Sunday, January 25, 2015

Property Wrongs

It was a Mexican fascist who taught me the case for reparations, although that wasn't really what we were talking about. He was explaining to me that he wanted Mexico to declare war on Spain.

"Why?" I asked. I was baffled, but I could tell he was serious.

"Because they stole our gold," he replied.

"But that was... like... five hundred years ago!" I spluttered. "All the people who did it have been dead for hundreds of years!"

"Yeah," he said calmly. "But the people in Spain today live better because of it. And the people in Mexico live worse."

And that made sense. The gold lifted from Mexico hundreds of years ago was invested in the Spanish economy and infrastructure. It built schools, businesses, libraries, and hospitals. It lifted the entire nation up economically - some more than others, of course, but the dividends on those investments are still being paid to the Spanish people. And not to the Mexican people.

José had a point, and it didn't take me long to realize that the same reasoning applied to the descendants of slaves in modern America. If my grandfather kidnapped your grandfather and forced him to labor for him for free, my grandfather would be able to pass the fruits of that stolen labor on to me, and your grandfather would not have been able to leave the fruits of his labor to you. It's not even mostly about inherited currency, either; it's about health and capital and education and opportunities and influence and a social safety net - all the things that can accrue and grow over time as wealth is passed on and invested across generations. There is a sense in which America - with an infrastructure and economy built in part on slave labor - collectively owes something to the descendants of slaves.

But the farther back and the deeper you look, the more complicated it all becomes. If I stole your life savings, it's logical to look to correct that by forcing me to pay it back to you. Push it back a generation, and it gets more complicated. If my father stole your father's life savings, plunging your family into destitution, it's possible that the end result of it all is that you are now working the drive-thru window to put yourself through community college, while I got to go to private schools, had private tutors, and am now able to give my full attention to my education at Yale, thanks to my parents paying my tuition and giving me a nice college trust fund. On the other hand, maybe my father drank and gambled it all away, while your family had some fortunate breaks, and I'm the one working the drive-thru window while you complete your Master's at Yale on a full scholarship. In the latter case, is it justice to force me to "pay back" what my father stole from yours?

Push this out a few more generations, add in all manner of circumstances that can change fortunes (conquest, changing laws, criminal activity, the ups and downs of the market, natural disasters, and health and personal issues) and the whole mess gets impossible to untangle. If the descendants of slaveowners owe reparations to the descendants of slaves, is there anything owed by the descendants of Russians to the descendants of Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Kazakhs? How about the English/Irish troubles? And how will the debt to the American Indian tribes ever be repaid? When you look at the way wealth inheres and accrues to people, and how it periodically gets redistributed by various means, large and small, justice is even harder to pin down.

Let's go all the way back to the beginning - to human beings spreading out across the world. Perhaps when the first humans encountered unpopulated lands and began taming herds and building farms and cities... perhaps then each act of claiming land and livestock was legitimate, and didn't involve stealing from anyone. But how long was it before the first invasion? The first theft of land and goods, the first demand for tribute, the first act of forced labor? Each time wealth was transferred from one person or group to another by force of arms, by theft, by trickery, by slavery... each time, it was then invested in the family of the robber or thief or merchant or king or slaveholder. This wealth built generations of education, of relationships, of business structures and artifacts and industries, before it was again raided or stolen or otherwise redistributed. Every time any of us receives the benefits of wealth - every time we attend a school built and staffed by others, every time we borrow a book from the library, every time we enjoy the convenience of city streets and the peace to shop in a well-stocked grocery store... heck, every time we log on to the internet - we are receiving stolen wealth. All human wealth is bloody with the countless crimes of human history, and it is impossible to ever untangle the mess of human history and restore this wealth to its rightful owners - not only because those owners are long since dead, but because this wealth has been transferred countless times, invested (well or poorly) and grown or shriveled accordingly.

So we're left with the situation we have: all wealth is ultimately stolen, but there's no reasonable means of returning it to its rightful owners, or even of determining who the rightful owners are.

