- One of my favorite quotations comes from Thomas Pynchon:
"if they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to
worry about answers." Our world is in the mess it is in today because
most of us have internalized the fine art of asking the wrong questions.
Contrary to the thinking that would have us believe that the conflict,
violence, tyranny, and destructiveness that permeates modern society is
the result of "bad" or "hateful" people, disparities
in wealth, or lack of education, all of our social problems are the direct
consequence of a general failure to respect the inviolability of one
- I begin my Property classes with the question: "do
you own yourself?" Most of my students eagerly nod their heads in
the affirmative, until I warn them that, by the time we finish examining
this question at the end of the year, they will find their answer most
troubling, whatever it may be today. "If you do own yourself, then
why do you allow the state to control your life and other property
And if you answer that you do not own yourself, then what possible
can you raise to anything that the state may do to you?" We then
to an examination of the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford.
- The question of whether Dred Scott was a self-owning
individual, or the property of another, is the same question at the core
of the debate on abortion. Is the fetus a self-owning person, or an
of the property boundaries of the mother? The same property analysis can
be used to distinguish "victimizing" from "victimless"
crimes: murder, rape, arson, burglary, battery, theft, and the like, are
victimizing crimes because someone's property boundaries were violated.
In a victimless crime, by contrast, no trespass to a property interest
occurs. If one pursues the substance of the "issues" that make
up political and legal debates today, one always finds a property question
at stake: is person "x" entitled to make decisions over what
is his, or will the state restrain his decision-making in some way?
what people can and cannot put into their bodies, or how they are to
their business or social activities, or how they are to educate their
are all centered around property questions.
- "Property" is not simply some social invention,
like Emily Post's guide to etiquette, but a way of describing conditions
that are essential to all living things. Every living thing must occupy
space and consume energy from outside itself if it is to survive, and it
must do so to the exclusion of all other living things on the planet. I
didn't dream this up. My thinking was not consulted before the life system
developed. The world was operating on the property principle when I arrived
and, like the rest of us, I had to work out my answers to that most
pragmatic of all social questions: who gets to make decisions about what?
The essence of "ownership" is to be found in control: who gets
to be the ultimate decision maker about people and "things" in
- Observe the rest of nature: trees, birds, fish, plants,
other mammals, bacteria, all stake out claims to space and sources of
in the world, and will defend such claims against intruders, particularly
members of their own species. This is not because they are mean-spirited
or uncooperative: quite the contrary, many of us have discovered that
is a great way of increasing the availability of the energy we need to
live well. We have found out that, if we will respect the property claims
of one another and work together, each of us can enjoy more property in
our lives than if we try to function independently of one another. Such
a discovery has permitted us to create economic systems.
- There is no way that I could have produced, by myself,
the computer upon which I am writing this article. Had I devoted my entire
life to the undertaking, I would have been unable even to have conceived
of its technology. Many other men and women, equally unable to have
the task by themselves, cooperated - without even knowing one another -
in its creation. Lest you think that my writing would have to have been
accomplished through the use of a pencil, think again: I would also have
been unable to produce a pencil on my own, as Leonard Read once illustrated
in a wonderful, brief essay.
- Such cooperative undertakings have been possible because
of a truth - acknowledged by students of marketplace economic systems,
particularly the Austrians - about human nature: each of us acts only in
anticipation of being better off afterwards as a result of our actions.
Toward whatever ends we choose to act - and such ends are constantly
their priorities within us - their satisfaction is always expressed in
terms inextricably tied to decision making over something one owns (or
seeks to own). Whether I wish to acquire some item of wealth, or to give
it away; whether I choose to write some great novel or paint some wondrous
work of art; or whether I just wish to lie around and look at flowers,
each such act is premised on the fact that we cannot act in the world
doing so through property interests. It is in anticipation of being able
to more fully express our sense of what is important to us, both materially
and spiritually, that we cooperate with one another.
- "Property" also provides a means for maximizing
both individual liberty and peace in society. For once we identify who
the owner of some item of property is, that person's will is inviolate
as to such property interest. He or she can do what they choose with
to what is theirs. If I own a barn, I can set fire to it should I so
If I must first get another's permission, such other person is the owner.
