Monday, July 10, 2006

On the Notion Of Property

     Pretty much any alternative economic theory that you'll come across deals with property rights much differently than it is dealt with in capitalist systems. I'm hoping that this post makes people realize that they are more in line with these alternative theories than they may be aware of.

     In the current capitalist system any property that you can get from trade is legimitate, and there is no cap on what percentage of the world you can own. But imagine in the distant future, let's say that one person owns the entire world, his ancestors having accumulated it through normal business operations and trade. The rest of the world's 6 billion people own essentially nothing in comparison and their labor is exchanged in order for them to get the food they need. Is this fair? Should that be allowed? I'm guessing that everyone would say that this is not acceptable. And if you don't, you probably would say it's unacceptable if you were actually living in that situation. Okay, well what about if 2 people owned the world, each owning roughly 1/2 of it? Still no? Okay, 3 people, each a 1/3? No? 4 people, each a 1/4? No? At what point do you say "yes", and how do you justify that decision? In many ways this reminds me of the famous Stephen Roberts quote

I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do


We both agree that a certain group of people owning the entire earth is wrong, we just differ on how small that group of people is before it becomes wrong. I believe that the world shouldn't be up for sale, or equivalently, that it belongs to everyone equally.

    Perhaps you're sympathetic with that argument. However, you may still feel that by taking away the idea of private property that we are somehow stealing from those who currently claim rights over it. You may feel like they have some sort of more natural, legitimate right to it and what gives society the right to take it away? To this I say, what does "own" really mean? Ownership is purely a social construct. We can't take a test tube of dirt into a lab, run some tests, and prove that it belongs to Mr. So and So. If society decides that no one can own the world, it's as simple as that. You just can't. The notion of ownership just doesn't exist. An example that you can see of this idea today is the air. Air is made up of atoms just like the earth is, yet it can't be owned. Ownership of the air is just something that doesn't exist in our society. Perhaps this is solely due to the practical difficulty of prosecuting air "trespassers", but if it suddently became feasible to do so, I'm sure you would agree that society shouldn't allow the private ownership of air. I believe the same statements can be equally applied to water.

    Land is just as necessary for life as air or water. And no matter how lazy our ancestors were, or how bad their businesses fared, or how unlucky they were, should that make us forfit our rights as people to the natural resources of the planet. The planet should not be for sale.

12 comments:

Drunken Tune said...

Yes! Perhaps your best post yet, Delta. I love it. Well-argued, persuasive; too bad to the rest of the world your argument falls on fitfully cupped ears reserved to the second monkey.

No matter how excellent you may demonstrate the faults of capitalism, to the majority of Americans you're still nothing but the damned pinko commie cavorting with Satan that writes manifestos and I'm the evil liberal atheist goose-stepping with Stalin that gives you a deserved compliment.

Anonymous said...

I would like to point out here the historic, anthropological, and biological basis for ownership rights:

1) When farming and domestication of animals became more and more prevalent, land for growing crops and feeding herds was important for the survival of a tribe or village. Farming and herding peoples were often at war due to a conflict over land. Farming disrupted herd migration patterns. The history of Sumer/Babylon is riddled with raiding/invading hordes from the mountains.

2) In cultures such as these, heredity was a major concern in who got what and why when someone died. Societies where men are the main providers of food base property ownership through the male line, vice versa for the females.

3) A part of the brains of primates has been linked with social network limits. The larger the part, the more units a single unit can manage mentally. The limit for humans is ~150 people. Correlations seem to validate this; hunter-gatherer and tribal groups splinter when they reach a certain size, assuming there is enough room and resources to feed the offshoot. We may not be able to empathize with others, and so what we would normally share with our village, we would deny to others, simply because we lack the capacity to feel for them.

Testosterone also plays a huge role in what we do as sorta smart monkeys. We see gorilla and chimp alpha males lording it over their minions, underlings and females, guarding their breeding and feeding grounds. In group survival terms, it makes sense to band in a certain size and exclude other bands from the food source.

