Private Property and Social Order

by Butler Shaffer

This is chapter seven from Butler Shaffer’s recent book “Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social Order” (pdf-version).

Every thing that tends to insulate the individual to surround him with barriers of natural respect, so that each man shall feel the world is his, and man shall treat with man as a sovereign state with a sovereign state;—tends to true union as well as greatness.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson[1]

Because life is dependent upon the use and consumption of property, it is the nature of any property system—whether private or collective in form—to generate divisions between those who will, and those who will not, be entitled to the enjoyment of various resources. It is the entropic nature of life itself, not some belief system, that dictates such harsh realities. The competition that invariably exists among all living things for negentropic resources injects an element of conflict into the life process that cannot be wholly excised. There will also be disappointments or even hard feelings over the outcomes of such contests. Nothing in the holographic model of social systems suggests that billions of people will suddenly develop a collective mindset, and agree to allocate resources in a manner that reflects a cheerful unanimity. Such illusions of group-think are what have turned the dreams of utopian thinkers into the nightmares under which others have suffered and died. Society will become more peaceful and cooperative only as individuals transform the nature of their conduct with others. Such changes will arise marginally, at the boundaries where people transact their relationships and exchanges with one another. Like the young boy at the party chaperoned by my daughter, such individual transformations in consciousness are more likely to arise in an environment in which one’s claims to ownership are respected by others. As a means of harmonizing our needs for both self-centered activity and social cooperation, a system of private ownership allows us to experience the deeper meaning of being human.

Again, what is being proposed here is not a utopian ideology, in which humanity will miraculously march off together, in lockstep cadence, to yet another visionary millennium. Utopian thinking is premised on the delusion of universally shared preferences, as well as the idea of a fixed end state. But a creative and vibrant society is a continuously changing one, comprised of people with a multitude of varied tastes, preferences, ambitions, and skills. And as history has demonstrated, creative change is not necessarily favorable to all mankind. There were many contemporaries for whom the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution were not beneficial. The Luddite riots, for instance, were greatly influenced by the reaction of many artisans to the threats that industrialization posed to their established economic interests.

Regardless of the form of the social or political system under which we live, it is unavoidable that each of us will be entitled to use and consume particular resources to the exclusion of everyone else. This is but a fact of existence. Again, we witness the interrelatedness of apparent opposites: both individual liberty and social order depend upon a system grounded in the division that inheres in the nature of property. But lest any be inclined to treat this only as a paradoxical feature of privately owned property, it must be noted that collective ownership fosters the same divisiveness, but without a concomitant benefit to our sense of individuality, a topic to be explored more fully in chapter nine. Whether we live in the most ideologically repressive Marxist state, with its insistence upon state ownership of all productive property, or in a stateless community of cooperative, uncoerced individuals, some method will have to be arrived at for determining the answer to the question: who gets to make decisions about what resources? Whether the process involves voluntary, marketplace negotiations among competing interests, or the arbitrary determinations of bureaucratic agencies, the use of a given item of property will be enjoyed by some to the exclusion of others.

Given the nature of property, there must be some arrangements for deciding who gets to stand or sleep or work or play within a given space and period of time, and who gets to consume what resources to the exclusion of everyone else, in our efforts to sustain ourselves. One thing is clear: all five billion of us cannot sleep in one bed at the same time, or eat the same hamburger. Whether I decide—by my act of asserting a claim to and taking control of previously unowned resources, or by purchasing the claim of another—where I am to live and sleep, or whether this decision is imposed upon me by some state bureaucrat, the inescapable fact remains that I will end up someplace, if only by default, and to the exclusion of everyone else on the planet. What this means is that any method of making such decisions will always separate the “occupier” or the “consumer” from the “non-occupier” or “non-consumer,” the best intentions of the market participants or the noblest state housing commissar to the contrary notwithstanding.

Whether property is to be controlled privately by individuals, or collectively by the state, tells us much about our existential sense of being. Are human beings ends in themselves, or only means to the ends of others? Do we regard ourselves as unique individuals, or as undifferentiated parts in some giant piece of social machinery? Are our individual interests to be considered inviolate, or subject to preemption by those who enjoy power?

Private property, as a system of social order, reflects the extent to which we are willing to acknowledge one another’s autonomy and to limit the range of our own activities. Private property is the operating principle that makes real Immanuel Kant’s admonition: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.”[2] It is a tenet that not only diffuses authority in society, but helps us reconcile our seemingly contradictory natures as self-seeking individuals who, at the same time, require some form of social organization in order to survive. Such a system of social individualism reflects the paradoxical nature of reality, in which self-interest finds expression in cooperation with others.

Respecting the inviolability of the boundaries that enclose our neighbors’ property claims accords them our respect for the autonomy that is essential to any meaningful form of individual expression. In acknowledging one another’s realms of unimpeded activity, we not only confirm our sense of their self-justifying existence but, in so doing, dissolve the barriers of distrust that separate us. Only in a condition of such mutual respect can we expect to find a reasonable basis for social harmony. Knowing that our claims to immunity from trespass are likely to be respected, and being aware of the advantages of cooperation, we are more inclined to organize ourselves in peaceful and productive ways than we are when, as now, organization tends to be grounded in fear and the violent and divisive assumptions of coercive power.

The property principle operates as a buffer, separating the realm of your decision making from mine. We need to have our will free of coercion, and the inviolability of our sense of self acknowledged, before we will feel comfortable enough to cooperate with others and feel safe within groups. Our social organizations must reflect these qualities with a sense of wholeness and integrity before we can live in harmony with our neighbors, instead of the counterfeit forms offered by the state. It is only within systems in which each of us enjoys the unrestrained autonomy to act in furtherance of our individual interests that our personal and social interests can merge. When decision-making is decentralized into a system of privately owned property, individual self-interest and cooperation coalesce to maximize personal liberty and social harmony. With authority diffused into the hands of individuals, each of us enjoys control over some portion of the world within which we can pursue our interests in our own way. What we share in common are our individual needs for a sphere of action in which we can be as autonomous, spontaneous, arbitrary, self-indulgent, and as unanswerable to others as we care to be, without being subject to any coercive preemption by others. At the same time, cooperation with others is premised upon sharing or exchanging with one another that which belongs to each of us (e.g., our personal energies or our material resources).

The decentralization of decision-making that is implicit in a system of privately-owned property provides another instance of the unity that inheres in apparent opposites. By distributing authority widely rather than narrowly, private property provides a greater flexibility allowing individuals to voluntarily join with others in concentrated communities in which they can choose to associate with others in pursuit of shared interests. The Silicon Valley, artists colonies, Detroit automobile manufacturing, Hollywood film production companies, and religious communes, are just a handful of examples of the interrelated dynamics of decentralized and concentrated activity.

Whether our relationships with others will be increasingly based upon state-driven coercion, or will find a more creative expression in agreements, depends upon our attitudes about the inviolability of property claims. When we acknowledge property boundary lines, rather than statutes or court decisions, as confining the range of our personal actions, mutual respect for one another’s boundaries integrates our individual and social needs and, as a consequence, generates liberty and order in society.

One need not rely on hypotheticals or theoretical analyses to demonstrate the social, or transactional, negotiation for property claims. There is an emerging field of study in law regarding the role played by social norms—enforced informally by interpersonal pressures rather than coercive state power—in maintaining peaceful and orderly behavior. The Amish have used such methods for decades to provide for an orderly, productive, and mutually-supportive society.[3] In Northern Ireland, a nation bloodied by political and religious divisiveness, many of those desiring to end such violence have taken to publicly shaming the participants into changing their ways.[4]

There is a well-documented history of the respect accorded to property and contract rights along the overland trails in nineteenth-century America. In a harsh and uncertain environment in which there were no courts, judges, prisons, administrative agencies, or other government law enforcement officials, emigrants freely and peacefully negotiated with one another over claims to all kinds of chattels and intangible property interests. High levels of respect were accorded the property claims of both acquaintances and total strangers, even in situations in which scarcity existed. Such negotiated rights were sometimes so sophisticated as to provide for contract terms designed to benefit future wagon trains. In one such case, a wagon train had built a raft for use in fording a river. Upon completion of its crossing, the wagon train company sold the raft to the next wagon train, with the understanding that it would later be sold to subsequent trains at a price no higher than that agreed to by the original contracting parties. When a much later wagon train tried to sell the raft to its successor at a higher price than the original one, the successor was able to successfully invoke the terms of the initial contract to which neither group had been a party.[5] Such an example attests not only to the power of social respect for property interests, but to the effectiveness of information systems, even on the undeveloped frontier, in communicating terms of agreements to unknown strangers!

A more recent study involves residents of Shasta County, California and their methods for dealing with damage done to farmers’ lands by ranchers’ cattle. Some parts of this agricultural county were legally defined as “open range,” and other parts were designated “closed range” territories. In open range areas, cattlemen were lawfully free to allow their livestock to wander freely, without being legally responsible for damages that might accrue to the crops of neighboring farmers. If the farmers wanted to prevent such trespasses, they would be expected to build fences to keep out the offending cattle. In closed range areas, by contrast, the cattlemen had the legal duty to fence in their cattle, and would be liable for damages done to neighboring property owners should the fences not keep their animals in.

Those trained in purely positivist definitions of proper behavior would intuit that, if X’s cattle got off his property and wandered onto Y’s land and did damage, the question of X’s liability would depend upon which legally defined area was implicated. It did not. The residents of this county had their own understanding of the rights and obligations of property ownership totally apart from what the formal legal system dictated. It was understood, both by the cattlemen and the farmers, that if X’s cattle caused damage to Y’s property, X was obligated to compensate Y for his loss, even though, in an open range district, he would not have any legally enforceable duty to do so. Because such expectations were contrary to formal legal requirements, the residents developed their own informal, nonviolent ways of enforcing these community standards upon the occasional recalcitrant cattleman. Subtle methods of communication, informal accounting practices, and economic inducements, helped provide the social pressures to keep this system working.[6] These examples illustrate how peaceful, long-term systems of order can be voluntarily maintained, not only in the absence of state rules, but in spite of them.

