wing response is to cry 'theft!', since those who own them today supposedly came to own them by just means (i.e. they bought the titles to them). But this obscures the question of why certain natural resources should be thought of as potential objects of private property at all.

Interestingly, those concerned to defend private property under capitalism have tended to focus most all of their energies on circulation, acquisition, trade and transfers. But very little of their energies have been spent explaining how the institution of private property with respect to certain resources, for example, was originally justified. If, as Cohen points out, the "market is merely a redistribution of titles which buying and selling are themselves unable to create", then we have to know how "the titles which necessarily precede market activity acquire legitimacy in the first place".

One historically important account of the creation of private property is given by John Locke. Locke argued that "an agent may appropriate (as private property) what he [sic] mixes his labor with, provided that he [sic] leaves enough and as good for others and does not waste what he takes".

I think the interesting part of this account is the thought about "leaving enough and as good for others". But this is not, in general, the part of Locke's account that you hear most frequently from those on the Right who actually talk about this stuff. They prefer to focus on the "mixing one's labor" part. But a quick glance at this part of Locke's theory reveals that it is the most dubious aspect of his account.

Even Robert Nozick, probably the smartest defender of capitalism to date, ridicules this aspect of Locke's theory. For example, in Anarchy, State and Utopia Nozick notes that:
"Locke views property rights in an unowned object as originating through someone's mixing his [sic] labor with it. But what are the boundaries of what labor is mixed with? If a private astronaut clears a place on Mars, has he mixed his labor with (so that he comes to own) the whole planet, or the whole uninhabited universe, or just a particular plot? Which plot does an act bring under ownership? The minimal area such that an act decreases entropy in that area, and not elsewhere? Can virgin land (for the purposes of ecological investigation by high-flying airplane) come under ownership by a Lockean process? Building a fence around a territory presumably would make one the owner of only the fence (and the land immediately underneath it)."
He continues:
"Why isn't mixing what I own with what I don't a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I dont? If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules (made radioactive, so I can check this) mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?"
Clearly this isn't so simple and, as Nozick points out, there are a lot of aporias facing the Lockean idea of 'mixing labor' with an unowned object.

*One clarificatory note here: when I speak of private property I am not, in the first instance, referring to someone's private collection of baseball cards, their bedroom, their 'personal belongings' and so forth. I'm interested first of all in the big picture, i.e. the large-scale institutions, natural resources, energy, land, etc. that we all (even under the divisive, competitive pressures of capitalism) rely upon for survival.

Today, just about everything we need to survive is private property, with a few notable exceptions. But the exceptions are extremely instructive. Why, if private property is simply the most just and efficient way of organizing society, isn't everything private property? Surely neoliberalism has made a strong go of trying to succeed in privatizing everything, but what's the story with those notable exceptions that seem off the table even to the most brazen Right-wingers?

What are some of the examples? For starters: roads, water, Fire departments, police, libraries, parks (municipal and otherwise), the majority of the military, a large percentage of schools.

In the U.K., access to health care is not commodified and hospitals are public institutions. To convert from the U.K. system to the disastrous scheme we have in the U.S., would be to relinquish democratic, public authority over a vital social institution and hand it over to private interests. No matter what those unhappy with the NHS in the U.K. may say about their own system, the prospects of this transformation (from public to private) in the U.K. are slim to none. Even under Margaret Thatcher, there was never a moment when the complete privatization of the NHS was even on the radar. When minor changes are made to the NHS that threaten to introduce fees of any kind, public outrage follows.

In U.S., we have the opposite situation, in a way. We have a mostly free-market health care system, with the exception of Medicaid and Medicare. As it stands, Medicare is basically the only part of our system that works right, and has been proven over many years of reliable functioning.

But the majority of the system is dominated by for-profit insurance companies. And uproar ensues whenever any part of it is slated to become public. Instead of complaining about the introduction of fees (which we can think of a form of regressive taxation), in our country the outrage from the political establishment is over the possibility of making any part of health insurance public or democratic.

Republican senators regularly complain that the Public Option would have been unfair, since the private insurance industry would not be able to compete. Obama's bone-headed response to this objection, of course, is to reaffirm the GOP's reverence for the private insurance industry and claim "no, no... its not going to make it so they cannot compete, it will just keep them honest... they're still going to be making money, dont worry for second about that!"

But this business about "not being able to compete" obscures the bigger question, namely why should our health insurance institutions be allowed to be in private hands at all? Why should something we all depend on and need be subject to the profit-driven interests of speculators and capitalists? Why shouldn't these institutions be entirely public, and designed ONLY to best serve those who need insurance, rather than to primarily serve the profit-interests of those who have investments in the insurance industry? In short, why is it legitimate to even think of these institutions as potential objects of private property? How is the acceptance of private ownership in this case not an acceptance of a kind of theft, or usurpation, of what should rightly be held in common by all?

No comments: