Cultural hegemony and the naturalness of property

That property institutions are socially constructed is so perfectly obvious that it hardly needs arguing. What else are they if not constructed? Did they exist before human beings existed? No surely not. Did they pop into existence as soon as that first creature with human-like DNA was born? Was it at that instant moment that the structure of the cosmos demanded that sacks of animated matter (humans) had entitlements to other sacks of matter (ground, resources, and so on), and that they could violently exclude those bits from everyone else, as a matter of right? Do non-human animals have property rights? And no I don’t mean: are animals territorial? I mean: do they have property rights, claims of ownership that are more than merely the ability to use brute violence to hold on to the things they control?

Obviously the notion that one set of fundamental physical particles (a human being) “owns” another set of fundamental physical particles (property) is a high-level emergent abstraction that only exists in the consciousness of human beings. That is not to say it is a bad abstract notion or mechanism for organizing society, not necessarily. You will find all methods of organizing society and allocating scarce resources involve social construction.

I bring this up because Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum are talking about this today. I had my shot at this topic a while ago in the runaway blog sensation “There is no such thing as redistribution.”

The takes are all the same. Property ownership is a social convention, just like any other. At any given time, our society is comprised of a huge cocktail of institutions that ultimately decide who gets what, when, where, and how. It is therefore totally nonsensical to look at one institution — for instance a transfer program — and say that it is somehow mucking with the natural order of things. Institutions don’t muck around with some existing order. Institutions define the existing order, even those that involve taxing and transferring. Or conversely we could say that it is all mucking all the way down: everything, including property institutions, is distortionary mucking relative to the no-government baseline, whatever the hell that might look like (Hobbesian state of nature maybe?).

Now Kevin Drum, noting how undeniable it is that property institutions are social institutions, raises a more interesting question:

So here’s the thing to noodle on. Despite having seen this argument made dozens of times, and despite its obvious force, I’ve never really seen it made in a way that’s very persuasive at a gut level. Conservatives have done a very good job of convincing the public that rules which favor the rich really are the most natural ones, and you fiddle with them at your peril. Liberals, conversely, haven’t done a very good job of convincing the public that a different, less business and wealth-centric set of rules, would be equally natural, and would benefit more people. Why is that?

I do not think this is that difficult a question. The answer is that cultural hegemony exists. We are all born into a world where property institutions exist, and that seeps into our conception of what the world is like. People do not decide one day that property institutions are natural or default. They just assume them as such because they are a fundamental feature of what shapes their world. As they say: the fish don’t notice the water.