Nowhere was the order produced through mutual respect for property claims more vivid than in the early gold mining camps in the western states. So prevalent was the regard for one another’s property interests that miners’ gold, bank deposits, and even gambling stakes could be freely left in the open by their absent owners without fear of loss. One early scholar observed:

The miners needed no criminal code. It is simply    and literally true that there was a short time in California, in 1848, when crime was almost absolutely unknown, when pounds and pints of gold were left unguarded in tents and cabins, or thrown down on the hillside, or handed about through a crowd for inspection. . . . Men have told me that they have known as much as a washbasinful of gold-dust to be left on the table in an open tent while the owners were at work in their claim a mile distant. . . . There was no theft, and no disorder; few troublesome disputes occurred about boundaries and water-rights.[7]

A writer from that period, Sarah Royce, stated: “I had seen with my own eyes, buckskin purses half full of gold-dust, lying on a rock near the road-side, while the owners were working some distance off. So I was not afraid of robbery.”[8] Based upon his personal experiences, an Idaho attorney from this period declared that “life was safe, property was safe” in the mining camps.[9]

Although another student suggested that widespread honesty among the miners was brought about by a respect for “the summary justice likely to be dispensed by the crowd,”[10] such presumed fears did not seem to dissuade the criminal types who swarmed into California following the discovery of new gold fields in 1849. The divergent behavior of the early miners and the plunderers was more likely due to dissimilarities in character of the two groups, as is reflected in the observation of one contemporary that the latter group “were a different kind of people; more of the brute order.”[11] Such behavior differences demonstrate, as Carl Jung and others have insisted,[12] that the quality of life in any society is the consequence of the character of the people who comprise it—that social order is a product not of the fear of punishment, but of the respect neighbors accord one another’s interests. In our dealings with the state, we do not negotiate from the position of an uncoerced free will, but are compelled by threats of violence to our interests. In contrast, our informal, social negotiations are premised upon a mutuality of respect for our individualities.

Such examples provide evidence of how individual liberty, social harmony, and responsible behavior are measured by the respect we accord to one another’s property interests. Likewise, tyranny, social disorder, and irresponsible conduct derive from property violations, which become formalized as the modus operandi of all political systems.

If we are to learn to live responsibly, we must begin by understanding that the “wrongs” others perpetrate upon us, and from which we desire protection, are nothing more than trespasses to our property interests. A peaceful social order consists, in major part, of men and women conducting their affairs without causing injury to one another, an end that requires us to focus our attention on understanding the social implications of property. Such crimes as murder, rape, assault and battery, and kidnapping, are not—despite the pronouncements of government officials—wrongs committed against an amorphous, collectively-defined “society,” but violent trespasses against the property interest the victim has in his or her person. When we declare such actions to be “crimes against the state,” we are implicitly recognizing the state’s claim to the ownership of our person.[13] Likewise, acts of burglary, theft, embezzlement, arson, forgery, and shoplifting, are not offenses against the state, even though the state brings the criminal action against the accused, but invasions of the real or personal property interests of an owner.

It is the distinction between crimes in which there are property trespasses, and those in which such trespasses do not occur, that constitutes the difference between “victimizing” and “victimless” crimes (once again, a failure to heed Pynchon’s warning about the adverse consequences of asking the wrong questions). So accustomed have we become to blurring the meaning of property in our lives that we have reduced the distinction to a vague abstraction that begs the question of what kinds of acts these are. Stated in property terms, a victimless crime (e.g., drug use, gambling, prostitution, pornography, smuggling, etc.) is one in which the state, for reasons of its own, chooses to criminalize conduct that would not otherwise amount to a property trespass against another. Criminalizing such conduct, in fact, violates the property interests of the purported criminal as well as his customers by depriving them of the legal right to exercise control over their own property.

The same analysis can be applied to other types of injuries. The tort of injuring another through the negligent operation of an automobile, for instance, amounts to a trespass to the boundaries of the victim, as well as to other interests (e.g., the victim’s car) damaged by the defendant’s act. The defendant’s wrong was not that he had been driving in a negligent or reckless manner—even though such behavior may have produced the injury—but that he had failed to control his property in such a way as to prevent a trespass upon the interests of his victim. A world organized on the principle of the inviolability of property interests is a world that reduces injuries to others. Responsible behavior is thus encouraged, as the scope of one’s liberty to act ends at his or her property boundaries.

Likewise, a breach of contract action arises out of an alleged violation of a property interest. A and B enter into an agreement by which A is to sell B her claim to the ownership of a new television set, and B agrees to pay A $500 for the set. When it comes time to perform, A delivers B a used television set. Because a contract is nothing more than an agreement to transfer ownership claims, B has not received the ownership claim for the agreed upon property.

Most of our societal problems arise from a failure to stay out of one another’s way. Schools interfere with children’s learning, not only by thwarting their wills, but in replacing intellectually significant learning with politically-based indoctrination; government agencies impede our lives by economic regulations that increase production costs which, in turn, generate higher prices and increased unemployment and, as a consequence, foster greater tendencies toward concentration that accelerate entropic processes;[14] state-licensed medical professions and the Food and Drug Administration dictate what health care services we may lawfully select, and what treatments and medications we may consume; governments hinder the free expression of ideas and lifestyles; and countless coveys of people-pushers demand legislation mandating standards of personal behavior ranging from child-rearing practices to smoking, to the kinds of food and other substances we may ingest, to our safety, to our bodily weight, to how we speak to one another, to whether we can own guns, and other practices that are regularly added. This madness has gone so far as to produce a bill in the California legislature making it a crime punishable by as much as a one-year prison sentence to spank a child.[15] Whether as parents, or in social relationships, or in efforts to make the world better, we insist on getting in one another’s way because we have not learned that most important of social graces: respecting the inviolability of one another’s boundaries. Like young puppies, most of us are not housebroken. We babble our bromides about the insignificance of property principles, because to do otherwise would limit our ambitions to control the lives of others and reveal our mutual contempt for one another’s independence.