Individual liberty means that my decision making is immune from the
of others, and coercion is always expressed in terms of property
- At the same time, the property principle limits the scope
of my decision making by confining it to that which is mine to control.
This is why problems such as industrial "pollution" are usually
misconceived, reflecting the truth of Pynchon's earlier quote. A factory
owner who fails to confine the unwanted byproducts of his activities to
his own land, is not behaving as a property owner, but as a trespasser.
Economists have an apt phrase for this: socializing the costs. He is
like any other collectivist, choosing to extend his decision making over
the property of others!
- But not all of us choose to pursue our self-interests
through cooperation with others. Cooperation can exist only when our
with others are on a voluntary basis which, in turn, requires a mutual
respect for the inviolability of one another's property boundaries. Those
who seek to advance their interests in non-cooperative ways, create another
system: politics. If you can manage to drag your mind away from the drivel
placed there by your high school civics class teacher, and look at
systems in terms of what they in fact do, you will discover this: every
such system is founded upon a disrespect for privately owned property!
All political systems are collectivist in nature, for each presumes a
authority to violate the will - including confiscation - of property
One can no more conceive of "politics" without "theft"
than of "war" without "violence."
- Every political system is defined in terms of how
is to be controlled in a given society. In communist systems, the state
confiscates all the means of production. In less-ambitious socialist
the state confiscates the more important means of production (e.g.,
communications, steel mills, etc.). Under fascism, "title" to
property remains in private hands, but "control" over such
is exercised by the state. Thus, fascism has given us state regulatory
systems, in which property owners - be they farmers, homeowners, or
- have the illusion of owning what they believe to be "theirs,"
while the state increasingly exercises the real ownership authority (i.e.,
control). In welfare state systems, the state confiscates part of the
of individuals and redistributes it to others.
- As stated earlier, property is an existential fact.
the society in which we live, someone will make determinations as to who
will live where, what resources can be consumed by whom (and when), and
how such property will be controlled. Such decisions can either be made
by individual property owners - over what is theirs to control - or by
the state presuming the authority to control the lives of each of us. When
such decisions are made by the state, it is claiming ownership over our
- It is at this point that I let the students in on the
secret the political establishment would prefer not to have revealed: the
13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not end slavery, but only
it! That most Americans acquiesce in such political arrangements, and take
great offense should anyone dare to explain their implications, has led
me to the conclusion that America may be the last of the collectivist
to wither away. Most Americans, sad to say, seem unprepared to deny the
state's authority to direct their lives and property as political officials
see fit. The reason for this, as my first-day question to students is
to elicit, is that most of us refuse to insist upon self-ownership.
- We may, of course, choose to accept our role as
chattels, particularly if we are well-treated by our masters. We may be
so conditioned in our obeisance that, like cattle entering the
we may pause to lick the hand of the butcher out of gratitude for having
been well cared for. On the other hand, we may decide to reclaim our
by taking back the control over our lives that we have long since
- Perhaps the insanity of our social destructiveness -
including the Bush Administration's deranged declaration of a permanent
war against the rest of the world - will bring about an examination of
alternative ways of living together in conditions of peace and liberty.
Our political systems cannot bring about such harmonious and
ways because they are premised on a rejection of the principle of
In a society of self-owning individuals, there would be no place for
bureaucrats, and other state functionaries. Like the rest of us, they would
have to confine their lives to minding their own business, and deriving
whatever benefit they could from persons who chose to cooperate with
- There is one person who can restore you to a state of
self-ownership, however, and that person is you. To do so, you need only
assert your claim, not as some empty gesture, but in full understanding
of the existential meaning of such a claim, including the willingness to
take full control of and responsibility for your life. While your claim
will likely evoke cries of contempt from many, you may also find yourself
energized by a life force that permeates all of nature; an élan
vital that reminds us that life manifests itself only through individuals,
and not as collective monstrosities; that life belongs to the living, not
to the state or any other abstraction.
- Butler Shaffer teaches at the Southwestern University
School of Law.
- Copyright © 2002 LewRockwell.com