4) Also, money today is linked to security and an abundance of resources - attractive qualities in a potential mate. So the male goes out and "hunts" for money, buys a fancy cave and chariot, shows off his leather couches and gold watches to entice the female, who only desires a stable environment for her children (again the lizard brain). The testosterone also pushes the silly human monkeys to compete. They are financial gorillas, believing that to dominate the other males economically means to dominate the food source and the females. To them, any and all males are fair competition, as would occur in the "wild". Hence the pecking order, the hierarchy in most social institutions.

5) Add to all that some bizarre memes like religion, racism, language, etc, and faster, wider-reaching communications, and you get the large states that we now see. The 150 people limit is bypassed with mass communications and other social cohesion mechanisms.

Our rational minds can see what is going on, but the lizard brain ultimately determines our actions. It may be that we are not advanced enough as a species to undergo the change to a more socialist economy. At least socialism uses the rational mind to figure out real needs and real systems. Any excuse for capitalism is merely using the rational mind to come up with penis-based systems and excuses to explain lizard brain behaviours.

So, if we're just horrible little monkeys that can't see beyond our testicles, what are we to do? The good news is, we appear to be getting smarter. Also, we have managed not to kill each other off long enough to develop computers and are well on our way to creating an AI, which will hopefully serve as the stable, rational, selfless, impartial hub that helps us manage our affairs. I just don't think the currect economic arrangements will lead to a stable, equitable and sustainable global society.

Pardon any mistakes. Hope it makes sense.

-Mookie

Delta said...

drunken tune,

Thanks for the compliment, I'm most flattered!

you're still nothing but the damned pinko commie cavorting with Satan that writes manifestos and I'm the evil liberal atheist goose-stepping with Stalin

Haha, I love this =)



Mookie,

Very interesting response! I think you need your own blog ;)

I thought the ~150 member group limit fact was interesting. I hadn't heard that before.

I agree that there are good practical reasons for communities wanting to claim ownership of the land historically, especially since not everyone spoke the same language. You certainly can't share the land with someone you can't communicate with. But I don't believe it's necessary for them to subdivide the land within an individual community. If land is owned by the community, then they will simply have to find some other way to compensate for penis size.

Also, we have managed not to kill each other off long enough to develop computers and are well on our way to creating an AI, which will hopefully serve as the stable, rational, selfless, impartial hub that helps us manage our affairs

AI could be very useful, if used for the right purposes. But imagine AI being used for military purposes or for police. That would make any sort of social revolution infinitely more difficult. Today you have to convince enough people to join the military/police, but if humans were taken out of the picture, you could built a large enough army to suppress any sort of revolt, dissent, or revolution. So I think if we want real social change we might be fighting against time here.

I just don't think the currect economic arrangements will lead to a stable, equitable and sustainable global society

I agree, and I think there's going to be big events happening within the next quarter century or so, for better or for worse.

Could you also pop me an email if you've got a minute?

SH said...

Here is the problem I see with the notion of abandoning private property. You have to eat and that means you have to have property of your own: food. There are other items that you have to have to survive. They are your private property whether we like to call it that way or not. So I think that the question is not whether to have or not to have private property but what can and what cannot be private property and how it is allocated.

Delta said...

So I think that the question is not whether to have or not to have private property but what can and what cannot be private property and how it is allocated

Sure, I completely agree. What I'm essentially talking about is ownership of the means of production, not personal ownership. Personal ownership is different in that it is the stuff that you actually use for your own good, whereas what I mean by private property is the stuff which you refuse to let others use, or you let them use it in exchange for their labor. Perhaps I should have stated this explicitly, but I was hoping to keep the post short and sweet.

It makes sense for society to allow ownership of things such as food, clothing, a house, a car, etc., because these items truly are personal. It would be chaos if people were to share them.

Tanooki Joe said...

What you're talking about is the difference between possession rights and property rights, no?

LAND, n.
A part of the earth's surface, considered as property. The theory that land is property subject to private ownership and control is the foundation of modern society, and is eminently worthy of the superstructure. Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that some have the right to prevent others from living; for the right to own implies the right exclusively to occupy; and in fact laws of trespass are enacted wherever property in land is recognized. It follows that if the whole area of terra firma is owned by A, B and C, there will be no place for D, E, F and G to be born, or, born as trespassers, to exist.


--Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Delta said...

What you're talking about is the difference between possession rights and property rights, no?

Right. And nice Bierce quote. Somehow I hadn't seen it before despite the fact that I read a lot of leftist material and that in high school I actually did a report on Bierce and the Devil's Dictionary! Thanks tanooki =)

Damien said...

So what about efficiency, incentives, and shirkers, and maintenance? People tend to work harder when the benefit comes directly to them; people tend to take better care of things which are theirs. The more you dilute the sense of ownership, the more you tend to get free riders. See Soviet farming, private garden plots vs. collective farms, not to mention various commune failures (though the examples I know tend to be more on the personal property side -- group of people sharing a house, or food purchasing. Ditto the unpleasantness of injecting politics where it's not needed, as in homeowner associations.)

Delta said...

People tend to work harder when the benefit comes directly to them; people tend to take better care of things which are theirs

You're right, which is why collectivizing makes so much sense. Then everyone owns the means of production and the benefits of their labor increases their own consumption as well. Compare that to today, where the people don't own their own farm land, own factory equipment, etc. but are simply being paid a wage to use it for the benefit of the wealthy guy who's not even there. This is the situation for the great majority of the world's manufacturing and agricultural production. And in many cases the people working have little to no incentive to produce more. As long as they don't lose their job, any slacking off makes their day easier.

I assume that in your mind you had been thinking of small businesses and small farms where the people who worked it would actually be the owners as well. Capitalist propaganda has done remarkably well in making people think that this is what happens in capitalism when the reality of the situation is much different, especially in its long-time behavior.

See Soviet farming, private garden plots vs. collective farm

There are certainly cases where "collectivizing" hasn't worked. I put it in quotes because all the examples that one could get from the USSR for example would not be examples of socialism. In socialism, people own the means of production. In the USSR, the people were at the mercy of a brutal dictatorship, and so in no sense do they own anything and are not in control of their own lives in any way. However, there are many real examples of collectivist strategies working, such as in Poland, revolutionary Spain, and Argentina. Some of the examples I am thinking of are coops manufacturers or a coop farm, but they were quite successful, at least more so than its capitalist counterpart.

Ditto the unpleasantness of injecting politics where it's not needed, as in homeowner associations

Injecting politics where it's not needed should certainly be avoided, but political democracy is only a sham as long as it is not accompanied by economic democracy. The US is a great example. The gap between rich and poor is extremely large, and accordingly, our government mostly serves for corporatate interests and ignoring the people's will.

brocktice said...

"imagine in the distant future, let's say that one person owns the entire world, his ancestors having accumulated it through normal business operations and trade. The rest of the world's 6 billion people own essentially nothing in comparison and their labor is exchanged in order for them to get the food they need. Is this fair?"

Of course it's fair -- the analogy goes in the other direction as well, you know.

This is already what happens in the world. How much land do I own? None. I'm a renter. However, what use is my apartment to the landlord if nobody is renting it? What use is the farm to the farmer if nobody's driving the tractor/combine? Very little.

This is not a harmful way for things to be. In fact, it seems to work pretty damned well.

With regard to "communal property", look at it this way. Let's say I share ownership of my block with everyone on the block. I live on a small block, so say I own 1/30th of the block.

Now, if I do something to improve the value of the block, say, nice landscaping, how much benefit do I reap from my effort? 1/30th. This is a very bad incentive. Why not sit back and collect the benefits of my 1/30th of the improvements made by other residents/owners of the block.

Just think about how this would play out in real life for a few minutes.

Anonymous said...

Fuck your stupid morality. Who the fuck cares about your dumbass thought experiments. In the end there is only one question that need to be asked: Does it work? Thats it. If private property "works" then use it. Otherwise abandon it. E.g. private property works very well for things like clothes. It appears to work far less well for air. Property is a social technology. Its morality is irrelevant because morality can only ultimately be justified consequently in which case the basic question is does your morality work?

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