Such attempts to micromanage the daily lives of others seem to be part of the continuing effort by adherents to the vertically-structured social model to maintain its established position. As suggested earlier, the continuing process of change that is bringing about decentralized, horizontal networks poses a threat to members of the institutional order who are disinclined to participate in the transformation. To such people, social systems that run themselves without formal direction and superintendence is not only disturbing to their ambitions for power, but represents a form of fanciful thinking. With an effort that approaches a kind of religious reaffirmation of the old order, the statists resort to a constant repetition of their centralist, coercive methods at ever more detailed levels of human behavior. Such conduct is reminiscent of the behaviors Abraham Maslow saw exhibited by brain-injured patients who, in their repetitious patterns “manage to maintain their equilibrium by avoiding everything unfamiliar and strange and by ordering their restricted world in such a neat, disciplined, orderly fashion that everything in the world can be counted upon.”[16]

Much like Maslow’s patients, statists see their world of centralized power structures being enervated by life forces over which they are losing control, and imagine that the rote repetition of familiar patterns will reconfirm its vibrancy. At an unconscious level, perhaps, it may be sensed that if the ancien regime is undergoing its decline and fall, the dying model might be revivified—or at least its vital signs made to so appear—by the proliferation of new, centrally-imposed restraints upon the lives of unfettered men and women. Such obsessive efforts seek to reconfirm the validity of an antiquated system that no longer satisfies people’s expectations. War, of course, is the most dramatic expression of politically-structured violence as well as being an undertaking that brings fearful people back into a herd mentality, which is why it has become the cornerstone of modern statist efforts to preserve power over people. Perhaps this is why expansions of the war system have been such frequent precursors to the collapse of previous civilizations.

Because the power of the state directly correlates with the extent to which it usurps control over privately-owned property, political and legal systems have little interest in generating a fundamental respect for property principles. As we have seen, alternative rationales (e.g., “health,” “safety,” “offenses against the state”) are offered as the basis for resolving wrongs or disputes that would otherwise be subject to a property analysis. When “reasonableness,” the “balancing of interests,” “fairness,” “justice,” and other amorphous vagaries become substituted for an owner’s objections to a more clearly defined trespass, it becomes quite easy for people to call upon the state to force a neighbor to cease doing what a property principle would otherwise allow him to do.

This is how the violation of property interests underlies most of our social difficulties. Conflict arises from the failure of people to effectively identify or to respect property boundaries. When we regard one another’s ownership interests as inviolable, interpersonal conflicts do not arise. But as we have seen, every act of the state involves a forcible intrusion upon the interests of property owners. Whether such governmental action takes the form of regulations that restrict an owner’s control of his or her property, or forcibly transfers ownership claims to others (e.g., eminent domain), or amounts to outright confiscation (e.g., taxation), actions by the state invariably produce conflicts between owners who seek to control their property for their own ends and non-owners who use state power to force owners to conform their behavior to their purposes. The state, whether through statutory enactments or judicial holdings, thus introduces contradiction and conflict into society. The peaceful and harmonious relations that would otherwise follow from a respect for property claims, collapse into a formal system of predation, with people organizing into groups to achieve what would otherwise have to depend upon contracts among owners.

Intellectuals, most of whom have their own preferences for political intervention into people’s lives for redistributive purposes, have not been very supportive of a system that would extend liberty into the realm where people most need it: the conduct of their daily lives. In the world of ideas, where intellectuals are most protective of the inviolability of their boundaries, most accept, as an expression of the essence of liberty, the principle erroneously attributed to Voltaire: “though I disapprove of what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.” But why are such sentiments so narrowly confined to intellectual matters, and rejected when applied to the more mundane actions that are central to and comprise so much more of our daily lives? How much freer would both our intellectual and material lives be if we were to modify the aforesaid proposition by telling our neighbor: “though I disapprove of how you conduct your life, as long as you do not violate the property boundaries of others, I shall defend to the death your right to act as you choose”? We might then move beyond the empty bromides by which we feign “love” for our fellow humans while, at the same time, seeking ways to force them to conform to our expectations.[17]

Social order arises not so much from learning to love our neighbor, as in learning to respect him. We do not exhibit such respect when, in order to accomplish our purposes, we insist upon violating his will regarding what is his to control. Neither do our professions of love for others mean much when we are prepared to deny others their existential individuality. There is nothing quite so destructive of social harmony as arrogant, self-righteous men and women mobilizing against the tastes and lifestyles of their neighbors.

When we insist upon the use of legalized force to address what we perceive as social problems, we not only subvert the conflict-resolving role property plays throughout much of nature, but we foreclose any alternative practices. The assumption that only coercive intervention by the state is worthy of practical consideration in such matters ignores the role of informal, interpersonal methods of resolving our differences with one another. Worse still, our resort to force sends a message of contempt to our fellow beings whose purposes we find incompatible with our own, further alienating ourselves from one another and fostering more conflict. We have too often failed to heed the warning of Emerson: “Good men must not obey the laws too well.”[18] We have also overlooked the value of our own life experiences for lessons in resolving disagreements without having to resort to formalized coercion.

