Thursday, March 29, 2007

Van Ornum, Why Government at All? - Part II, Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI.

ON PROPERTY.

To reach a correct understanding of a thing, and be sure that we are only dealing with that thing, and not with other and extraneous things, it is necessary at the start to strip it of everything not assential to its own self. We can then deal with it understandingly and without danger of being led astray. Property is one of those things with which, unless we do that, we are certain to get lost in a multitude of nice distinctions as to what is, and what is not property.

Webster defines property as “that which is peculiar to any person, that which belongs exclusively to an individual; that to which a person has a legal title, whether in his possession or not; thing owned”.

According to that, in order to know what property is, one must be familiar with the laws of property at the time and in the place where the inquiry is instituted, or determined. The answer to the question to-day might not be a correct one to-morrow, because the law might change. For instance: a few years ago, in certain states certain men were legal property. The law has since changed and they are no longer so. The law in all the states to-day recognizes land as property; but certain men in those states deny its rightfulness, and seek to change the law. However improbable such a contingency may be, it is perfectly conceivable that they may succeed in getting a sufficient majority to change it, and take land out of the list of things which are property. Property has two sources, or bases. One is in nature, and the other is in the law. One is fixed, and the other changeable. One enforces itself unless interfered with by the [142] other, while the other requires courts, juries, policemen, detectives, militia, armies, navies, politicians, and taxes to enforce it, and then it doesn’t succeed very well. As I must adopt one or the other of these two ideas of property in order to consider it at all, I prefer to take the first, because it is the simplest, and because I am not learned in the law, and might get lost in its intricacies.

Natural property is what would be recognized as property even if human law were entirely abolished. Examining the subject, we find three things necessary: the first is, the person, because there can be no possession without a possessor, second the thing, or object which is possessed; and third, the condition of possession; that is, occupation.

In the absence of law I am free to go to nature and produce whatever pleases my fancy. I will not stand idle in want, while all nature invites me to come and take freely. There is no law to take the product of my labor from me in taxes, and if a landlord claims a share, I will laugh at him, because he cannot call the law to his aid to enforce his claim. I will even deny his right of property, because I am the possessor for the time being, and until I give it up, of the land I use. If another wants my product, I will tell him to go and produce for himself: that he is just as free as I am. He may steal it, but I don’t believe he will. There is really no reason why he should. In fact, there is every reason in the world why he should not. He is not prevented from producing freely all he wants; and he is, in common with all others, anxious to obtain the good will of other men, a desire which he is not prevented from gratifying. He is equal in opportunity, equal in dignity, equal in every essential of manhood with me, and with other men; and it is impossible for him not to feel the dignity of his equality in life. He would regard himself a mighty mean man if he were to steal my [143] substance under those circumstances. He would not do it more than once, because the shame would be so acute, and the fear of being found out so great, that I believe no man would try it the second time. In a community where all have an equal show—perfect freedom—there is no need of a law to punish crime, for there will be no crime to punish where there is no organized force in society capable of overcoming all opposition, and compelling obedience: no power sufficiently strong to systematically violate the rights of individuals. Individuals are free, which is to say that they are equal, or in other words, that they are secure. Thus we have liberty, equality, security, all comprised in the one condition of liberty. There being no laws of property, property has no special rights, and consequently the possessors of property have no more power than those who have none (if we can conceive of there be. ing any such under those conditions.) Property, conferring no power, can bring no distinction nor impart any influence; so that no one will seek it for those purposes. Its real purpose being to gratify desire, it will be sought solely for that end; and the accumulation of wealth will cease to be the all absorbing business of life. The real business will be the pursuit of knowledge, the gratification of the higher desires which are developed by increased knowledge; and the seeking of a distinction based upon what one is, instead of on what he has, the whole resulting in the cultivation and development of a loftier individual character.

I said that there are three things necessary to the condition of natural property. The first two are obvious enough; but the third requires a little consideration. Why do we say that occupation, or possession, is a requisite? If, in the absence of law, I am in possession of a thing, and there exists no organized force to take it away, I may fairly, in nature, be said to own it. It is the natural state of [144] ownership. I may part with it to another; but by so doing, I abandon my ownership, because there is no natural means whereby I can compel him to restore it. If he does so, it is of his own free will, and of the same nature as my abandonment to him. In the absence of any law of property, I may lay claim to any number of things which may be in the possession of another, but as I have no possession, and as there is no organized force which I can summon to my aid to get possession, there is no way in which I can enforce my claims; and consequently I have no natural property in those things. This is what is meant by possession, or occupation, as a requisite for natural property.

With possession as a necessary condition for property, the oppression of one man by another becomes impossible. No man can actually possess more than about so much. If one were to enclose a large tract of land, more than he could immediately use, and others needed that land. they would take it, irrespective of his claims. The human hog would have no means of keeping others from the feed, as he does now. But if he confined himself to his reasonable needs, and held only so much as he could fairly use and occupy in the then existing state of society, no one would have any inducement to interfere with him, because there would remain enough for all the others. As population, civilization, and subdivision of labor increase, the average area of land needed by individuals decreases; so that in a state of freedom, there can never be any overcrowding. Population can never become congested where all the land is open to use and where there is no external pressure preventing population from spreading.

