Property, Collectivism and Utopia
12 October 2004

I have a web page devoted to "Utopia Links," most of which are to essays critical of utopianism. Perhaps that makes me an anti-utopian utopian.

My position is simple. New forms of social arrangement are possible. Actually establishing such things is very difficult. One must start small and expect a great deal of trial and error. Most attempts will fail, but if people have the right attitudes, the failures will tend to be gentle. People will go their own way, a bit wiser and with pleasant memories of comradeship and struggle and positive revolutionary energy and challenging the status quo by trying to create a living, working alternative, and all of this without hurting anyone or disrupting the lives of ordinary people. I've written a manifesto that discusses these ideas in greater detail.

So my utopian links are mostly to cautionary works. Today's blog entry, however, concerns an anti-utopian essay, Collectivist Utopias by Butler Shaffer that is mostly just silly.

Shaffer claims that property "is not a social invention or an ideological preference, but the most basic fact of existence, applicable to all forms of life." I dislike that great sweeping generality! I suspect if I were to argue this in Shaffer's Property class at the law school, I would lose. "Amoebas!" I'd say, and he'd come back with "Ingestion is nine tenths of the law!" and I wouldn't say anything at all for the rest of the semester. ;)

I really don't dislike the concept of "property," but it's hard to press it into service as "the most basic fact of existence." The B.F. of E. has to be something like "material" or "energy" or "consciousness" or "God." Property is important, it just isn't that basic.

I understand there are problems with calling anything a "social invention." I believe the Marxist thinking is something like this: since property was invented by human societies, it can be abolished by human societies and its abolition will mark the beginning of an eternal age of peace and prosperity for humankind.

Whoa, not so fast! Using some of Shaffer's words, I'd say that property is one of "the most basic fact[s] of" human societies. Societies that invented it tended to displace societies that didn't. Which is to say, stealing from members of one's own group was forbidden, but sacking other peoples' cities was a great sport. The point being, our understanding of "property" has undergone much refinement since the days of The Iliad. And, like other basic features of human life, property is understood in particular ways by particular societies. The Marxist idea that we can simply do away with property is, of course, lunacy.

The main problem with Shaffer's essay is that he doesn't explain why his absolutist concept of property is superior to the significant, but still contingent, property rights enjoyed by members of modern societies. He begs the question:

A corollary of statist theology is the belief that the absence of governmental authority is synonymous with "anarchy," and that such a condition equates with disorder. And yet, our lives are free, orderly, and peaceful only to the degree that we live anarchistically, without using force, violence, threats, or the infliction of death to accomplish our purposes. It is only when property boundaries are respected and considered inviolable, that peace and order prevail.
Actually, I'd say that we are free, etc., partly because the relatively few would-be criminals among us know that the state stands ready to respond forcefully to their misconduct. And I don't see any need for property to be absolutely "inviolable." If someone being chased by a bad person needs to cut across my lawn, I hope he or she does.

Shaffer writes:

All political systems are socialistic, in that they are premised upon the subservience of individual interests to collective authority.
That's just another grandiose generality. It presumes (without proving) that there is no valid reason for "collective authority." I can put up a picture in my mind of a world where all humans live autonomous, atomized, hyper-individualistic, "self-owning, self-directed" lives as imagined by Butler Shaffer. But there would be a swirl somewhere in the river of life and predatory forms of colectivism would emerge and the individualists could not withstand the onslaught.

The simple and admittedly unclean fact is: there are individualist and collectivist aspects to human life and the particulars of these aspects vary from one society to another.

The founders of the United States of America understood this. These educated, intelligent, involved men worked together and created a government that did an excellent job of allowing its free citizens more freedom than they would have had under any other government and, at the same time, giving them more protection than they would have had under no government at all.

Those who would work to re-establish a free society in the United States of America will learn much of what they need from the history of its founding and the writings of its founders. Warmed over Ayn Rand baloney won't be of much use. Nor will warmed over Karl Marx baloney be of much use to anyone seriously interested in utopia.

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Addendum, 22 March 2006:

Since writing the above, I've read a number of other articles by Butler Shaffer. Many times I've wanted to add some links here, but I just didn't get around to it. There is quite a bit more to his thinking than the ideas I comment on in the above. Check out the Butler Shaffer Archives.

Shaffer's most recent article, What Lies Ahead?, contemplates the demise of the constitutional system of government in the U.S.A. I disagree with many points in the article, but it is still very much worth reading and thinking about.

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