Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Property and the Wrong Road

Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which is their own; nay, they learn to love the very soil which yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of the good things for themselves and those that are dear to them. -Leo XIII

In my last essay on property, I appealed to the common-sense reasoning of G. K. Chesterton to demonstrate one fallacy of modern economy. Today's economists, laboring under the delusion that theirs is an empirical science, endlessly seek to distill prosperity from money like the old alchemists sought to turn lead into gold. We fully expect to find "the answer" somewhere between free markets and regulation, making economy an increasingly complex subject (complex like alchemy was and like chemistry is not); thus our notion of property has become more abstract than ever before. There are some — pessimists, we call them — who are starting to feel crowded out by the elephant in the room. They have a sense that the perfect economic recipe will never be found. In the end, they are resigned to "suffer under some combination of capitalism and socialism."1 What other option can there be?

It is a fact that progressive thinking tends to mistrust what used to pass for common sense. The argument goes like this: Who wants to live in the stone age, anyway? Didn't we already try all of the old answers? Didn't they fail? Following this shallow examination, progressives dismiss the brutish past and campaign (like heroin addicts zealously advocating their differing methods of needle hygiene) for the candidate most qualified to wrangle the economy. It is no surprise that we have a new kind of common sense in the Nonsense Age, and I suspect that is because we find ourselves in a different context where the old questions cease to be relevant because we have forgotten what they mean.

The truth is that it doesn't matter much which way we turn once we have already traveled far down the wrong path. That doesn't stop us from arguing about it, though; brilliant, virtuous, and impassioned arguments that congeal into opposing gospels, each with its congregation of savage and loyal adherents. Dale Ahlquist wrote of "this seemingly endless battle where the virtues on either side are doing war with each other[.]"2 It is often easier to see the Devil in the competition than in the opposition.

It is impossible for those who do not stand scratching their heads at the Fork in the Wrong Road to join in the argument between the Lost and the Misguided. Unfortunately, America hasn't seen a leader who does not advocate some direction of either Right or Left (or in between) since Thomas Jefferson faded from living memory. There are precious few who have stepped back far enough to see that we have traveled a road that goes nowhere near where we expect it still to take us.

On the Wrong Road of 21st century politics (and economics), I imagine that prosperity feels something like the synthetic "high" must feel. We enjoy prosperity immensely while it lasts, we know that it won't last forever, and we are frantically depressed when it is gone. But never mind this temporary discomfort; we also know where to go to get more "prosperity" - until it bankrupts us, or until we die of the overdose. Who is really in control of a system that "has its ups and downs?" The invisible hand pushes us along whither it will.

"For it is possible," wrote Thomas Hobbes, "long study may encrease[sic], and confirm erroneous Sentences: and where men build on false grounds, the more they build, the greater is the ruine[sic][.]"3 It is a remarkably true statement, and it must lead us to consider, when faced with financial and economic disaster, the fundamental premises upon which our system is built.

The Distributists, including G. K. Chesterton, pointed out the elephant of credo quia impossible that stands front and center on the stage of global economics. What I shall demonstrate now is the elephant of false property; the wooden nickel of free-market Capitalism, zealously guarded by men and women who label themselves "conservatives" and imagine a noble calling as stewards of the sacred treasure of their forefathers.

The polymath, Hugh Nibley, provides one of the best definitions of property that I know of:

The words property and private have the same root (prop = priv by Grimm's Law) and emphasize the same thing — that which is the most intimate and personal part of an individual. The Oxford English Dictionary specifies "privatus — peculiar to oneself ... that belongs to or is the property of a particular individual; belonging to oneself, one's own." And "proprius — own, proper, ... property, the holding of something as one's own." Both definitions fall back on Old English agen (German eigen), "expressing tenderness or affection ... in superlative, very own." Webster has "Latin privatus, apart from the state ... of or belonging to one-self, ... single , private, set apart for himself." What is privatum or proprium is therefore peculiar to one person alone (not a corporation). It is something that I could not do without, under any social or economic system, and that would have little interest for anyone else, such as my clothes, shoes, books, notes, bedding, glasses, teeth, comb, and so on. Because they are personal and indispensable to me and of no value to anyone else, they must be inalienable to me, for there is great danger if they fall into the hands of another.4