If, also, a man should meditate to accumulate a quantity of goods far beyond his possible needs, he would soon find their possession irk some, requiring an amount of care and attention [145] the burden of which would compel him to desist. He could not get others to assume that care for him. They would rather care for their own; rand would have no need to engage themselves to another. And besides if he voluntarily turned over his goods to others for any cause he would have parted with possession and therefore with his property.

This natural condition of property, that of possession, or occupancy, is the first one that the law violates; and this violation is the key to the whole monstrous injustice of property rights. It is the foundation of all the inequalities of condition among the people in any country in this world; and the attempt to enforce that violation leads to most of the misery, wretchedness, brutality, and crime which afflict society. It is the taproot of slavery, of inequality and disorder. By conferring upon the possessors of property the right to part with that property and still own it; that is, hold a mortgage lien or encumbrance on it, and then attempting to enforce that ownership, it leads directly to slavery, subjection, resistance, strife, crime, misery, brutality, and a thousand attendant evils. Everything that the law touches it kills. Where it aims to protect property it violates it. It professes to promote liberty while it destroys liberty. It pretends to preserve public security, while it brings public and private security to an end. Rights conferred upon property increase the power of those who have property and decrease by so much the rights of those who have none. There is where inequality begins, by setting up artificial rights of property. For instance, by the privilege of holding what they do not directly possess, men can and do obtain a constructive possession of land merely to compel others to pay them for the privilege of using it.

That men are empowered to part with possession of their wealth and still hold the obligations of other [146] men to restore it, and pay interest for its use; and then to enforce those obligations by law— makes possible the whole fabric of mortgage and bonded indebtedness in the world.

Debt is one form of slavery. A man can never be free while in debt. The creditor holds over the debtor a power far more subtle than that of the master over his chattel slave, and nearly as absolute. He commands his services, can seize his person, can put him to open shame, can crucify his self-respect, can degrade and destroy his manhood. The interest he exacts is precisely of the same nature as continuous service of the slave. It is a contribution from the debtor for which he receives nothing in return; and it arises solely from that arbitrary provision of the law which invests property with power it does not possess by nature. The law establishes regulations according to which the most sordid and crafty can grasp the good things of this world, and make others dependent upon them for the commonest necessaries of life. Their slavery is made complete through their needs, because the law prevents their natural gratification. And when it has produced its legitimate result of building up a rich class upon the miseries of a poor class, it still farther increases the miseries of the poor by punishing as criminals those who justly rebel against its own violations of justice.

Does any one question the fact that these inequalities, oppressions and disorders arise solely from the law? Imagine then the law abolished, and who is there that would allow himself to be evicted for non-payment of rent? Who would submit to being sold out by the sheriff, to satisfy a mortgage, or a judgment of the court? But the court would have to go with the law; so there would be no court to give judgment. Where would Lord Scully get his power to collect tribute from the farmers of Illinois? Where would any landlord get the power to oppress his [147] tenants? There could be no such thing as tenants. What would give the bondholders the ability to live in idleness off the earnings of an industrious people? How would any monopoly in this world be able to maintain itself as a monopoly except for the law that protects the monopoly, and enforces claims of monopoly against the people? Who would consent to pay monopoly prices for anything after the power of the monopoly was gone? And how can there be any criminal violation of law when there is no law to violate? Apply the same process to every injustice and oppression in this world, and we get the same result. The law stands as the fortress of strength to every one of them. It is only by the aid of the law that any of them can do any harm. We have reared up a monster that is crushing us. There is no hope but to kill the monster. Still, I shall hear the objection that “landlords will cease to build houses if they can not rent them, and collect the rents; and people will cease to loan money if they cannot get it back with interest.” True, and when landlords cease to build houses for rent, men will build their own houses, which they will be abundantly able to do, for they will have no employer to take away all but a small part of their earnings. They will have neither rent nor purchase money to pay for a place to put a house; will not be robbed any longer in taxes to support other men in idleness; and there will be no more grinding monopolies to keep prices above their natural limit. And the same causes that emancipate men from the landlord, will do the same thing for them in relation to the lendlord. They will have no occasion to borrow when they are free to work as they will, and to enjoy the full fruits of their labor.

But make a law which permits men to hold what they do not possess, and of course, they will take the land; and if other men want it they must buy it, or rent it. If they want houses, their wages, [148] after taking out all the claims of monopoly, will seldom be sufficient to buy or build; so a landlord must build for them, and they become his slaves, or the slaves of the lendlord, which amounts to the same thing. A man cannot possess a thing, and not possess it at the same time. If a landlord builds a house, and voluntarily surrenders it to another, with or without payment, his natural property in that house ceases; and equity gives him no power to retake it without the consent of the new possessor. It is the law only that enacts the fiction that he can still own it after he has willingly parted with it. And by means of that fiction it is made possible for some men to live without labor, off the labor of other men.

