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Conservative Tenet # 10

I'll press on with # 10 of the Conservative Tenets. I'm really happy with the convo on # 8, but I would still really like a Conservative to show up and defend these. Not because I'm waiting with a cream pie, either; the Conservative Tradition is, presumably, the source of a lot of majority thought in this country, and while I am rejecting it, I'd like to be sure I'm rejecting it on the basis of what it actually is, rather than a caracature.

10. The prime importance of private property for liberty, order, and progress.

Here is an example of a part of the conservative tradition I totally fail to understand.

When I was younger, I was persuaded by the Neo-Mao-Marxists that private property was, in fact, a myth, and a destructive one, at that. I've since modified my views somewhat; I think there's a category of private property that should be respected: for want of a better definition, things that are an extension of the people they "belong" to. For me, it's a pretty small category: my toothbrush, some old (and some recent) correspondence, my clothes and personal accessories, a few dozen photographs and a few hundred computer files, my stuffed bear, the contents of about a boxful of scrapbooks and memorabilia. Irreplaceables. I'm willing to accept that they are vulnerable to decay, fire, theft, etc., but I am not willing to accept that anybody else has any claim on them that can be justified over my claim.

I hold, as you can probably guess from the above list, a pretty restrictive view of that category. I own hundreds of books and hundreds of CDs, some spiffy computer gadgets and some battered old kitchen implements, a couple of artworks and a couple of savings bonds, and a nearly complete set of San Francisco Giants Media Guides of the last 20 years. I'd be devastated if they were taken from me (by fire, confiscation, or theft), and not just financially. I accept that. But if somebody stole them, what about them exactly makes them mine? Your computer, your car, and your couch are not extensions of yourself; the state (or anybody) oughtn't take them away from you without good reason, but your "ownership" doesn't trump natural rights, or even Good Outcomes (although maintaining some stability of stuff is, in itself, a Good Outcome).

All of that said, if private property is a myth, it isn't always a harmful one. It does (sometimes), as the capitalists say, provide incentives for productivity, ingenuity, and creativity and certainly I'm in favor of those things. What is a harmful myth is stated explicitly in Tenet 10 upstairs: that private property is of prime importance. It isn't. It's of, at best, secondary importance, behind ... oh, compassion, ethics, a sense of history, reason, humility, and these great red outfits.

Seriously, a well-nourished, well-educated populace is of higher importance than private property for creating and improving liberty, order and progress.

Thank you,


Of all things, this is reminding me of the _Illuminatus!_ trilogy (Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson). In several of the multitude of appendices the authors riff on various political theories, including one non-mutually-exclusive exploration of the triplet of theses:

Property is theft.
Property is freedom.
Property is impossible.

Of couse, one of the other appendices entirely consists of the phrase:

Do you really believe this?

So perhaps this is more of a flavorful digression than a useful comment.

Also, those property statements (Property is theft, property is liberty, property is impossible) were attributed to Proudhon. See the English version of "What Is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government" for more info.

Heh. And that's what I get for absorbing my political theory second-hand. Thanks, Jed!

Btw, sorry if my phrasing was confusing -- I just meant that Shea and Wilson attributed all three of those statements to Proudhon, but I'm not sure whether the second and third were quotes (from translations of Proudhon) or paraphrases.

Anyway, wasn't meant as a contradiction to Dan's comment, more an elaboration.

The prime importance of private property for liberty, order, and progress.

I can't even begin to see how private property leads to liberty or progress. I can see property--as a common habit of thought*--being useful for order. ("This is mine, this is yours, let's build a nice tidy fence, no, no hedgerows, a fence...")

I keep trying to send a couple conservatives your way, but no luck so far. Perhaps I'm asking the wrong ones. Will plug along.

*I had written social instituion, but realized I wasn't sure that was the right concept.

Metasilk writes: "I can't even begin to see how private property leads to liberty or progress."

What do you take liberty and especially progress to mean? I think figuring out what progress we think it means to progress is important here.

I doubt that private property does, in general, lead to these things, but here's how I think the case might be stated positively, when contrasted to some extreme alternatives.

Private property can lead to liberty if the alternative is sufficiently oppressive, such as, "The King owns everything" or "Everything belongs to the Collective, which is the Party," or "In the State of Nature, no property rights exist; therefore, one can hold only what one can defend from one's neighbors." Even setting aside the question of whether or not the concept of liberty includes the freedom to do what you like with your property, if you don't have property or can't use it or anyone stronger than you can seize it, it's easier for a State or institution or more powerful person to control you.

If we define progress as "increasing the material comforts available to us," then possessing more property makes us more comfortable, and so constitutes progress. More generally, if wealth is good, then enabling people to keep the wealth they create, and enjoy it, encourages them to create more wealth, which keeps that old engine of industry and capital purring along nicely. That's progress, steady GDP growth -- the wealth of nations.

I guess I don't accept the "prime importance" of private property for liberty, order, and progress, but I can see that private property, when widely distributed rather than greatly concentrated, could be helpful in the securing of liberty and progress. The liberty case seems to me still worth making right now in the United States, as the discussion of tenet 9 has brought out. The progress case seems to me irrelevant to what progress needs to me for citizens of the United States at present, but that depends on a different view of progress.

There's also the belief (tying property to capitalism) that most people (in modern America, say) require the prospect of material reward in order to strive to succeed. If they aren't going to get something that they alone own for their efforts, then they aren't going to bother to try.

Or so the claim goes. I think different people may be motivated by different kinds of rewards.

my sweetheart has been reading and writing about the words and works of alfie kohn, who has been on a mission to disengage businesses and public schools alike from reward systems.

kohn's reasoning is, basically, that while some people thrive in some ways in a high intensity, rewards-based, carrot/stick environment, most people become stupid and craven. (even the success stories, if you follow them, crash and burn pretty hard. the experience of vietnam veterans, without the high profile.)

any system that claims its methods separate the wheat from the chaff has to defend itself, and usually fails on this ground: are you creating th chaff? what if it was all wheat before you started beating the field with your stick?

but regarding property, i think i can agree with this tenet in some ways, if we replace "private property" with "financial unencumbrance." our fictional conservative seems to be worried about indebtedness and yes, i think, if you're trying to build a myth of freedom, the first thing you have to do is declare financial independence.

I think capitalists (by which I mean libertarian style free-market types) would argue that private property is a necessary pre-requisite for creating nourishment, education, compassion, and reason. If nothing else, they'd invite you to point out any civilization in human history that provided a high level of those things, without a concept of private property.

In any case that's why those folks think that private property is of prime importance: Not because it's better to have private property than to have those other things, but because you can't have those other things in the first place if you don't have property rights.

From Tony Allen's Summer in the Park...
"Property is the political issue. 'You ask me what is property? Property is theft. Property is liberty. Property is impossible'. A paradox. What is property? If you are a sentient being treading lightly on this Earth and treating it with respect as a common treasure house for all, then property is impossible. If you pay a peppercorn rent for a secure tenancy that you are happy to call your home, then property is liberty. But if you spend your life working in a job you hate just to earn the money to pay the mortgage or rent the premises that you’d be glad to see the back of. Then your life has been stolen from you and Property is theft.

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