Saturday, October 18, 2008

Is Property Theft?

There is a common theme among many on the left of the political spectrum, the idea that property is theft. It can be used as a justification for almost any government intervention into people’s lives, therefore whether it’s true is a pretty important question. So let’s look into it as rationally as we can.

First, we need to define some terms. The two terms we need to worry about are property and theft (I think we can leave “is” out for the time being).

Let’s start with the first, what is property?

There are a couple of different concepts for which the term “property” is used somewhat interchangeably. One is an object, such as a car, and the other is the control over that object, which can be said to be the property “right” or “ownership.” I think we can safely discard the first concept, since an object itself cannot be considered theft.

What constitutes a property “ownership”? Ownership of an object is control over that object. I own a car if I can make decisions about the use and disposal of that car. I can temporarily, and conditionally, assign some of that ownership to another person which is “loaning” the car to them. During the time that they have borrowed the car, they make all of the decisions for it, with the understanding that at some point they are going to return control of it to me. That brings an interesting point: If someone takes that car without my permission then they are quite literally in control, do they then own it? Yes and no. They own it in the sense that are making all of the decisions regarding its use and disposal. But there is another layer of ownership on top, which is a legal framework dealing with title. While they would own it for all practical purposes, I still own it in the theoretical sense. So this complicates things further, as there are practical and conceptual types of ownership.

I’m not sure which type of ownership is being referred to in the “property is theft” claim, so let’s look at both.

The practical type of ownership can only exist for either zero or one person at a time, things can never be simultaneously owned by more than one person. Certain constructs can make it appear that something is owned my multiple people, but these are just simulations. These simulations are achieved either through dividing an object into several parts (each with distinct ownership) or by switching ownership between people or a combination of both. A pizza, for example, can appear to be owned by all of the frat boys who paid for it, however, each piece can only be eaten by a single person, so it’s really just subdivided into smaller units. Likewise, an elevator in a condominium complex isn’t simultaneously owned by all residents, but is owned individually by each one as it is in use (or each half is owned if two residents use it at the same time).

So, is practical property ownership theft? First, though, we need to define theft. Theft is defined as taking property from another person without their permission. It’s critical to understand property in order to understand this definition. Using our practical definition of property, it can only theft if someone already controls (owns) the object. However, since the practical definition of property includes the caveat that something can be owned by no one, then the first owner cannot be taking it from anyone. Therefore, since the first practical owner of an object has taken that ownership from no one, it cannot be theft in that case. This means that practical ownership is not in itself theft even though it can be a part of theft. This leaves us with conceptual (or legal) property ownership. Is this theft?

Conceptual property can be thought of as “property rights,” these are human-made concepts of ownership. These rights are independent of, but quite often coincident with, practical ownership. They are also not intrinsic within the object in question, but are only a part of the human actors and their interaction with each other. Conceptual ownership is not objective, but is subjective to the people involved, and it can be defined in many (potentially infinite) ways. How can we possibly determine if conceptual property ownership is theft, if it has no one objective definition? Well, it’s a question of where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Going back to our definition of theft, something is only “theft” if it takes property from someone else. If two concepts of property conflict in theory, but never in practice, then neither one is theft since neither has taken anything from anyone. You and I can both claim to own the Brooklyn bridge, but as long as neither of us attempt to take physical control of it, then the conflict is moot and no theft has taken place. In other words, conceptual property ownership is only relevant when it affects practical property ownership. This leads us to the same result as before. Conceptual ownership cannot be theft in the situation where it leads to the first practical ownership of an object. Even if other’s had claimed to own something conceptually, they can continue to claim conceptual ownership and there is nothing taken from them.

In conclusion, we can see that property cannot in and of itself be theft, for the simple reason that the first owner of something cannot have taken it from anyone. Even if your personal concept of property is that someone did in fact own it before they did, that concept is still perfectly valid after they have taken ownership, for all of its practical consequences. This idea dovetails nicely with the homesteading principle, in that nothing can be owned until it has been used.