The Distributists have claimed all along that clothes and shoes are for wearing, that books and notes are for reading, and that all other things have their proper and personal use. Nibley goes further when he tells us that the moment these things become primarily for profit; when their values become money values exchangeable for abstract denominations, they no longer even qualify as property by definition. They become, in essence, something entirely different.

"The word 'property,'" says Dale Ahlquist, "has to do with what is proper. It also has to do with what is proportional."5

From this natural and rational definition of property, the Distributists claim "Father McNabbs' Law," that the areas of production and consumption ought to be, as far as possible, coterminous. In other words, things ought to be produced as close as possible to where they will be consumed, and in proportion to the need.

How surprised would today's businessman be to discover Adam Smith's own view of the excess, the "mere trinkets of frivolous utility" made possible by modern Capitalism? What of the "greatest good" of power and riches, considered to be the final result of the free-market economy?

"Power and riches appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor. They are immense fabrics, which it requires the labour of a life to raise, which threaten every moment to overwhelm the person that dwells in them, and which while they stand, though they may save him from some smaller inconveniencies, can protect him from none of the severer inclemencies of the season. They keep off the summer shower, not the winter storm, but leave him always as much, and sometimes more exposed than before, to anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow; to diseases, to danger, and to death."6

John Locke once wrote that "it was a foolish thing, as well as dishonest, to hoard up more than [man] could make use of." He then proceeded to explain how the introduction of money, which "has its value only from the consent of men," gives rise to the "disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth." Thus, according to Locke, property arises from the act of labor, which naturally limits "largeness of possession" to that which the laborer can produce and consume (or exchange for what he can consume).7

What this means is that the maker, or creator, naturally owns the work of his own hands. It is the inalienable right to property that Locke wrote about — a far cry from today's "work for hire," where all that we make belongs, upon creation, to the investors (who consequently derive the greatest benefit). The markets and the managers will determine how much abstract money the work of other people's hands can command. By our own American theory, such a contract is impossible to make without some fundamental violation of human right.

It is also in the original, rational definition of property where we find that the real solution to Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" lies not in redefining morality or in dissolving the natural family (ideas that have manifested themselves among progressives in interesting ways since Hardin first proposed them), but in rediscovering what the central problem really is. Instead of "the greatest good for the greatest number" (a proposition that the Communist and Capitalist will both agree is the only important question in spite of their disagreement on how to achieve it), Father Lawrence Smith wrote that "the common good is not merely a matter of what is good for all, but what is good for each."8

The natural law of property, then, is simply "the proper amount of good for each individual." This is a suitable definition to replace the wrongheaded and fallacious definition of property that now exists as a tenet of economics, and until this is done, we risk facing the reality of Hobbes' assertion of false grounds.

Property has nothing to do with things bought on credit or with things hoarded for profit or gain; and nowhere can I find that property is rightly distributed based on merit instead of need.

Another central problem of economy is that the current notion, as a system established on a global or large scale, is a contradiction also by definition. I'll write more about that in a future essay on the principle of subsidiarity.

1. Beyond Capitalism & Socialism, Aidan Mackey, et al. p. 38

2. Ibid, p.33, emphasis mine

3. Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes (Kindle edition, location 2940)

4. Approaching Zion, Hugh Nibley. From the Essay "Work We Must, but the Lunch is Free," p. 221.

5. Beyond Capitalism & Socialism, p.33.

6. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith, section IV, chapter 1

7. 2nd Treatise on Government, John Locke, chapter 5.46-51; Kindle edition location 2974

8. Beyond Capitalism & Socialism, p. 128