As long as we live in society, we will always have a need for standards of conduct, a condition necessitated by the property question. If the inviolability of property boundaries is a civilizing standard that makes for a free, creative, and orderly society, the question arises: how is such a principle to take form in the interactions of people? Historically, we have too often turned to the state to have rules of conduct generated by fiat and enforced by coercive means. But when force is employed, property interests are at once violated. The state becomes the very problem it had, in theory, been created to prevent.

But what if rule-making and enforcement is confined to property owners themselves, beginning with the self-ownership principle? What if our respect for the inviolability of property claims began with the recognition that each person was the sole authority over their respective interests, and was obligated to no one else unless he or she had voluntarily chosen to be bound? What if we recognized that, if I wanted to enjoy some property interest of yours, I would have to enter into a contract with you to do so?

This approach raises the question: what if one party breached the contract, or intentionally or unintentionally trespassed the interests of another? How would the inviolability principle be enforced? Would it be possible to do so without the use of coercion, whether employed by the state or the offended individual? Is it possible to use boycotts, ostracism, marketplace pressures, or other social means—which do not forcibly deprive the offender of his property interests—to persuade him to rectify his wrong? Might we also resort to contracts of insurance to compensate us for our losses? Because we are so unaccustomed to thinking in such non-coercive ways, and regard rule-breaking as an invitation to resort to force, we are apt to dismiss these suggested alternatives as “impractical.”

Albert Einstein informed us that “problems . . . cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them.”[19] If our prior learning leads us to react with an angry “no” to the question of seeking alternative practices, let us remember that such prior learning is what is destroying us! If we are to resolve our problems before they consume us, we might begin by taking the responsibility that is inseparable from decision-making control over our lives. To the degree we insist upon directing our own conduct, we hasten the decline of the prevailing model of state authority. In the course of doing so, we may actually generate—rather than just think or talk about—a system of rule-making and enforcement of horizontal dimensions with no hierarchy of authority, and in which all rules arise through the peaceful means of contract, custom, and manners.

As suggested earlier, the property concept qualifies as an informal system of manners, a way of respecting the worthiness and inviolability of others and, in reflection, ourselves. The word “manners” has a common ancestry with the word “manage,” meaning “to control and direct,”[20] which has property connotations. Perhaps our more distant ancestors understood what we have chosen to ignore at the cost of the conflict and violence that permeates modern society: namely, that proper and well-mannered behavior is intrinsically related to the decision making of property owners.

Each of us experiences trespasses in our life, although mostly in de minimis ways. A neighbor’s dog makes a mess in our yard, or barks incessantly at night; a teenager annoys us with a “boom-box” turned up as loud as it will play; or we are bumped and jostled as we get onto a subway or elevator. We may feel anger at the disrespect shown to us by the other person, although an apology—which acknowledges our claim to not be trespassed—usually subdues our reaction. Once again, we see the role played by manners in giving respect to individual boundaries in situations, usually of a transient nature, in which property interests are not clearly defined. Unfortunately, in a culture in which people have internalized the idea that “property rights are not absolute,” an appeal to manners often avail us not. We tend to become more confrontational, looking upon every such trespass, no matter how trivial, as a call to more aggressive responses.

Part of learning to live as mature individuals in society consists in our willingness to absorb unintended and relatively insignificant trespasses by others, without developing a self-righteous need for retribution. Implicit in failing to do so is much of what we see in our current world: the breakdown of harmonious interconnectedness as so many treat every slight or encroachment as a cause for angry reaction if not a lawsuit. But how much of such a reflexive response is occasioned by a widespread disrespect for property interests perhaps leading one who has been subject to even a relatively minor intrusion to overreact to its significance?

Because the control of private property and the corruption of language are central to the functioning of political systems, it is not surprising to discover the property concept twisted in ways that make it increasingly difficult for people to distinguish trespasses by others from crude, ill-mannered, or offensive behavior that does not result in a trespass. Herein are found the seeds of “political correctness.” More and more of us seem prepared to regard repulsive and contemptible language and behavior as we would a physical trespass. In some instances, there is a willingness to impose harsher penalties upon vulgar or abhorrent conduct than upon physically intrusive offenses. Expressions of racial, ethnic, or gender-based hatred or other forms of bigotry; motorists’ “road rage”; or ill-chosen words that do not comport with fashionable attitudes, are often met with demands for punishment that exceed any injury-in-fact.

Personally offensive behavior can generate reactions that, to the recipient, may be more upsetting than a physical trespass. One person may make vulgar comments, or walk down a public street in the nude, greatly annoying others, even though no property violation occurs. It is in such instances that manners have particular application, with non-violent social pressures— such as ostracism being a more effective means of reforming rude behavior than resort to governmental trespasses upon the offending person.

The distorted thinking that conflates trespassing and non-trespassing behavior has reduced the capacity for making critical distinctions in other areas. Thus, at least one prominent feminist has written that “intercourse”—the means by which reproduction takes place among most species—is a “violation of boundaries” of women, who are “forced” to submit to “those who dominate them.” She proceeds to analogize women, politically, to “occupied people.”[21] Likewise, school administrators have found themselves unable to distinguish between a child bringing a cough drop to school from one bringing heroin; airport security agents periodically bring ridicule upon themselves by failing to differentiate a genuine weapon from fingernail clippers or other harmless items; while the criminal justice system continues to insist that no important distinction exists between victimizing and victimless crimes. It is the essence of intelligence to be able to discriminate, i.e., to make relevant distinctions between and among various facts and principles and alternative courses of action. Not that many years ago, it was considered a compliment to tell another that he or she had a “discriminating” mind. Thanks to the politically generated corruption of language and thought, such a statement now stands as an accusation, a generic offense to human decency!

