Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who gave you your property?

La propriété, c'est le vol! said French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 book Qu'est-ce que la propriété ? ou Recherche sur le principe du Droit et du Gouvernment (What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government). This perception was not new. The famous Marquis de Sade (Yes, the same guy whose name formed sadism) said:
"Tracing the right of property back to its source, one infallibly arrives at usurpation. However, theft is only punished because it violates the right of property; but this right is itself nothing in origin but theft."
Those who are in favour of property rights to be almost unlimited and sacrosanct tend to be the same as those who wants to limit the extent of government. But they, conveniently, overlook a very fundamental fact. They have got their property from government and it is only government that can ensure their perpetuated right to the property. Before there was government, before there were laws and a state that could enforce them there was no property. And in most societies most things “belonged to” the community or the state. The root of private property is a privilege extracted from governments. This continues today where governments convert new things to goods and markets, for instance eco-system services. The market and control of such services is instituted by governments and through various processes allocated to private owners. 

Over years, different groups, with the support of the state (or being part of the state) came to take over larger and larger parts of property, such as the war lords, later becoming the respected nobles or the financiers of the state's war, the emerging capitalists of high finance. It is estimated that some 1.5 million valuable items were stolen from the Old Summer Palace in China, when ransacked by the French and the British 1860. Victor Hugo (1985) wrote:
One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace.[...] All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewellery. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away.
To stimulate the transcontinental railway building, the US federal government gave one fourth of Minnesota and Washington and a fifth of Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota and Montana to the rail road companies; an area bigger than France (Lindblom 2001). It is interesting to note that a professor in the stronghold for "free market" economics acknowledge this. "Land, natural resources, and government contracts and licenses are the predominant sources of the wealth of our billionaires, and all of these factors come from the government" says Ragharam Rajan, economist in Chicago (IHT 2011), referring to billionaires of India (read also NYT).

And no doubt, enormous wealth and therefore property is generated by the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How property in the collapsing Soviet Union was distributed was a crash course in how property is unequally distributed to those that are close to the power. 

It is an entirely subjective and political decision weather some should be given unique rights to land or other resources or they should be common. A government could as well declare a universal right to food as the private right to land. For those, like the author, that is raised in a fully developed capitalist market society it is almost hard to conceptualise how a world without private property could look like. Still, in many parts of the world, forests and farm land are often owned by the state or by the local community. The point is neither that private property by itself is good or bad, nor to claim that anyone with property is a thief (which would then include myself as well). It is to clarify that it is a privilege based on state sanction, and that the unique rights that property has been given has very little to do in a discussion about freedom, and even less that property rights should form a moral justification for limitation of other peoples' freedom. First when we have cleared the myth, can we discuss property in a rational way.

"Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can" sings John Lennon in Imagine. This is probably our greatest challenge. To think outside the box.

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