Now, I know a fair number of libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, and they all place a very high value on property rights. I would ask them: Do you believe that stolen wealth should be returned? If so, is there a statute of limitations on that - a point, after which, if you can avoid justice you are no longer obligated to return what was stolen? Is there any wealth in this country (or in this world) that isn't at least partly built on conquest, slavery, fraud, and exploitation?

Ownership is a matter of consent and monopoly. A person cannot be said to own something if no one else agrees that he owns it. A person can be said to own something if he can convince everyone else to leave it alone - or at least to ask permission before using it. This convincing can happen in a number of ways, depending on the economic level of the relationship between the parties involved.

At the level of Family, to the extent that anyone does monopolize something, it's managed within the family. My brother and I may agree that this bottle of shampoo is mine, and that one is his, but if there were only one bottle, we would work out how to share it without too much hassle, out of concern for one another.

At the level of Friendship, property is agreed to by an unspoken code of courtesy that need not be codified. I may borrow my neighbor's hammer, but I will ask first and return it in good condition because I care about maintaining friendly relations with him.

At the level of Commerce, property agreements are managed by impersonal laws. To the extent that all affected parties acknowledge these laws, peace is maintained, and everyone involved agrees to the same distribution of property because they agree to the same standards by which said property is distributed. I agree that Farmer Bob owns the calf that stumbled into my barn this morning because the cow on his farm gave birth to it, and we both agree that a calf belongs to the owner of the cow that birthed it.

When you deal with someone who does not agree to the same Commercial standards you do, you find yourself in a state of War with them. In War, the strong do as they like, and the weak suffer what they must. Consensus about who controls what property is achieved at gunpoint. I agree that the Khan now owns my herd of horses because his archers have surrounded my farm and I have to choose between that and being shot full of arrows.

Most of us are used to speaking about property as if it were some sort of absolute fact of nature, when it is actually solely a matter of agreement between people. A private monopoly on property exists only to the extent to which people agree that it exists. Imagine I claim to own a stretch of road, and to demand that anyone who uses it pay me $10 for the privilege. Now imagine that no one else who uses it pays me any mind, and that I have no means of enforcing my claim - perhaps I'm unarmed or unwilling to shoot the people who ignore my demands, and my neighbors would lock me up if I tried doing anything to the road itself. My claim to ownership is as meaningless as Joshua Norton's imperial claims.

In fact, most of the things we think of as belonging to us in some absolute sense do not, in fact, belong to us at all. At best, we are given temporary stewardship of them, and while we may have the ability to misuse that stewardship, we also have a moral obligation to use it for the greater glory of God. Things that fall in this category include not only our material possessions, but also our time, our physical bodies, our health, our thoughts, and our lives.

As Job said, after losing everything he had, "Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away." Before we are born, we do nothing to earn the life that is to come; it is all a wonderful gift - a gift from God and our parents, and the whole world around them that sustains them. When we are born, we come into the world with nothing, helpless and completely dependent. Each breath we draw, each step we learn to take, each skill we learn is, again, a gift from God and from our family and our neighbors. As we grow, we accumulate the things we think of as belonging to us: goods, strength, skills, respect, honor, property. But some day, sooner or later, all those things will be taken from us, whether one at a time or all at once. When we leave this world, we go naked - even the pharaohs whose bodies were buried decked in gold did not take their earthly treasures with them. We are given control over some things for a time during our sojourn on earth, and then they are taken from us again. During that time they are a gift - ultimately an unearned and undeserved gift - but the gift is always and only temporary.

So where does this leave us? All the wealth and property that exists today is the result of an impossibly tangled chain of injustice. Property is simply a matter of agreement anyway. And all property is, ultimately, only temporary stewardship, not absolute ownership. Now what?

We have a situation today in which some few people own property they don't even know about, much less have ever visited. On the other hand, many of the rest of us inhabit houses and do all the work of running businesses that we do not own. We are kept from ever having a chance to own these homes and businesses in large part by the high rents and low wages we agree to with our landlords and employers. It's a vicious cycle that keeps the poor poor and the rich rich: if I can't accumulate enough wealth to buy my own home or own my own business, I must continue to pay high rents to my landlord and provide cheap labor to my employer.

