Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.
“The secret of great fortunes without apparent cause is a crime forgotten, for it was properly done.”
—Honoré de Balzac
One of the simplest economic questions of all turns out to be one of the most complicated: Where did private property come from?
After all, private property is a shared fiction. There is no “property” apart from the legal rights enforcing it. Property is not, nor can it be, “natural.” We know that, once open a time, there was no such thing as private property. Indeed, this was the default condition for the hundreds of thousands of years while man subsisted as nomadic foragers, following herds of wild animals across the savanna and exploiting the abundant natural resources available to all.
There is no concept of “property” in the animal kingdom apart from that which an animal can defend or conceal itself. As the introduction to Primitive Property ponders:
No mere psychological explanation of the origin of property is, I venture…admissible, though writers…have attempted to discover its germs by that process in the lower animals. A dog, it has been said, shews an elementary proprietary sentiment when he hides a bone, or keeps watch over his master’s goods. But property has not its root in the love of possession. All living beings like and desire certain things, and if nature has armed them with any weapons are prone to use them in order to get and keep what they want. What requires explanation is not the want or desire of certain things on the part of individuals, but the fact that other individuals, with similar wants and desires, should leave them in undisturbed possession, or allot to them a share, of such things. It is the conduct of the community, not the inclination of individuals, that needs investigation.
The mere desire for particular articles, so far from accounting for settled and peaceful ownership, tends in the opposite direction, namely, to conflict and the right of the strongest. No small amount of error in several departments of social philosophy, and especially in political economy, has arisen from reasoning from the desires of the individual, instead of from the history of the community. [p. xi]
So that raises the question: how did we go from a system where resources were owned in common by all, to one where resources were owned by specific individuals who could deprive others of its use at will? And how and why did everyone else come to accept this situation?
After all, that’s what private property is. Private property is property where an individual or group of individuals can de-prive other persons of its use, hence private (privation also comes from the same root). Control and management over the item in question “belongs” only to certain people, and they and they alone are free to determine it’s use and claim the fruits of whatever it produces. They can also pass it down to their heirs in (theoretically) perpetuity.
Which is fine as well as it goes, but how then can one claim that such a system is based entirely on freedom and liberty? After all it’s all about taking liberty away from other people, particularly those who don’t own property. And those who do own property have considerable power over those who don’t—the very antithesis of freedom. Those without property have very little recourse.
Matt Breunig over at Jacobin points out that this is a serious problem with libertarian thought:
Perhaps the most interesting thing about libertarian thought is that it has no way of coherently justifying the initial acquisition of property. How does something that was once unowned become owned without nonconsensually destroying others’ liberty? It is impossible. This means that libertarian systems of thought literally cannot get off the ground. They are stuck at time zero of hypothetical history with no way forward.
How Did Private Property Start? (Jacobin)
If we accept that the only role of government is to guarantee private property rights, as libertarians claim, then shouldn’t we care about how those property rights came to be in the first place?
A problem with the concept of private property is that once private property becomes established in any society it sets in motion a Monopoly-style winner-take-all tournament where it accrues to fewer and fewer people over time. Things like the Law of Cumulative Advantage (a.k.a. the Matthew Effect) and just pure dumb luck ensure that more and more wealth accumulates to those who already have a lot of wealth to begin with, while those with already very little lose what little they have. This is so universal as to be considered almost a natural law.
This creates a polarization which has undermined every society that we know of since the dawn of agrarian civilizations thousands of years ago. It also appears to have very few good solutions.
An alarming projection produced by the House of Commons library suggests that if trends seen since the 2008 financial crash were to continue, then the top 1% will hold 64% of the world’s wealth by 2030. Even taking the financial crash into account, and measuring their assets over a longer period, they would still hold more than half of all wealth.
Since 2008, the wealth of the richest 1% has been growing at an average of 6% a year – much faster than the 3% growth in wealth of the remaining 99% of the world’s population. Should that continue, the top 1% would hold wealth equating to $305tn (£216.5tn) – up from $140tn today.
Richest 1% on target to own two-thirds of all wealth by 2030 (The Guardian)
It also puts paid to the idea that libertarianism and market relations are–or can be–systems entirely free of violence or coercion, unlike “oppressive” central governments. After all, isn’t depriving other people of the resources they need to survive and making them pay for it a kind of violence? How could it not be? Here’s Breunig quoting Matt Zwolinsky making this same point:
If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.
Again, what’s so funny about this insight is not just that it is a persuasive counterpoint to libertarianism, but rather that it seems to suggest that libertarian principles themselves forbid property ownership.
How Did Private Property Start? (Jacobin)
Similarly, any market-based system relies upon violence, direct or indirect, just as much as does any central government:
Can you imagine how capitalism could possibly function without coercion and the threat of violence? There would be nothing to stop theft and pillage of businesses, no claim to ownership over goods, no implementation of contracts, no enforcement of patents or protection against fraud. There would no incentive to innovate, to invest, to trade or to do any form of business. Without some degree of coercion we would truly be in a Hobbesian world where nothing was secure. There simply would be no such thing as capitalism without the security supplied by coercion.
But, an ancap would argue, we voluntarily enter into contracts, unlike any agreement we have with the state. It’s not coercion if we have agreed to it. But this is patently untrue of private property. No one (apart from the state and the previous owners) agreed to my parents ownership of their property. No contract was signed with their neighbours and no consent was given by anyone else in society. In fact no one ever agreed that property should be privately owned. Who ever said that land could belong to any one person? To many ancient civilisations (such as the Celts and Native Americans) this notion was as strange as any one person claiming they owned the air or the sky.
Both The State And The Market Are Based On Coercion (Whistling in the Wind)
Indeed, how can we have “pure and natural liberty” based on something as unnatural as private property? How can a system based on depriving others of their rightful share in the commons claim that it is really all about “freedom?” And how can a system which deprives others of the basic things they need to survive be associated with “liberty?” It doesn’t make sense. Furthermore, how can we assert that such a system is entirely free of violence and coercion? Isn’t it just a matter of who does the coercion and why?