Thursday, March 8, 2007

Fighting City Hall IV – Property and Money

“The Hobo Code says that if you put something down you’re done with it.”
– U. Utah Phillips

Modern property law considers “ownership” to be a bundle of rights, which can then be unbundled and traded (sold), according to the will of the owner in accordance with the law. We should also bear in mind the difference between “real” property (land plus what’s built upon it i.e. real estate), “chattel” or “personal” property, which is moveable (so a building can be chattel if you move it somewhere else), and “statutory property,” which includes some things which are called “intellectual property,” like copyrights and patents, but also things like broadcast licenses and commercial airline travel routes.

Property is both a matter of Custom and Law (Command, in my previous alliterative list). Without Custom, no amount of Law will hold; without Law, the intricacies of a modern society are intractable. But Custom is a popular conception and it often does not correspond to what the Law says.

There was, for example, the big kerfluffle that recently erupted over the use of Eminent Domain by a city in Connecticut to take a number of private homes to turn them over to a developer to build a shopping mall. This was seen as an unjust “taking” by many people, because it used government power to transfer property from one group of private citizens and hand it over to another group, for no “greater purpose” than to enhance the tax base of the city.

It was and is unclear to me how this differs from the huge land grants that were given to railroads in the 19th Century, except possibly that the railroads gave lots of stock to the legislators who voted for such patronage, nor how it differs from more recent “takings” of homes for airports (I personally know some folks who lost their homes to an expanding Nashville International Airport). One may hold that “transportation benefits everybody,” but in fact, these cases benefited the private railroads and airlines. That the public may use them for transportation is quite true; the public can shop at a shopping mall as well.

And trust me, the folks who lost their homes to the airport thought it just as unfair as those Connecticut citizens who lost theirs.

But shopping mall developers have clout with city governments, while homeowners have clout with state legislatures, and besides, it made a good story on cable news, so a lot of states have now passed laws that limit the power of cities to do this sort of thing. I bet they haven’t restricted the states themselves all that much, however, and they can’t do anything about the Federal Government’s powers of Eminent Domain, not that the Feds would ever use them for the benefit of private corporations or anything.

I recently saw an article in the Wall Street Journal about another interesting property situation in Vermont. It turns out that there are a large number of unmarked and little used (often to the point of invisibility) roads in Vermont that go through private property, often property that has recently been sold to owners who had no idea that road easements ran through their property. One particular problem with the situation is that many of the new owners are new to Vermont, so they were not only ignorant of the easements, but also they were accustomed to different Customs, as it were. They would put up “No Trespassing” signs where the local custom was free access across neighboring properties.

When different Customs clash, the Law inevitably becomes involved, and things can get messy. Often one party or another (or both) gets Coerced.

The clash is caused by Other People, of course, and as Sartre famously noted, Hell is Other People. There’s always someone who has a vision of how Heaven should be constructed.

The Randites and the Libertarians put their faith in the perfection of the philosophy of Property, specifically Private Property. I’ve even seen arguments to the effect that there should be no such thing as public property, and the idea that there are some things that shouldn’t be property at all seems to be alien to them.

Criticisms of Libertarian and Randian philosophies are numerous and targets that big are hard to miss. But what I’d like to observe here is the curious way that their proponents (the right wing variants, anyway) choose to deal with the individual/group question. Ayn Rand in particular was adamant that “power over people” was not her aim, yet she chose to elevate the idea of private property to a Stirnerian “fixed idea.” Yet private property as a concept makes no sense except as it controls the actions of people. The fabled man-alone-on-a-desert-island has no need of it; he can do whatever he can to everything he can do it to.

Ayn Rand chose the dollar sign as her symbol, a bit of “political incorrectness” before the term was ever used (it is the same as present day political incorrectness in that flaunting it was entirely safe; indeed, all she was doing was lauding something that is almost universally desired, an action approximately as risky as saluting the flag). Money is the essence of trade and property, the medium of the exchange of property. Money conveys vast power over people, and without people, money is worthless.

The left libertarian Karl Hess once spoke about men (invariably men) who bragged to him about their “individualism,” their separation from the common herd. Who were they? Typically, he noted, they were commodity traders and the like, people whose lives and livelihoods depended entirely on playing a complex game with other people for money. Competitive they might be, but individualists? Spare me, Hess said, with a note of genuine pity in his voice.

But money has this going for it: it reduces the actual personal interactions you must have with your fellows. Often this is a good thing; if I am tired and out of sorts, I may not wish to have to follow the social niceties with every single person with whom I transact business on a given day. There are times when the credit card reader at the gas pump, or the automatic vending machine are as much of society as I wish to deal with for a while.

Money, of course, is attractive just for the material possessions it can buy, and the power that it gives you over other people’s actions. You can pay people to do things they’d never do for you if you had to convince them to do it for free, and they’ll do a better job of it than if you were using force or other means of coercion.

But money is also a means of keeping score, and it’s a way for people with poor social skills to achieve a position in society that they would otherwise never have. It’s even a way for some to tell themselves that they are individualists, when everything they do is predicated on accumulating something that has no value except in relation to other people.

”You know what I did? I went down to this place where they had a lot of food and I got a lot of it and put it into a basket. There were people at the door and I gave them some little engraved slips of paper so they’d let me take the food with me. You know what? They fell for it.”
– from the “Dear Friends” radio show by Firesign Theater


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