Note that I said that we "agree to" these rents and wages. We consent to them - they are mutually consensual arrangements between landlords and renters, and between employers and employees. However, I do not (as do many of my libertarian friends) believe that consent alone makes an agreement just. In a the free market, all negotiations are about leverage: the more leverage you have, the better the terms you can negotiate for yourself. In negotiations for housing or employment, leverage favors the few wealthy over the many poor. Just because Pullman can raise rents and lower wages on the people living in his town doesn't mean it's morally just for him to do so.

In fact, I would go a step further and say that rent and wages are an imperfect approximation of just property distribution. Ideally, every family would own its own home and business. In medieval times, when a young man went to work for a blacksmith, he would start by doing the menial work the master smith was, perhaps, too busy to do himself: sweeping floors and carrying wood and water. As he got more familiar with the shop, the master would perhaps involve his apprentice more and more in the more highly skilled and technical aspects of the job: stoking the fire, holding the tongs, etc. As the apprentice grew more comfortable with these tasks, he would be shown more of the craft, until finally the smith got too old to work, and left his former apprentice to become master of the shop and pass down the craft to a new apprentice.

That is a just relationship between a master and servant: the servant is being trained up to replace the master as owner of the business. In some family businesses, that is still the way things are run. All too often, though, today's workers are treated not as apprentices, but as serfs; they are brought in at a low wage, and expected to keep repeating the same menial tasks every day at work, never being brought in to the inner mysteries of the trade, and certainly never prepped for ownership. A permanent class of workers is expected to keep working for rock bottom wages, while a permanent class of owners maintains ownership and control of businesses they neither oversee nor even understand, but which they retain all the profit from nonetheless.

We have farms owned by people who have never visited them, worked by people who will never own them. If those farms had been free open land, these people could have worked that land and retained the full profits from that work, but there is no free open land for them to work - they have to sell their labor to landowners, and if they try to farm on a landowner's unused land, they will face legal sanctions. Something is wrong with this.

I don't have a systematic solution to this, and I wouldn't trust the same bunch of pandering crony capitalists who got us into this mess to get us out of it. Our economic disease will not be healed by a jobs bill in Washington, DC, or by an amendment to the Constitution. I also don't trust a violent coup or revolution to fix things; almost without exception where a violent revolution takes place, the new crop of leaders are at least as bad as the old crop, and the situation for the common person gets worse.

My only suggestion is to begin by altering the way we think about justice and ownership. Keep in mind a few principles, let them inform your actions in the world, and share them with others:

  1. Centralization of power, influence, and wealth is a bad thing. Because of the nature of power and human ambition, wealth (like all other forms of power and influence) tends to accumulate in the hands of increasingly smaller numbers of people. However, the nature of markets and economies is such that maximum profit and benefit is generated when the largest possible group of people have independent agency and the ability to operate their own businesses and own their own homes. Wide distribution of wealth and power is a good and healthy thing.
  2. Property is a matter of agreement, and agreements can be renegotiated. For the time being, for instance, we all agree to pay back the loans that were taken out by a small number of American elected officials to "bail out" the banks that hold most of our homes and lives in hock. What if we one day decided, in large enough numbers, that that agreement was foisted on us under fraud and duress, and that our creditors could damn well go after the bankers themselves if they ever wanted to see the money again?
  3. The nature of money, influence, and authority, is that it is given, not owned. A man has wealth because the rest of us agree to recognize it. He has influence because the rest of us listen to him. And he has authority because the rest of us invest it in him.
  4. At various points in time, in American and English law, there have been allowances made for squatting or homesteading. The basic principle behind these laws was sound: if Person A owns something but can't make use of it, and Person B can make use of it but doesn't own it, squatting laws and homestead acts made provisions for transferring ownership to Person B. This is a view of property that is based less on abstractions like legal deeds, and more on physical, personal control of the property in question. Perhaps revising our notions of property to include an element of personal, physical control would be a good idea: making a path to ownership of homes and businesses for the people who live and work in them.
  5. None of this belongs to you anyway, and whatever you have is a gift. Even to be a serf on Earth is a priceless gift. Give thanks and praise to God, and use what you have been given for his greater glory and to uplift the least of your neighbors.

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