Friday, August 28, 2009

Confessions of an Existential Socialist

A libertarian premise that seems to go too often unchallenged is that we “own” stuff in more than a legal sense. Ownership is strictly a legal invention. Society gets together and says that it will authorize and direct certain of its number to enforce members’ control of certain resources. I get to say who lives in “my” house only because I can call the cops on anyone who contests my right to do so. Absent that ability, I can claim to “have” my house for as long as I can defend it, but not to “own” it.

It follows, I think, from this notion, that society can say to what extent “ownership” confers privileges. Nuisance laws exemplify this point. If there are certain things you just cannot do on “your” property, then there must be strings on its “your-ness.” Society may allow you to do more things with “your” stuff than with other stuff, but that’s society’s decision, not yours. Everything belongs to everyone because everyone can decide at any moment that nothing belongs to anyone.

Viewed in this light, the arguments between capitalists and socialists become less philosophical than the participants make them out to be. The question that matters is not whether “ownership” confers privileges by natural magic but, rather, what privileges ownership will confer by common consent. Within this argument, there is a lot of room for the laissez-faire view that ownership should confer a very wide degree of control. But those arguments should not take as their premise the circular claim that “it’s my money.” If we’re trying to figure out what consequences should flow from it’s being “your” money, how can we say that some particular consequence arises necessarily from its being “your” money?

The idea that private property is a social construct is like the idea that morality is socially developed. Both leave the absolutist with no place to stand. Nothing “has to be” a particular way. All rules are arrived at by active or passive consent to their promulgation or unplanned emergence. And this broad idea feeds back into the choice of evolutionary questions generally, specifically, “Why did x arise?” vs. “Why does x persist?” “Why does a bee sting?” is not as useful a question as “Why do stinging bees out-reproduce non-stinging bees?”

Economic systems, morality, and evolved traits all depend on their consequences. Whatever has what it takes to persist, persists; everything else goes away. Not because some authority says so, but because nature is inherently competitive, the more survivable supplanting the less so in every realm. It is this essential competitiveness that drives my reductionist view of things: if everything is competitive, analysis of all things should begin with the question of how competition brought it about and kept it in place.

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