One caveat to all of this is that indeed much of the property today was in fact stolen from someone at some point. But while it’s true that theft has played a role in most property ownership today, it’s a mistake (if understandably easy) to take the logical leap to all property being theft. Unfortunately, it’s intractably complex to unravel all of the property theft and re-theft and re-re-theft in the past to return things to their proper owners, and any attempt to do so becomes just one more layer of theft on top of an already large pile. Even if you can identify the previous owner of property, can you be certain that they didn’t steal it and therefore have no more right to ownership than the current owner? Probably not, so it’s just adding on the the cycle of theft. Let’s stop it all now and get on with our lives.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Wire

I read an interesting post on one of my favourite blogs, Overcoming Bias. It talks about The Wire (a show I’ve never seen but heard good things about) and the political and economic views of its producer David Simon. Apparently the producer’s views are in conflict with some people’s perception of the show itself. This comment by the producer from a symposium really struck a nerve with me:

Baltimore has had the benefit of your free market for the last twenty five years. You can't tell me you've constructed a viable economic model that has nothing to do with government when one out of every two adult black males is without work in my city. ... The government has been utterly laissez faire, they've let the jobs go to the pacific rim, they are gone, and we've eviscerated the manufacturing class. ... We've had the trickle down, it didn't trickle down, sorry. ... There are ... an awful lot of moneyed people that are arrayed in such a manner as to avoid addressing these problems, because there's no profit involved in addressing these problems.

My knee-jerk reaction is to say that that is straight up baloney, but that’s an unsatisfying reactionary response. Instead, I realised, he’s actually right, but not quite in the way he thinks.

The government of Baltimore may indeed be laissez faire, but it’s not equally laissez faire. The laws there, as with most governments, are designed to help the rich and powerful stay rich and powerful and to keep the poor, poor. So the government is definitely laissez faire if you’re a rich but decidedly not so if you aren’t.

It’s unfortunate, but it’s how democracy works. Well-meaning people come along to create laws to help even out society, but once those laws are passed, the well meaning people think “job well done” and move on to other issues. Those who are left to deal with the law are those who have an incentive to twist them for their benefit, which they do quite well because they have the money and influence for it. For every law that holds down a big business, there are ten which hold down their competition (small businesses), so while big business may not be technically laissez faire, for all intents and purposes it is. Consider some examples:

  • A person without a job decides to open a coffee shop in their house, which is in a high foot-traffic area. Zoning laws make this illegal.

  • A disabled man would like to help out on a nearby construction site cleaning up, because it’s close enough to walk to, but his disability means he can’t work as much as other applicants. He suggests that he work cheaper than the others to gain experience and references. Minimum wage laws prevent him being hired.

  • A woman wants to make and sell pastries but the costs of building a second kitchen, as required by health codes, makes it impossible to start.

  • A poor man on welfare would like to take a part time job doing yard work, but in doing so he would lose his welfare benefits, so it’s not economical to do so.

  • An elderly lady wants to rent out some rooms to migrant workers, but is shut down by a crack down on illegal immigrants.

  • A young lady would like to start doing manicures in her house, but she doesn’t have the required schooling to get a license, and already works two jobs so she can’t get the schooling.

  • A midwife is forced out of business by new licensing pushed by the medical union.

  • And then, to add insult to injury, crack and meth flood the streets. Two drugs that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the drug war.

In decrying the laissez faire policies of the government, Mr. Simon is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. The problem isn’t the laissez faire policies themselves, it’s the fact that they only apply to a segment of the population. If they were evenly applied, then they wouldn’t e a source of problems, but a source of solutions.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cry Havoc

What if they held a war and no one came? As interesting as that question is, what’s more interesting is: What if they held a war and only one side came?

Well, that’s exactly what’s been happening under our noses for the last couple of hundred years. Only one side decided to show up to this war, and the sneaky bastards have been doing an excellent job of keeping the rest of us distracted with other things. The wars on Communism, Immorality, Drugs, Terrorism, Poverty, &c all served their purpose of misdirection. Like a good magician, they kept the ball moving under the cups and we were none the wiser.

This war has been for control of government, because government is the closest thing to absolute power that exists. Whoever controls government, controls the world. The side in this war that was smart enough to send in troops is Big Business. Which makes sense, they’ve spent a lot of time and energy building those businesses and heaven fore fend that something as silly as competition might tear that all down. Nope, best get Big Government in with the power to prop them up.

This isn’t to say that Big Business is one big organism working together for a common goal. No, Big Businesses hate each other almost as much as they hate us. That’s probably been the only thing keeping them from taking over completely; the fact that they’re constantly fighting with each other. But that doesn’t mean that we have any real power within the system, just that there seems to be enough space in the cracks to occasionally catch crumbs falling from the tables (I prefer my metaphors shaken, not stirred).

It’s time to admit the sad truth: We lost. It’s over. They won.

What to do about it? That’s a good question, and by “good question” I mean it has no easy answers. The “patriots” among us would say that we need to vote and be involved and run for office and all that other crap. Why is that crap? Because it’s not going to do a thing. We’re an occupied people, and the occupiers aren’t going to allow a system that could lead to their ouster. Far from it, the system is designed to give the appearance of “power to the people” while actually providing none. Voting is the new opiate of the masses. It’s easy to deny that the war is lost, or indeed that there even was a war. It’s easy because it’s less painful. Well, as painful as it is, we need to get past it, grieve, and start working on solutions.

