Arguing about property

There are many different philosophical ways to arrive at an economically leftist political position. One of those philosophical approaches — which I think has been somewhat neglected — is centered on the issue of property ownership. Unfortunately, many — even on the left — will concede that property rights exist, and that the institution of property makes sense. Those on the left who accept property rights typically argue that those rights are qualified by some other countervailing social concerns.

I think this is the wrong move: the issue of property should be attacked head on for the incoherent mess that it is. In the above video, G.A. Cohen gives a very simple explanation of the issues with property ownership. Political conservatives — especially libertarians — really like to emphasize the right of individuals to own enormous sums of resources by appealing to certain processes. They will typically talk about voluntary transactions and mutually beneficial exchange.

These talking points have all sorts of responses, but the quickest one is just to attack ownership outright. You cannot justify ownership based on free exchange because ownership necessarily does not originate from free exchange: at some initial point, someone had to just grab some piece of land without exchanging with anybody. This is logically unavoidable.

So the question then becomes: how can that possibly happen? If property is justified by voluntary exchange, then how can property ever come into existence at all given that the first owner did not voluntarily exchange with anybody? Now, there are all sorts of efforts to explain how that initial appropriation can occur. Philosophers like John Locke, Murray Rothbard, and Robert Nozick give famous accounts, and there is significant amounts of literature explaining just how spectacularly they all fail.

But the easiest way to understand how original appropriation cannot be justified within a conservative/libertarian framework is by focusing on the idea of opportunity loss. When an individual declares perpetual ownership of some piece of unowned land, every other human being on earth suffers an opportunity loss: their opportunity to use that land has now disappeared. Opportunity losses are real economic harms.

To be concrete about this, consider an example. The piece of land down by the river is owned by no one; so everyone can use it. Sarah declares — on whatever property theory she prefers — that the piece of land by the river now belongs to her exclusively. But, wait a minute. The previous ability of others to use the land by the river has now vanished! They have been hit with opportunity losses. If one of the dispossessed were to say “this is silly, I do not consent to giving up my pre-existing opportunity to use the land down by the river,” Sarah uses violence (typically state violence) to keep the dispossessed out.

Unless unanimous consent exists, the original grabbing up of property results in violent, non-consensual theft from others. It is really just that simple. What follows from that conclusion is that the conservative/libertarian positions that depend on the sanctity of property rights are totally bogus. For instance, you cannot complain that taxes violently take material resources from you without your consent when property itself is predicated on just that. You cannot claim your enormous wealth was gotten fairly when the ownership of that wealth is predicated upon the non-consensual violence just discussed.

Given that this absolutist property rights position is totally untenable, the only remaining issue is what do you put in its place. Exasperated libertarians — unable to actually defend ownership — will typically shoot back that there is no other way to do it. If ownership is by definition a form of opportunity theft, then how do we ever move forward?

The alternative is not that complicated: subject resource use — both production and distribution — to social negotiation, i.e. democracy. This is basically the position of anarchists on property use. It is also at the core of left-liberal contractarian theories like those of John Rawls, and neatly folds into discursive democratic theories like those of J├╝rgen Habermas. The basic point though is simple: resource use and access is not something for which there is an objective answer; the answer is democratic decision-making. Now, we can roughly imagine what a democratic decision-making process about resource use would come up with. It would almost certainly be more egalitarian both in production and distribution than the system we currently have.

By rejecting the underlying property assumptions, we can open up a very clear avenue towards understanding that resource use must be governed by social negotiation. As I said at the top, this is not the only way to arrive at an economically left position, but I do think it is a particularly fruitful one.

The Goals of Occupy Wall Street

I have become increasingly annoyed by the rhetorical line that the goals of Occupy Wall Street are unclear. Mainstream media outlets have been pushing this line from the beginning and many regular people have picked it up as their position. What these media outlets really mean is that protesters at occupations have not written up a press release with explicit goals. This is the only thing that journalists can parse and comprehend.

For those of us who can look at a set of slogans, arguments, and ideas and actually piece them together ourselves, the complaints have been clear from the very beginning. The protests are about economic inequality and undemocratic governance. Almost everything coming out of the occupations can easily be placed into one of those two categories or both.

The Wall Street venue points clearly to that. It is the epicenter of economic inequality and the epicenter of undemocratic political corruption. The now-famous “we are the 99% slogan” is an objection to the massive economic wealth controlled by 1% of the population. But, it is also clearly — and perhaps more obviously — a point about democracy. What kind of democracy is it that 1% of the population receives more political attention and government aid than the other 99%?

You could go on and on through just about everything that has been said or recorded at these protests, and you would see it time and time again: protesters are angry at rising inequality and the perception that government does not work for the majority of the people.

Now solutions to these big problems are hugely complicated. Would anyone seriously say that they have a five-point plan to eliminate unjust economic inequality or put the government back on a democratic path? Probably not. But what you would expect people to do is have a multitude of ideas, and that is what you are seeing. That perhaps is what has genuinely confused some. Protesters have raised all sorts of issues that they see as contributing to the inequality and non-representative governance that they are upset about. Although they don’t tag those complaints as being under the headings of inequality and non-democratic governance, it does not take too much effort to realize that is what they are about.

Figuring out how to tackle economic inequality and undemocratic governance is not an easy thing to do, and — surprise! — it might take some time to formulate a complete remedy. Hell, maybe even some months. But just because it is not easily done or easily communicated in sound bytes digestible by the press, that does not mean that the fight is without merit or aimless. As protesters struggle in general assemblies to put their ideas together, those who care about the issues they are protesting should not be discouraged by a lack of a complete platform. Instead, they should join those who are equally indignant about the current state of affairs and add their ideas to fix it.

A racial justice case for economic competency

There is a worthwhile open letter on racialicious about the whiteness of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The phenomenon of white men leading the movement is fairly predictable. The fact that the movement has a strong anarchist contingent makes it even more predictable: anarchist subcultures are almost entirely white and heavily male from what I have seen.

But that aside, the most interesting part of the letter comes at the end:

We believe the white people of #OccupyWallStreet need to understand something: the feelings of economic insecurity, political powerlessness, and lack of support that have brought so many of us to the protests at Liberty Park have been lived by many of the people of color in this country for centuries.

To me, this is the best case for individuals interested in racial justice to become passionate about or at least competent in economic issues. Most racial justice advocates certainly recognize that economic problems like poverty and other forms of inequality disproportionately affect members of oppressed races. The 9.1% unemployment rate that people have been screaming about is actually lower than the unemployment rate typical in the Black community.

Despite the overwhelming importance of economic issues to racial justice — as well as gender justice and GLBTQ justice — precious little time is devoted to those issues among radical or leftist communities. Sure, you have some fairly superficial capitalist critiques. Someone might talk about wage slavery or whatever. That is all well and good. But I am talking about diving into some of the more boring, but arguably more practically important, issues like the Federal Reserve’s inflation target or monetary stimulus.

I don’t know if economic and monetary policy is too boring or has been coded as too white and too male, but the neglect of those issues is a serious problem for radical communities. Most in the community can usually talk about financial institutions stealing from people, but precious few can really go into the technical details of how it is done.

That is not to say that all racial justice advocates need to be able to explain what the Fed’s Operation Twist was and the theory behind it — people specialize in different things. But, I do wonder if the time spent reading yet another article or book on problematic language that is racist or marginalizing (which invariably says almost nothing new) could sometimes be better spent on becoming more competent on economic issues. You know, for the sake of pursuing racial justice.