The Last Line of Defense: Property
“Property is theft.” Proudhon’s classic anarchist paradox is more than a catchy slogan for international leftism. It encapsulates a complete and comprehensively absurd view of humanity, one which finds its contemporary apotheosis in President Obama’s more prosaic rendition, “You didn’t build that.” In other words, “You didn’t build that” is just “Property is theft” without the irony. By speaking his true mind without teleprompted euphemism for a change, Obama conveniently highlighted the heart of today’s civilizational crisis: the war over the meaning and legitimacy of property.
The “fundamental transformation” Obama and his allies have sought to impose on America has many practical manifestations, but all their sundry means relate to one basic end. This is the permanent transformation of a nation grounded in the principle of individual self-ownership (the philosophical foundation of property rights) into a nation grounded in the principle that everything you have is merely on loan to you from the great gods of collectivism—Society, History, and Government.
Let’s begin with the progressive argument against private property, expressed in Obama’s own infamous words. (Recall that the context is his call for the wealthy to “give back”):
If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own…. I’m always struck by people who think, “Wow, it must be because I was just so smart”—there are a lot of smart people out there. “It must be because I worked harder than everybody else”—let me tell you something, there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life…. Somebody invested in roads and bridges—if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the internet so that all the companies could make money off the internet.
As for the first paragraph, Obama’s point is clear, and the hateful straw man mockery of his tone drives it home: any practically successful person who is proud of his achievement is a fool, for in truth something other than his own intelligence and effort is responsible for his success. The identity of that “something,” as if we couldn’t guess, is spelled out in the subsequent paragraph. Government is the provider, the facilitator, the ultimate source of all individual success. Thus, government has a legitimate (and seemingly unlimited) claim on the results of individual success.
The upshot of all this for the question of property is undeniable: private property is an illusion, the selfish fantasy of those who ignorantly believe their possessions are the earned fruit of their labor. Your prosperity is the product, not of your effort and skill, but rather of the general social conditions in which it was achieved. The public roads, the public education system, and other government projects which form the common background of practical existence, obviate any inviolable claim you might make on anything you have acquired against that background. You owe your wealth to society, because “somebody else” (i.e., government) made it happen.
What this means, translated into plain terms, is that the existence of government proves that there can be no private property. That is to say, your claim to property rights is refuted by the existence of the very programs that government coercively appropriates your wealth to pay for. Talk about circular reasoning!
Furthermore, the implication that mere effort does nothing to establish any special claim to the products of such effort, due to the socially provided context of the acquisition, flies in the face of any reasonable theory of property. No one ever claimed that property is acquired in a vacuum, anymore than that life is lived in one. It goes without saying that property is acquired in a social context. The concept of property rights would have no significance outside of a social context. Rights are by definition an individual’s claim against violations of his person and possessions by other people. Hence, it is no more rational to suggest that property rights are trumped by the existence of public schools or roads than to say that our individual existence is disproved by the air we share with all other humans or the genes we owe to our ancestors.
A reminder of what a rational understanding of property—and the one dearest to many of America’s founding fathers—looks like, will not only show the incoherence of Obama’s post-Marxist absurdity, but will also reveal just how fundamental this issue is to the calamity Western civilization faces.
John Locke, in Chapter 5 of his Second Treatise of Government, begins his discussion of property with a premise that is as commonsensical as it is extraordinary: “Though the earth, and all inferior creatures be common to all men [in the state of nature], yet every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself.” (§ 27)
That is, the concept of property is grounded in your inviolable ownership of yourself. All other property is derived from this initial case, by a very natural extension of the principle of self-ownership, which in turn derives from the right of self-preservation.
The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. (§ 27)
By nature, you own your mind and body, and hence you necessarily own the efforts of your mind and body, from which it follows, in turn, that you own the results of those efforts, assuming these results are not already the rightfully acquired property of another. And once men pass beyond the “state of nature” in which things are given to all in common, to be claimed by individuals by means of their labor, into the realm of those goods which are already the property of other men, that labor which established initial ownership develops into the social practice of voluntary exchange (i.e., a market) through which new property is acquired.
Locke’s way of tying the origins of property rights to the principle of voluntary social interaction is as clear as can be, and as clear an indictment of today’s progressives and their entitlement-drunk dupes as one can find.
God gave the world to men in common, but since He gave it them for their benefit and the greatest conveniences of life they were capable to draw from it, it cannot be supposed He meant it should always remain common and uncultivated. He gave it to the use of the industrious and rational (and labour was to be his title to it); not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious. He that had as good left for his improvement as was already taken up, needed not complain, ought not to meddle with what was already improved by another’s labour; if he did it is plain he desired the benefit of another’s pains, which he had no right to, and not the ground which God had given him, in common with others, to labour on…. (§ 34, emphasis added)
In other words, rightful property is acquired by one’s effort and through consensual exchange. Coercion rooted in “the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious” is theft, and thus its product cannot be property, as one has no right to another man’s labor, physical or intellectual.
The reason that one has no right to the fruit of another man’s labor is not to be casually glossed, and cannot be overemphasized: the other man’s labor is itself his property, derived from his most fundamental property, namely himself. (This explains why state-controlled medicine is the ultimate policy prize of leftists; it directly attacks the heart of property rights, the right to the use and preservation of your own person.)
This brings us back to modern progressivism, and its chief mouthpiece, Barack Obama. By denying the inviolable right of the “successful” to the legitimately acquired result of their intellectual and physical efforts, Obama and his cohorts are denying the successful man’s ownership of himself. By implication, of course, this denial, though overtly aimed at the “wealthy,” is a collectivist net thrown over everyone. It is a denial of your self-ownership, and thus of your right to self-preservation. On this principle, you live by the grace of the state, with its roads and public schools, and therefore have no real claim on anything you might achieve or acquire in this life.
Private property is the key target of the left’s attack on freedom. Leftists know, in their blood if not in their minds, that property is their opponents’ last line of defense in the civilizational war. The right to property is the practical expression of so-called individualism, i.e., of the belief that the individual is the basic human reality. Collectivists reject this notion, believing instead that individuals are literally the products of history and culture, and that these latter terms are the ultimate realities. “You didn’t build that” is a perfect expression of progressivism’s loathing for the individual. There are no individual property rights, because individuals do not exist as such. They are merely derivative parts which owe their lives, their preservation, and the fruit of their labor to the whole, to society—in practice, to the state.
The fight to preserve private property is the political expression of something even more profound. It is the last stand of mankind’s battle to preserve reason, which teaches the metaphysical and moral primacy of the individual, against the irrational hordes for whom the collective is the only reality, the mindless conformity of “self-expression” the only morality, and coercive brutality the only truth.
(Originally published in August 2012)