Now, before I talk solutions, let me first say that I know this is all hyperbolical, but I’m illustrating a point. There really isn’t a secret cabal of people in smoky back rooms pulling everyone’s strings. There are cabals, and there are smoky back rooms, and there are strings to be pulled, but these are all over the place in different hands and they’re mostly metaphorical. It’s easy to claim that there’s a small “them” opposed to a big “us,” but that’s oversimplified. The fact is that “them” is the system itself, and not individuals. It’s sloppy, messy, fractured, and incoherent. You could kill a secret back room cabal with a single well placed bomb. The “system” though has no such weaknesses, it’s not a single entity. The “system” is all of us. We’ve seen our enemy, and the enemy is us.

But the truth is that “the people” really don’t have any power in government. At the local level, the people do have some power, but it diminishes as the government gets larger. The reason for this is quite simple: Power breeds power. The more influence an organisation has, the more power they can get, which leads to more power to gain power, ad infinitum. The organisations which have both the motive and resources to start this snowball going is the large corporations. Government has been moulded and twisted in order to serve their interests, and it has been done very stealthily. You should need no more proof than the recent bail-out from the US Congress. There hasn’t been a much more ideal situation for the government to listen to the people. A vast majority opposing the bill, a looming election with several seats at risk, and still government chose to use our money to pay off business people who took stupid risks.

So, what’s the solution? The first step in recovery is to admit, as I said before, that the war is over and we lost. Democracy is a failed experiment. It failed the Romans, it failed the Athenians, and it has now failed us. The second step is to recognise that there is an alternative. This is probably the most difficult step, because we’ve been indoctrinated from an early age that democracy is the pinnacle of human society, and all we need to do is tweak it. Just elect the “right” people and everything will work out well (since there’s a lot of people lining up to go through the meat-grinder of politics in order to help you, yup, that list is massive). Democracy is not an end in itself, it’s only a step in our evolution. Innovation builds on prior advances, and the same is true here. Democracy will lead to something better. One of the best places to start understanding this alternative is a book called “Healing Our World: The Other Piece of the Puzzle” by Dr. Mary Ruwart (available for free online). It lays out the alternative much better than I ever could. We need to learn that not only is the alternative better, but it’s actually possible.

The third step is the scariest, because it contains no guarantees. It’s to simply align our lives with the alternative and if we live free eventually our institutions will follow. As Ghandi famously said, “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.” We are the means, so let’s take care of that. Really, that’s all we can do.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

I Don't Think That Word Mean What You Think It Means

Harold Meyerson makes some ridiculous gaffs in his Washington Post op-ed this week. This sentence from the summary really blows me away:

It's not just investment banks that have fallen by the wayside in the recent carnage; it's the ideology of unregulated capitalism

Unregulated? I don’t think he uses the proper definition for that word. In his world “unregulated” must mean that there are still at least one activity that is not regulated by big brother. I wonder what he would call the situation where there was truly no regulation? Super-duper-bad-because-I-can’t-force-you-to-do-my-bidding-unregulated, probably.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Why I Don't Vote

I was reading and posting comments to a blog yesterday about voting. There seems to be a large number of people who were quite upset that some people choose to not vote, calling us lazy and saying that not voting means we don’t have the right to complain. I want to address some of these issues.

First, the old canard about not having the right to complain if you don’t vote. That’s straight up ridiculous, and here’s why. First, it’s not really a “right” they’re talking about, they’re talking about “moral authority.” But even then, it’s still wrong. Consider this question: If I go to the polling place and write “Winnie the Pooh” in for all candidates does that then give me the right to complain? If you say yes, then I contend there’s no difference between that and not voting. If you say, no, then it’s not really voting that gives me the right, it’s something else on top of voting. I’m not sure what that is, but it’s definitely not voting. Besides, is it necessary for Wal-Mart haters to shop there before they have the right to complain?

Here’s the bottom line on why I don’t vote: It’s not my government.

I don’t recognise the government, its leaders, or its laws. Why would I vote for it? I don’t vote for the leaders of the Masons or the Shriners or the Screen Actors Guild. That’s not to say that there isn’t a circumstance that could bring me to vote. I’m a practical man, after all. If there was something on the ballot that I felt would have a real impact on my liberty and had a chance of winning, I’d consider it. But those types of things are rarely on the ballot. Generally, the candidates are all so far removed from my values that I can’t distinguish them in any meaningful way, so I really don’t care who wins.

I’ve heard it said before, and I agree, “If voting could really change anything, it would have been outlawed a long time ago.”