Suppose we take a little closer look at the rights of property! If they depend upon the law, as they most certainly do, and if the law is the expression of the will of the people, (a pure fiction) then the people may, and will change it, when they change their will, which they are liable to do at any time; or they may repeal it altogether. And they are just as competent to abrogate it, if they choose, in any other way, without taking the trouble of a formal repeal. But if law is the expression of the will of a few favored ones who hold special privileges, called monopolies, and who control the courts, legislatures, and administrations in secret and subtile ways for their own advantage, which is certainly the case, then it is not entitled to even this consideration. In either case the people have a perfect right to change it in part, or in whole, as they see fit; and they cannot be accused of violating any proper code of morals, whatever may be the result of the change. If the morals depend upon the law, and the people make the law, then the morals must change when the people change the law. But if the morals depend upon the law made by monopoly, in the interest of monopoly, they are but false morals [149] at best, and are not binding upon the conscience of any man. If by the abolition of the law every so- called “vested right,” every bonded or mortgage indebtedness, every special privilege, every title to land not actually occupied by the claimant, and every tax were wiped out, it would not violate natural property in the slightest; nor would it violate any correct standard of good morals. It would only be a declaration of independence by the slaves; and few people at this day will deny to slaves the right to declare their independence. If these several “rights,” and privileges above enumerated are only legal violations of natural rights, and are maintained as a means of taking the earnings of the industrious without giving an equivalent, then they are only several forms of slavery which the slaves have a perfect right to throw off by any means they find most convenient, without consulting the convenience of their masters.

Webster’s definition of property is correct as applied to legal property, that is, the institution of property set up by the law. Mine too, is correct as applied to natural property.

There remains one more light in which to consider property. In the beginning of this chapter I spoke of the conditions of natural property as fixed, or stable. At other times, in the course of this work, I have spoken of property as temporary,—"a passing phase of human development." It is necessary to explain myself.

When I say that the conditions of true property are fixed and permanent, I mean, in the existing state of society. Civilization remaining what it is, or even developing all that it is allowed to develop under the repressive force of the law, property must continue to be practically what it is now. I say practically, because there are indications even now of its transient nature; indications small in themselves, but significant. A straw will point the current [150] as certainly as a whole haystack. But under the law, property must always accumulate in a few hands and manifest itself in vast fortunes, in wealth far beyond the possibility of enjoyment, opulence, arrogance, and despotism of the rich, along with the abject misery, poverty, vice, crime, slavish subjection, and degradation of the poor. No matter how much the aggregate wealth of the country may increase, it must continue to pile up in a few hands, and the effect is only to swell still further those great fortunes, and increase the arrogance and despotism of the rich.

These are the inevitable results of the law; and, knowing the conditions beforehand, one may always, with perfect certainty, predict the effect. With law hampering development the condition of natural property must remain nearly stationary. That condition cannot take on its natural and necessary changes, which it must do before humanity can develop to a much higher civilization.

Again presupposing the entire absence of laws of property, what must be its natural development? Already the tendency to a greatly increased aggregate production is a marked and almost universal characteristic. The more minute the subdivision of labor, the increase of labor saving machinery, improved processes, the development of new forces, new adaptations, and new uses, are going on at a rapidly accelerating ratio, while important economies are being effected. Where is all this to stop? Does any know of a stopping-place?

There is already a constantly increasing ratio of production; but then, with the barriers to production thrown down, the land opened up to unrestricted use instead of being held idle, monopolies, tariffs, taxes, licenses, regulations, and restrictions all swept away, and every man a producer in some form instead of as now, a large proportion living in idleness on the labor of others, what may we not [151] expect of this increase? Take it in the matter alone of the increase in the number of laborers, and think what that means. A very small proportion of all the active labor now employed is adequately employed; that is, is employed to the best advantage. Much of it is idle a large proportion of the time. All of it is poorly paid, and consequently it has little heart in the work, and little stimulus to exertion.

Remove these obstructions; and add to the numbers of the producers, say, one-fourth of the entire male population, who are now idlers, and see what a mighty force is added to labor; what a powerful impulse is given to production. It means not merely the physical labor of so many more men, but so much more thought, so much more skill, so much more ingenuity, and so much more inventive genius. If human advance was a walk before, it must be a run now. And more, it must advance as with leaps and bounds.

Under such circumstances how long will it take for every man to become wealthy? And with universal wealth, the machine everywhere taking the place of manual labor, emancipating mankind from toil beyond what the needs of a healthy activity demand, life must become one everlasting holiday. The labor of keeping accounts or exacting payment between individuals will become irksome, and be abandoned. Property, under these circumstances, cannot long continue to be an individual possession, but common, each taking and using as much as he or she likes, precisely as the members of any family in comfortable circumstances now take and use as much food from the common table as suits their desires.

Thus, through absolute universal freedom, the anarchist reaches the end for which he strives; the state socialist attains his goal; the communist realizes the conditions of which he dreamed, and every [152] social reformer attains his Utopia. It comes as the result of the unrestricted play of man’s selfish nature. It requires no change of heart, no regeneration, and no stifling of the natural impulses of man. It is a condition which cannot be made. It must grow. It cannot be organized any more than one can organize a lily. Freedom is the one sole condition of its growth.

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