Discrimination is essential to all intelligent thinking and behavior, and depends upon one having clear boundary lines, worthy of the respect of rational minds, that define a speaker’s basis for making distinctions. It has been the failure to discriminate amongst the various standards by which people do discriminate that produces so much of our social confusion. Is a property owner discriminating—on grounds of which we disapprove—against another being allowed to enjoy access to his property, or is the state doing so when it compels an owner to act in accordance with standards it has mandated? Because the state enjoys a monopoly on the use of force, it has long been thought that its discriminatory acts ought to be kept to a minimum (e.g., criminal statutes that treat murderers, rapists, and thieves differently than non-criminals). But if an owner is the absolute authority over what he or she owns, upon what basis, other than a trespass, can another claim a forceful liberty to enter against the owner’s will? Why should a private owner be precluded from denying others the enjoyment of his or her property on any grounds whatever? The intolerance exhibited by one who refuses to associate with those of another race, religion, or lifestyle, is more than matched by others who refuse to tolerate such a bigoted person’s decisions regarding his or her own property. As suggested earlier, we pay too little attention in both thought and behavior to the importance of boundary lines. This makes it easy for some to conclude that if a given opinion or act of another is sufficiently offensive, even though not amounting to a trespass, it may be suppressed or punished by the state.

Smoking in public (e.g., in restaurants, airliners, place of employment) is another issue that can most appropriately be seen as raising not health, but trespass questions. In popular and political discussions on this topic, the issue is usually framed in terms of the smoker’s freedom to smoke and the nonsmoker’s right to be free of unhealthful substances. Rarely is the question raised as to the restaurant owner’s liberty of deciding whether to allow smoking or not. If the restaurateur has a stated policy of permitting people to smoke in his establishment, a customer who is aware of this fact would seem to have contractually agreed to the possibility of breathing unwanted smoke, thus eliminating any trespass claim. When the question is posed in such abstract ways, without any clear lines of definition and limitation, one can understand why the courts and legislative bodies respond by trying to “balance” such “competing” interests. Again, if we rephrase the question, we discover that conflict has been generated because the property principle has been abandoned. If reframed as a property trespass issue, the amorphous and uncertain nature of the invasion is eliminated. As between a smoker and nonsmoker there are no interests to be “balanced” when one person trespasses the boundaries of another.

Suppose you are having dinner in a restaurant, and a patron at the next table begins smoking a cigarette. Her smoke enters your lungs, gets embedded in your hair and clothing, and causes your eyes to water. You object to this. It should be evident that this smoker has committed a trespass upon you. Whether or not second-hand smoke constitutes a health hazard, your claim to be free from such unwanted invasions of what is yours, i.e., your body and clothing, should be a sufficient basis for your objection. For the smoker to suggest that her freedom to smoke encompasses the right to commit such trespasses is to fail to understand that liberty has a principled meaning only insofar as it is grounded in, and defined by, a mutual respect for one another’s property boundaries. If an issue of this sort should come to court—and, in our confrontational society it probably will—the only inquiry necessary for a court to make would be a factual one: did the trespass occur? There would be no room for the court to step in and start “assigning” and “balancing”— or, more accurately, confiscating and reassigning—the property rights of individuals.

The same analysis could be applied to what was, a number of years ago, one of the more controversial issues in California: the aerial spraying, with malathion, of entire cities, for the purpose of trying to prevent the spread of the Mediterranean fruit-fly. Those who objected to having their bodies, homes, cars, plants, and pets sprayed with this pesticide had to rest their arguments on presumed health problems that might arise. In so doing, the burden of proof shifted to them to show the harm that would result from such spraying, a burden they were unable to meet. Relatively few people saw this as a property trespass issue to be resolved only by a determination of whether an invasion had occurred, not the degree of physical harm suffered by the owner, or whether he or she was being “unreasonable” in making an objection. At the same time, the State of California exhibited its usual confused commitment to mixed premises: in spite of tens of thousands of people expressing strong opposition to such spraying, the state, more attuned to benefiting commercial and agricultural interests, continued to spray. In a clear demonstration of where human beings rank in the state’s hierarchy of concerns, the government halted the spraying in a region in which kangaroo rats resided.[22]

One sees, in such examples, how the elements of “boundary,” “claim,” and “control” coalesce to provide a property-based analysis of political issues. Who has the ultimate authority (“claim”) to exercise decision-making (“control”) over any given item of property (“boundary”)? How we answer that question determines whether society will be characterized by peaceful relationships or by conflict.

Politics is the mobilization of property trespasses and despoliation. All political quarrels come down to a failure to identify and/or respect property boundaries. Nowhere is this more evident than in such an emotionally charged issue as abortion. This question illustrates, as clearly as any issue, the confusion and conflict that arises from asking the wrong questions. By failing to address the issue in terms of property principles, each side has contributed to an irresolvable—and politically advantageous—conflict.

