Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Saturday, April 26, 2003

Individual Property And Cooperation At The Heart Of Effective Economic Systems

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Interesting commentary on issues we take too frequently for granted and that are hardly questioned by anyone. "Do you really own yourself?" asks the author of this interesting law article to his University students.

Once you transpose these issues to the virtual world we are gradually moving into, some interesting new questions come up, and it is about time we start thinking about the answers.

Butler Shaffer writes:

"Observe the rest of nature: trees, birds, fish, plants, other mammals, bacteria, all stake out claims to space and sources of energy in the world, and will defend such claims against intruders, particularly members of their own species. This is not because they are mean-spirited or uncooperative: quite the contrary, many of us have discovered that cooperation is a great way of increasing the availability of the energy we need to live well.

We have found out that, if we will respect the property claims of one another and work together, each of us can enjoy more property in our lives than if we try to function independently of one another. Such a discovery has permitted us to create economic systems.

Such cooperative undertakings have been possible because of a truth acknowledged by students of marketplace economic systems, particularly the Austrians about human nature: each of us acts only in anticipation of being better off afterwards as a result of our actions.

Toward whatever ends we choose to act, and such ends are constantly rearranging their priorities within us, their satisfaction is always expressed in terms inextricably tied to decision making over something one owns (or seeks to own). Whether I wish to acquire some item of wealth, or to give it away; whether I choose to write some great novel or paint some wondrous work of art; or whether I just wish to lie around and look at flowers, each such act is premised on the fact that we cannot act in the world without doing so through property interests.

It is in anticipation of being able to more fully express our sense of what is important to us, both materially and spiritually, that we cooperate with one another.

"Property" also provides a means for maximizing both individual liberty and peace in society. For once we identify who the owner of some item of property is, that person´s will is inviolate as to such property interest. He or she can do what they choose with respect to what is theirs. If I own a barn, I can set fire to it should I so choose. If I must first get another´s permission, such other person is the owner. Individual liberty means that my decision making is immune from the coercion of others, and coercion is always expressed in terms of property trespasses."

At the same time, the property principle limits the scope of my decision making by confining it to that which is mine to control. This is why problems such as industrial "pollution" are usually misconceived, reflecting the truth of Pynchon´s earlier quote. A factory owner who fails to confine the unwanted byproducts of his activities to his own land, is not behaving as a property owner, but as a trespasser. Economists have an apt phrase for this: socializing the costs. He is behaving like any other collectivist, choosing to extend his decision making over the property of others!

But not all of us choose to pursue our self-interests through cooperation with others. Cooperation can exist only when our relationships with others are on a voluntary basis which, in turn, requires a mutual respect for the inviolability of one another´s property boundaries. Those who seek to advance their interests in non-cooperative ways, create another system: politics. If you can manage to drag your mind away from the drivel placed there by your high school civics class teacher, and look at political systems in terms of what they in fact do, you will discover this: every such system is founded upon a disrespect for privately owned property! All political systems are collectivist in nature, for each presumes a rightful authority to violate the will, including confiscation, of property owners. One can no more conceive of "politics" without "theft" than of "war" without "violence."

There is one person who can restore you to a state of self-ownership, however, and that person is you. To do so, you need only assert your claim, not as some empty gesture, but in full understanding of the existential meaning of such a claim, including the willingness to take full control of and responsibility for your life. While your claim will likely evoke cries of contempt from many, you may also find yourself energized by a life force that permeates all of nature; an élan vital that reminds us that life manifests itself only through individuals, and not as collective monstrosities; that life belongs to the living, not to the state or any other abstraction.

Read the full article Do You Own Yourself? by Butler Shaffer.
Butler Shaffer teaches at Southwestern University School of Law.

Readers' Comments    
2003-04-27 10:06:45

Josef Hasslberger

Many thanks, Robin, for posting this article. It's thought provoking and it clearly brings up an important question for all of us.

Transposing the question "do you own yourself" into the health area, we have an even more dismal picture. Medicine is strictly controlled, and we are told we must get vaccinated, we are told what medicines we may use and which ones not, what natural remedies we may or may not employ. Our "property rights" on our own bodies are continually infringed. Yet, legislators are quite quick to agree that people must be allowed "freedom of choice".

So just yesterday, I was thinking about the term "choice" as in "freedom of choice" and came to the conclusion that choice is not what it seems - having a choice does not mean you have freedom or, for that matter, that you own yourself - quite the contrary.

Once we have been given a choice, we are already in the hands of who gave us the options to choose from (excluding, by implication, all the other possible options). Take the EU on supplements. The eurocrats say that consumer choice is important, but THEY will determine what the safe choices are - meaning they will protect us from all the "unsafe" choices we might in our "ignorance" stumble upon.

Of course what is safe and what is unsafe is open to debate. We don't need to know, someone else will determine it for us.

So an important question for us to answer: Why would we be asking for "freedom of choice" when in the end we are by that signalling our agreement with those who would give us only limited (pre-determined) choices and thus assert their ownership over us?

posted by Robin Good on Saturday, April 26 2003, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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