If property is peace, then ownership is justice.
Earlier I proposed that respect for property rights is an essential ingredient to a peaceful and orderly society. The atrophy of property rights – most definitely including the aggressive seizure of wealth by redistributionist government – correlates directly with social strife. That’s one of the reasons anti-capitalists turn up at violent and anarchic protests, such as the sizable communist contingent present at Ferguson demonstrations. They know property means peace, and they don’t much care for either. Conversely, a healthy respect for property rights leads citizens to respect each other more as people. A great deal of lawless behavior begins with minor property crime, while cracking down on such offenses is a good way to restore order.
A natural conclusion to draw from associating property with peace is that a healthy respect for ownership is the essence of justice. I don’t just mean that in the practical sense of daily court proceedings, although it could fairly be said that the bulk of any conceivable legal system’s time is going to be spent on property issues, ranging from petty theft to complex copyright disputes. I refer to justice in the sense street demonstrations use the term: social justice, cosmic justice, “fairness,” and so forth.
The Ferguson affair features a straightforward insistence that cosmic justice, as the demonstrators see it, trumps the machinery of the legal system. Frustration at the due process afforded to Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown animates those who think Wilson should have been given to them as a sacrifice. (Some of them quite literally demand him as a blood sacrifice.) An obsession with “social justice” also drives those who insist the facts of the case don’t matter any more, because it’s about larger and deeper issues than what Wilson and Brown actually did on that fateful day. Of course, the people who advance such social-justice arguments are prone to making the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” salute, which makes a very specific and incorrect assertion about those supposedly irrelevant facts. This illustrates how crusaders for social or cosmic justice like to mix their arguments with court- justice language and ideas. They want hazy social arguments to be accepted with the same finality as court verdicts.
One of the key ideas explored in Dinesh D’Souza’s latest book, “America: Imagine a World Without Her,” is the definition of injustice as theft. D’Souza returns to this idea in nearly every chapter, asking a variety of liberal interview subjects to deliver their bill of particulars against America, either historically or with respect to current events. The charges always boil down to some form of theft: European settlers stole the country from Indian tribes, income inequality amounts to the rich stealing from the poor, capitalists exploit workers by stealing the true value of their labor. D’Souza refutes these arguments by examining the concept of ownership as it applies to each alleged offense, reasoning that in order to determine whether something was “stolen,” it is necessary to establish who owns it.
Ownership is therefore the key to almost every question of social justice, assuming the society in question isn’t actually gunning down its underclass for sport, or grinding them into hamburger for dinner. What is a citizen “entitled” to? What claims does he have upon the labor of others? How much of our property can the government take?
The ownership of capital establishes control over investment. It’s easy to understand that if you are the owner of your labor, no one can force you to work at gunpoint. But true ownership should also invalidate the seizure of your wealth – the product of your labor – to fulfill the agenda of activist government, beyond merely paying your even share to cover government services that benefit everyone. It would prevent the government from forcing “investment” down avenues voluntary investors would rather not pursue. Such respect for ownership would sharply restrain the ambitions of activist government, because if everyone is paying an equal and fair share of the tax burden, the State’s never going to have much loose change to indulge Ruling Class fantasies. A society of owners makes a beggar of government… which is the proper and just relationship between citizens and the State.
Once ownership is up for grabs, the power of the State can grow without measure, because it can redefine social justice at will. Indeed, fashionable leftist theory holds that the State is the rightful owner of everything. That’s the assertion behind such memorable left-wing eruptions as Barack Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech, and now-[mc_name name=’Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)’ chamber=’senate’ mcid=’W000817′ ]’s sermons about how the collective State has a functionally unlimited claim on the wealth of any citizens it chooses to target, because all of that wealth was amassed by taking unfair advantage of public resources such as roads and schools. The collectivist feels no need to explain how any given dependent of the State has “earned” or “deserves” each dollar of benefits he is given, or why any given revenue target should surrender each dollar demanded. It’s all done according to a vague notion that some have too little, while others have too much, and coercive power should be used to rectify the imbalance. It is a game without victory conditions, so it will be played forever. There will never, ever come a day that collectivists declare “income inequality” to be resolved, and set about dismantling the superfluous machinery of redistribution… which just happens to be the same machinery that keeps the Ruling Class rich and powerful.
Every effort to impose a delicate architecture of social justice begins with the dismissal of ownership – the simpler and more valid justice of saying, “I earned this, so it is mine.” D’Souza comes back several times to Abraham Lincoln’s formulation of right and wrong as a question of earning and ownership, with every variation of “wrong” descending from the proposition: “You toil and work and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” You work and you eat offers little opportunity for politicians to accumulate power by disputing ownership and using their muscle to address grievances. You work and I’ll eat, on the other hand, is a swinging door through which a multi-trillion-dollar centralized government can easily stampede.
I mentioned the work of Thomas Sowell in “Property Is Peace,” so let’s invite him to contribute a few words today as well. (Also, let us be thankful that a new edition of his masterpiece “Basic Economics” is now available!) Discussing the devastation of Ferguson on Sean Hannity’s television show, Dr. Sowell accused congressional representatives who put on a little “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” show the other day of perpetuating a Big Lie, in a manner that would have made Joseph Goebbels beam. But that’s not the really provocative thing Sowell said on Hannity’s show.
“I think what has happened in Ferguson, Missouri is going to adversely affect blacks yet unborn, who will still be paying the price for it ten or twenty years for now, because they’re not going to have businesses there that you had before,” Sowell proposed. “A city doesn’t get over this kind of stuff in a few years.”
No better illustration of the relationship between ownership and justice could be offered. The young people Sowell refers to will grow up in a town with diminished opportunities, unjustly deprived because property rights were wantonly disregarded by those who came before them. No doubt those future Fergusonians will be raised to blame all sorts of other people for their circumstances. Justice goes wildly out of focus when the lens of ownership is shattered.