The abortion debate has pitted the “pro-choice” advocates against “pro-life” supporters, abstract concepts whose inconsistent application further clouds any clear meaning. Most “pro-choice” supporters are nonetheless disposed to deprive people of their right to make decisions in other areas (e.g., to discriminate against others on a variety of matters, or to support various governmental programs), while most “pro-life” defenders have proven themselves eager supporters of wars and capital punishment. It should not surprise us that such utter confusion has generated much heat but little light in our world.

In an effort to obscure the lethal nature of abortions, and thus make the practice less disturbing to the otherwise humane sentiments of its proponents, most people allow the state to define who is and who is not a “person.” History should remind us of the dangers inherent in conferring such authority upon political systems. The American government defined the rights of slaves and Indians out of existence, while greatly restricting those of married women; and twentieth-century tyrannies such as Nazi Germany, China, and the Soviet Union defined whole categories of people out of legal existence. Such historic experiences should inform our intelligence before we become enthusiasts for current listings of non-persons.

It is unfashionable to state, albeit undeniable, that from the moment of conception onward, an embryo is a living being with a distinct DNA of its own, a DNA that derives from, but is other than, that of either parent. Contrary to the reductionists who would debase the embryo as the functional equivalent of a wart or a cyst, it is a genetically unique individual, a fact known to even a first year biology student. Nor should one accept, without examination, the argument that an embryo is still in a “developmental” stage and is, therefore, not a “person.” Because of the negentropic nature of life, each of us is in a continuing state of development up until the time of our death. I continue to write, into my seventies, and have recently taken up painting, one way of expressing the changes that continue to occur within me throughout my life. This characterization of embryos by the pro-abortion advocates is but another manifestation of a mechanistic vision of nature.

Attributing “self-ownership” to an embryo may pose some difficulties, however, since it is unlikely that embryos have ever consciously asserted such claims. The same can be said, however, of any infant or, for that matter, most adults: who, among us, has ever made a conscious declaration to be a self-owner? Have you or I done so, if we continue to acknowledge the rightful authority of the state to regulate, tax, and conscript us into its service? When I ask my first year law students whether they own themselves—and whether they understand the implications of whatever answer they give—most sit in stunned silence at the audacity of such an existential question. Thus, if a claim of self-ownership is dependent upon an individual giving conscious voice thereto, the “right” to kill an infant or, perhaps, an adult, could be as justified as the killing of an embryo. It is more plausible, perhaps—and much safer—to presume a claim of self-ownership derived from the self-sustaining, self-controlling actions of each individual, whether embryo or octogenarian.

If we are prepared to acknowledge self-ownership for any genetically identifiable human being, an intentional abortion amounts to an invasion of the embryo’s property interest, and the mother and her doctor have trespassed upon that interest. On the other hand, the mother is also a self-owning being, and is entitled to not have her property boundaries trespassed by others (e.g., the state). The pro-abortion advocate would likely argue that the embryo is a trespasser upon the woman, but as almost all pregnancies are occasioned by a volitional act of the woman—and never as the result of a conscious entry by the embryo—such a contention would fail. But even if the embryo were the product of a rape—a non-volitional act by the woman—the embryo is not the wrongdoer but an unintended consequence of the crime. He or she would be, at worst, an unintentional trespasser, to which the question must be answered as to whether a property owner may rightfully take the life of a trespasser. From a property perspective, we are thus left with the seemingly anomalous situation that the embryo, as a self-owning person, is entitled to not be aborted, while the mother, also a self-owning person, is entitled to not have the state trespass upon her in order to restrain the exercise of her decision-making. When abortion becomes a political (i.e., divisive) issue, devoid of respect for property principles, different groups become polarized out of a failure to refine the question. For the state to intervene in the matter in order to enjoin the abortion would constitute a trespass to the mother.

If both the embryo and the mother are persons with separate but necessarily interconnected property interests, and the state’s intervention would amount to a trespass of the mother’s boundaries, does this mean that, in a society that fully respected property interests, a mother would be free to kill this other person? If the answer is “yes,” as it applies to a pregnant woman, would it also apply to the rest of us: that we are free to kill—or, as a friend of mine used to remind me, free to try to do so— another person? Precisely! We are free, not because the state, or a religion, or a constitution, or an ideology tells us that we are, but because each one of us is in control of our energies and conduct. How each of us chooses to exercise our freedom determines not only the content of our own character, but whether we will live in peace or conflict, cooperation or confrontation, with others. Here again, however, we find ourselves confronted by the fear of being responsible for our own liberty—Kaufmann’s “decidophobia”—that causes so many of us to look to constituted “authorities” to render moral decisions for us when we are faced with irresolvable conflicts. As with all property questions, who will make decisions about what?

Social order arises when the values of “peace” and “liberty” are integrated through respect for the inviolability of property boundaries. When social issues are severed into mutually-exclusive categories such as “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” the foundations of political division are set in place. Groups compete for control of the coercive machinery of the state in order to enforce their visions upon others. When our thinking is free of conflict and contradiction, however, we are able to discover that “pro-life” and “pro-choice” imply one another. Liberty, exercised within the self-limiting nature of property ownership, is the condition in which individuals are able to make the choices upon which the quality of their lives depend.

