Contracts Breeched: Freedom Cancelled

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.

10 thoughts on “Contracts Breeched: Freedom Cancelled”

  1. Excellent post. One thing worth thinking about: to the degree that the continued ownership of property is contingent on the discretionary approval of government or some other authority, it becomes less truly property-ish.

    In his memoirs, the Russian rocket scientist Boris Chertok mentioned a relative–an aunt, I think–who was a noted sculptor. The payment she got for a certain major work was not in the form of cash, but rather as a pension. I’d guess that the likelihood of continuing payment of that pension was quite dependent on the woman’s political Good Behavior.

    Sebastian Haffner, who grew up in Germany between the wars, told of the torment his father went through when his pension–which he had earned through many years of dedicated work as a distinguished civil servant–was made contingent on signing a statement of full support for all Nazi policies. The alternatives were: sign or starve.

    Is it totally unthinkable in the US that Social Security payments could be made contingent on support of Wokeness? How about state & municipal pension payments? University pensions?

  2. Excellent post and comment. The justification for inaction by lawfully empowered government officials that it’s only “property” really shows the attitude that human rights and their welfare are separate from their property and its use. In both a practical and a theoretical sense this is false. Essentially the result is that freedom of expression includes disregard for and damage to property, both individual and collective. That is perfectly aligned with Marxist false constructs about the nature of reality regarding the connection between property and individual welfare. Fruitful cooperative efforts rely on boundaries that protect each from arbitrary theft of the fruits of one’s efforts. The social contract must include such protections or the product of human efforts will be distributed by relative force and those who place little value on other’s welfare will take or destroy at will.


  3. I grew up in a large city (Chicago) and property and its uses were well recognized. As a little boy, I idolized our next door neighbor who was a retired executive. He took great pride in his property and I can recall clearly watching him replace a fence. Each board he carefully painted in two coats and they were carefully bolted to the metal posts. He had the first lawn sprinkler system I had ever seen. It was not automatic and each summer night he carefully went from one valve to the next to water his lawn. His house had a double lot so it was a big lawn.

    Excellent post.

  4. David and Death – Yes, the more we depend on the government the more it controls us. The idea of keeping tabs on us like the Chinese is scary. The rest of the book compares Russian and English institutions. I haven’t gotten through them yet – but was struck by one of his observations – that at one rather late point Russia did not distinguish between sovereign in government and owner of land – these were seen as one and the same. This history prepared them for Lenin.

    Yes, Michael K – it is really instinctive. One of my husband’s dear friends is a Gypsy. I remember when we visited them after he had bought what I think was his first house and one with some land around it – he walked the borders regularly, taking pleasure in saying it was his. When he retired, the traditional wagon wheel decorated his large cake, but he had truly settled in to the land he owned. His heart was in the Romany cause, but his heart was also in his house.

  5. Ginny…”at one rather late point Russia did not distinguish between sovereign in government and owner of land – these were seen as one and the same.” This is true to some extent of any country with a powerful landed aristocracy, even to some extent in England though I’m sure not to the same extent as in Russia.

    Also, a ‘company town’ tends to conflate ownership and government. There was a very interesting Supreme Court case, Marsh v Alabama, in which the court ruled that Gulf Shipbuilding Company could not prohibit a Jehovah’s Witness from distributing literature in the the town of Chickasaw, Alabama, even though that town was Gulf Shipbuilding’s private property.

    Recently the argument has been made that that precedent should also apply to on-line communities…this was rejected by the district court and the Ninth Circuit.

  6. Goes to the point I’ve made over the years that the “social contract” ought to be a real thing, and something we all actually sign on for at assumption of the franchise.

    And, it should be enforced in both directions: You want to overthrow the government? Fine; either do so following the prescribed path in the Constitution via the vote, or be sued for breach of contract. Likewise, the capitol-G Government wants to do something against? You should be able to sue them for breach of contract.

    One of the very real problems we have is that there is no enumerated and binding agreement on these terms. Before you are accorded the rights of a citizen, you should have to acknowledge the rules for that relationship and agree to abide by them. Same thing in the other direction–It’s all well and good to have the Constitution, but what is there to force the Government types to honor it?

    I don’t think we ought to go as far as Heinlein proposed in terms of “earn your citizenship”, but I do think it would be valuable to lay out the relationship between state and citizen clearly, then have them sign on the dotted line as a contractual obligation.

  7. In progress. Sorry a bad word here. Britain has reneged on the deal it signed with the EU. Boris is trying to be a slippery weasel but is way too fat. If he dose not back down, Europe will beat Britain like a gong.

    I may have mentioned before that I’m pretty sure we are comic relief for an austere universe, and stupidity is our greatest weapon in this endeavour.

    On topic: “Some seem vaguely surprised people protect their household with a gun.” Yeah its just fine to shoot a thief, have I got that right? I don’t have gun so I’ll have to come up with a different approach. ;) The old Hammer/Nail thing, is still right. ;)

  8. Kirk,
    I trying to figure out how the constitution and declaration are not in combination an outline of our social contract. If you are envisioning a detailed, exhaustive document I’d think that would be incomprehensible for everyone.

    If we couldn’t keep the plain language of the founding documents in force, I can’t see how an exhaustive document would fare better. Placing the social contract largely under the enforcement of civil law (part of the social contract) seems to me no better than what has evolved with the founding documents.

    Maybe what you are suggesting is that citizens would be required to specifically acknowledge the founding documents as sovereign and foundational. Again, the issue may still be that the plain language and original intent has now been fundamentally undermined by the institutions whose officials swore to uphold them have redefined them so that the original intent has been largely been lost.

    Dismantling the damage is one huge (sorry) task.


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