A previous post mentioned trust and the responsibilities of government to keep up their share of their contract to provide safety and the kind of order property rights demand. Such trust comes easily when our respect is internalized. Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards both spoke of teaching the young “virtuous habits”. In the America in which I grew up that kind of respect was internalized – and not just in towns of 500 in the Great Plains – Thomas Sowell talks of his boyhood in Harlem with such affection. This too, is critical of the broken contract of so many politicians with their citizens surrounded by the rubble of riots.
In Property and Freedom, Richard Pipes examines “property” in terms of land, but also money and goods; what is “proper to man” – including his inalienable rights. I’ve found his journey to follow the historical development of different societies’ definitions of property and man’s relation to it interesting.
Protection of a citizen’s rights to land and liberty is a state’s “primary function”. Here, he quotes Locke: “Political Power . . [is] a Right of making laws. . . for the Regulating and preserving of Property” and so its “great and chief end. . of Men uniting into Commonwealths, and putting themselves under Government, is the Preservation of their Property” (Pipes 35). Early contracts set precedents, laws then responded to the experience of centuries of human nature. In this context, suing mayors who ignore their responsibilities seems just.
Pipes’s thesis is: “that there is an intimate connection between public guarantees of ownership and individual liberty: that while property in some form is possible without liberty, the contrary is inconceivable” (xiii). He traces definitions of property by anthropologists as the forms of human societies changed and laws emerged. And he examines the opposing theories of man’s and government’s relation to property by Plato and Aristotle – ones echoed today. Summing up the first two chapters of Property and Freedom (the first on the idea of property and the second on its historical institutions), we see how those heady days of the American Enlightenment have helped us understand ourselves:
Out of these experiences evolved the modern notion of freedom and rights. In medieval Europe, and especially in the seventeenth century, when the modern ideas of liberty were born, ‘property’ came to be conceived as ‘propriety,’ the sum total of rights to possessions as well as personal rights with which man is endowed by nature and of which he cannot be deprived except with his consent and not even always then (as, for instance, in the denial of the ‘right’ to sell oneself into slavery). The notion of ‘inalienable rights,’ which has played an increasing role in the political thought and practice of the west since the seventeenth century, grows out of the right to property, the most elementary of rights. One of its aspects is the principle that the sovereign rules but does not own and hence must not appropriate the belongings of his subjects or violate their persons – a principle that erected a powerful barrier to political authority and permitted the evolution first of civil and then of political rights. (118)
Published in 1999, this recalls contemporary discussions of human nature (especially of nurture and nature by evolutionary theorists). Pipes describes the assertion and the corralling of a primal instinct – “that’s mine,” the vehement assertion of toddlers. My toys, my space, my mother, my blankie then, but as our assertions of property rights mature (recognizing others’ rights as well) they remain integral to how we define ourselves.
Understanding and expressing that instinct has been important in developing civil society. On the other hand, Pipes describes the effect of erasing it – a task few societies have set about eradicating early and insistently in their children (though many a theoretical utopia assumes its ease in an “enlightened” world). With no sense of my toy, but also my mother and my rights, a child is denied the ability to connect to significant others, to friends, to mates. This life-long alienation, that ability to subsume the self in the whole, Bettelheim contends, creates an excellent crop of selfless citizens, but not as good husbands and friends, closer to Sparta’s practices than Athens’s (75).
Of course, a tradition going back to Plato sees in group ownership, in denying leaders property but giving them power, an ideal. But in Property and Freedom he contends, “to employ Aristotelian terminology, that it is not merely a ‘legal’ or ‘conventional’ but a ‘natural’ institution” (116). And the natural, as the natural, may be nurtured and may be tamed, but it can not be extinguished. Ownership, the individualistic desire to possess, is part of who we are.
In flyover territory it has the clarity of the soil, plowed and planted, but ownership of the self (the one Jim muses on so poignantly in Huckleberry Finn) is no less telling. From birth we possess what is proper to us, what is inalienable, our rights. Men die that their children might freely possess those rights. To understand civil society, where our rights end and others’ begin, toddlers are encouraged to “share.” We must understand that theirs is not ours: not understanding corrodes our relationships (and souls). To covet is to sin; this is internalized in a trust community. But that intensifies rather than diminishes our sense of property – that is his, this is mine.
Freedom to enjoy our various rights of property are interwoven with these: Do we feel safe, peacefully and firmly in control of our castle, surrounded by a mob? How protected is our faith if practice of its rituals and discussions of its beliefs are restricted? And our speech if it is limited by arbitrary evolving restrictions?
In place after place and people after people, from Plato’s theories through the disastrous and short-lived utopias of the 19th century to the mad tyrants of the 20th century, denying these rights to each of his property produces material want and spiritual impoverishment. At its least destructive cynical apathy, but often death. It doesn’t work.
Protection of our “castle”, of our rights gives us space to become our selves. Freedom is necessary for man’s magnificent bursts of speed and power, perseverance and devotion, genius and heroism. Abandoning property rights and subsuming individual desires can be accomplished only with force for we know it dehumanizes us. Some seem vaguely surprised people protect their household with a gun. How much more surprised would they be that many would protect their right to speech, to religion, to a gun with a gun?
Isn’t smothering our rights what the mobs want? They have no respect for freedoms they abuse; they prefer subjects quaking and kneeling, to see themselves as masters of our homes, our churches, our streets, our work, indeed, our minds. They may see themselves as revolutionaries but they do not model themselves on America’s: how can they be willing to die for a freedom they don’t recognize as they disfigure statues of Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln. We know whose revolutions they model themselves after and we shudder at what follows.