Our daily newspapers are filled with abundant empirical evidence that each of us is free to engage in all kinds of harmful actions, in spite of numerous laws to the contrary. To say that we are free to commit injuries upon others does not imply, however, that we are entitled to do so, or that such acts are justifiable. Recalling the common origins of the two words, “proper” behavior is that which a “property” owner is entitled to make, i.e., decision-making within the boundaries of what one owns. If we are to be self-owning, self-controlling beings, we must be prepared to acknowledge that our boundaries serve not only to exclude the intrusions of others, but to circumscribe the range of our actions. Without the concept of property boundaries to define the limits of our actions, our claims become, quite literally, boundless. The propriety of our behavior then becomes measured by the constantly shifting fashions of legislation, public opinion polls, cultural tastes, and prejudices formed by unconscious forces.

Perhaps it is time for us all to walk away from both the practice and the self-righteous thinking that presumes the legitimacy of the power of the state to usurp both control over and responsibility for our actions. As people become aware that their responsibility extends to the full range of their actions, and can neither be limited nor increased by the dictates of political fashion, perhaps they will discover their own way to responsible behavior. If not, no amount of political maneuvering or religious/ideological commitment seems capable of forestalling the entropic fate of our civilization.

Herein lies the challenge for all who understand the importance of human freedom: am I able to insist upon the full range of my authority over my own life and, at the same time, respect the inviolability of the boundary lines that distinguish my authority from that of my neighbors? It is the nature of political systems to be dominated by short-term thinking that pays little attention to transcendent principles having no immediate, observable consequences. Violating the will of individuals concerning what is theirs to control is the ultimate default response by the state. Such a mindset is not only incapable of sustaining a productive society but, worse, the failure to see the interconnected nature of respect for property boundaries helps to destroy civilized societies. This is what living in a condition of liberty is all about: making our own choices and accepting the responsibility for those choices, not by participating in state-induced deceptions designed to conceal the consequences of our self-indulgent actions.


[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (1837), in Brooks Atkinson, ed., The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York: The Modern Library, 1950), p. 62.

[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy, trans. and ed. by Lewis White Beck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), p. 87.

[3] See, e.g., John A. Hostetler, Amish Society, 3rd ed. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); Steven M. Nolt, A History of the Amish (Intercourse, Penn.: Good Books, 1992); Donald B. Kraybill, ed., The Amish and the State (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

[4] See, e.g., David Barash, The Survival Game: How Game Theory Explains the Biology of Cooperation (New York: Macmillan, 2003), p. 98.

[5] John Phillip Reid, Law for the Elephant: Property and Social Behavior on the Overland Trail (San Marino, Calif.: The Huntington Library, 1980), pp. 300–01.

[6] Robert C. Ellickson, Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[7] Shinn, Mining Camps, pp. 111, 112; also quoted in Vardis Fisher and Opel Laurel Holmes, Gold Rushes and Mining Camps of the Early American West (Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1968), p. 275.

[8] Fisher and Holmes, ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] J.D. Borthwick, Three Years in California, Joseph Gaer, ed. (Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood & Sons, 1857); quoted in Fisher and Holmes, ibid., p. 276.

[11] Daniel Knower, The Adventures of a Forty-Niner (Albany, N.Y.: Weed-Parsons Printing, 1894), quoted in Fisher and Holmes, ibid., p. 276.

[12] C.G. Jung, Psychological Reflections (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 178.

[13] Lest any doubt that government regulation amounts to the state’s claiming an ownership interest in people, consider Justice Harlan’s dissenting opinion in Lochner v. New York (198 U.S. 45 (1905)), a case striking down state legislation limiting the number of hours employees could work in bakeries. In Harlan’s view, long hours “may endanger the health and shorten the lives of the workmen, thereby diminishing their physical and mental capacity to serve the state and to provide for those dependent upon them” (p. 72; emphasis added).

[14] See, Walter Adams, “The Military-Industrial Complex and the New Industrial State,” American Economic Review 58 (May, 1968): 652–65; reprinted in Ralph Andreano, ed., Superconcentration/Supercorporation (Andover, Mass.: Warner Modular Publications, 1973), R-337-2; Murray L. Weidenbaum, Government-Mandated Price Increases: A Neglected Aspect of Inflation (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1975).

[15] San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 2007, p. E-7.

[16] Abraham Maslow, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” in Psychological Review (1943): 370ff.

[17] If we were to apply such thinking to the realm of learning with as much unfocused facility as we do to economic matters, we would quickly see the absurdity of such ideas. Does knowledge come in some fixed quantity, with the more learned having garnered an “unfair” share at the expense of the unlearned? Perhaps it is the function of the government school system to “redistribute” the ignorance, to the end that all can be equally unknowledgeable and operate from a “level playing field.” Were the creative geniuses of human history—Aristotle, Copernicus, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Dante, Lao Tzu, Newton, Beethoven, the Curies, Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein, Blake, George Washington Carver, Edison, to name but a few—nothing more than pillagers, “robber intellects,” who stole from some common storehouse of human inventiveness and insight?

[18] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Politics, published in 1844 and included in The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 427.

[19] Alice Calaprice, ed., The Expanded Quotable Einstein (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 317.

[20] Partridge, Origins, p. 378; Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, p. 1372.

[21] Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse (London: Secker & Warburg, 1987), pp. 122–24.

[22] Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1990, Sect. B, p. 12.

This excerpt has been published with the permission of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

About the author

CIEL wrote 62 articles on this blog.