You Don’t Own That! The Evolution of Property

Get off my lawn.

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By Steve Roth

In a recent post on the “evolution of money,” which concentrated heavily on the idea of (balance-sheet) assets, I promised to come back to the fundamental idea behind “assets”: ownership. Herewith, fulfilling that promise.

There are a large handful of things that make humans uniquely different from animals. In many other areas — language, abstract reasoning, music-making, conceptions of self and fairness, large-scale cooperation, etc. — humans and animals vary (hugely) in degree and kind. But they still share those phenotypic behavioral traits.

I’d like to explore one of those unique differences: ownership of property. Animals don’t own property. Ever. They can and do possess and control goods and territories (possession and control are importantly distinct), but they never “own” things. Ownership is a uniquely human construct.

To understand this, imagine a group of tribes living around a common water source. A spring, say. There’s ample water for all the tribes, and all draw from it freely. Nobody “owns” it. Then one day a tribe decides to take possession of the spring, take control of it. They set up camp surrounding it, and prevent other tribes from accessing it. They force the other tribes to give them goods, labor, or other concessions in return for access to water.

The other tribes might object, but if the controlling tribe can enforce their claim, there’s not much the other tribes can do about it. And after some time, maybe some generations, the other tribes may come to accept that status quo as the natural order of things. By eventual consensus (however vexed), that one tribe “owns” the spring. Other tribes even come to honor and respect that ownership, and those who claim and enforce it.

That consensus and agreement is what makes ownership ownership. Absent that, it’s just possession and control.

It’s not hard to see the crucial fact in this little fable: property rights are ultimately based, purely, on coercion and violence. If the controlling tribe can’t enforce its claim through violence, their “ownership” is meaningless. And those claimed rights are not just inclusionary (the one tribe can use the water). Property rights are primarily or even purely exclusionary. Owners can prevent others from doing anything with the owners’ property. Get off my lawn!

When push comes to shove (literally), when brass tacks meet the rubber on the road (sorry, couldn’t resist), ownership and property rights are based purely on violence and the threat of violence. Full stop, drop the mic.

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In the modern world we’ve largely outsourced the execution of that violence, the monopoly on violence, to government. If a family sets up a picnic on “your” lawn, you can call the police and they’ll remove that family — by force if necessary. And we’ve multiplied the institutional and legal mechanics and machinery of ownership a zillionfold. The whole world’s financial machinery — the immensely complex web of claims, claims on claims, and claims on claims on claims, endlessly and densely iterated and interwoven — all comes down to (the threat of) physical force.

There are obviously many understandings and implications to this reality (e.g. Where did your ownership claim originate? Who got excluded, originally?), which I’ll leave to my gentle readers. But I’d like to close the loop on the comparatively rather desiccated ideas of balance-sheet assets, and money, explored in my previous post.

When the one tribe takes control of the spring, they add that spring as an asset on lefthand side of their (implicit) balance sheet. Voila, they’ve got net worth on the righthand side! In standard modern terminology, the spring is a “real” asset — a direct claim on a real good, as opposed to a financial asset, which (by definition) has an offsetting liability on some other balance sheet — is a claim on that other balance sheet’s assets, is a “claim on claims.” The tribe’s asset — its claim to the spring and the output from the spring (capitalized using some arbitrary discount rate) — has no offsetting liability on other balance sheets. It’s a purely inclusionary claim. Right?

Wrong. It’s an exclusionary claim. Which means there is a liability, or negative net worth, on others’ balance sheet(s) — at least compared to a counterfactual fable in which all the tribes have free access to the spring. “Real” assets — balance-sheet entries representing direct claims on real goods (even your claim to the apple sitting on your kitchen counter) — have offsetting entries on the righthand side of the “everyone else” or “world” balance sheet. A truly comprehensive and coherent accounting would require first assembling such a pre-human or pan-human world balance sheet. Practically, that’s utterly quixotic. Conceptually, it’s utterly essential.

So while the distinction between real and financial assets can have conceptual and analytic value, it’s important to realize that the claims behind real and financial assets are far more similar than they are different. A deed to land — the legal instrument encoding an exclusionary claim — is quite reasonably viewed as a financial asset. There is an offsetting balance-sheet entry elsewhere, if only implicit. Donald Trump certainly views the deeds he “owns” as financial instruments, fundamentally similar to his stocks and bonds. Just: the legal terms of those financial instruments — the inclusionary and exclusionary rights they impart — vary in myriad ways. (Aside: economists really need a biology-like taxonomy of financial instruments, categorized across multiple dimensions. Where’s our Linnaeus?)

Balance sheets, accounting, and their associated concepts (assets, liabilities, net worth, equity and equity shares) are the technology humans have developed to manage, control, and allocate our (violence-enforced) ownership claims, a crucial portion of our social relationships. At first the balance sheets were only implicit — when the tribe first laid claim to the spring. But humans started writing them down and formalizing them, tallying those ownership and obligation relationships, thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. (Coins weren’t invented till about 800 BC.)

When some clever talliers started using arbitrary units of account to tally the value of diverse “assets,” and those units were adopted by consensus, we got another invention: the thing we call money. Like ownership rights, the unit of account’s value is maintained by consensus and common usage among owners and owers. But like ownership, its value is ultimately enforced by…force.

Balance sheets. All is balance sheets…


I find it distressing that this kind of deep and fundamentally necessary thinking about ownership and property rights is absent from introductory (and ensuing) economics courses — both textbooks and coursework. Likewise concepts like value, utility (carefully interrogated), and yes: money (ditto). I don’t think you can think coherently about economics if you haven’t carefully considered these issues and ideas. It’s that kind of deep and broad, ultimately philosophical, thinking, in the context of a broadly-based liberal-arts education, that makes American universities — somewhat surprisingly to me — the envy of the world.

Before leaving, I have to give full props here to Matt Bruenig, who delivered this clear and coherent Aha! understanding of ownership for me after I’d struggled with it for decades. It seems so simple and obvious now; others have certainly explained it before. I feel like a dullard for taking so long.

Cross-posted at Asymptosis.

2016 April 26


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  • ChrisHeinz

    The tribe that grabs the water supply: this is an archetypal example of rent-seeking behavior, yes?

    • John M Legge

      More like competitive survival: clean water supplies are limited and so are valuable. The first tribal impetus is to assure its members of adequate clean water; as long as the spring remains tribal property only the surplus is sold to other tribes. Once a “big man” (the economists’ “residual claimant”) takes over the ordinary members of the tribe get treated like strangers; they, too have to “buy” their water ration, probably with labour service.

  • cscoxk

    What you have described is predatory capitalism. But, the most common form of capitalism is cooperative capitalism.

    In cooperative capitalism the tribes agree for one tribe to take ownership of the spring. In return the tribe keeps the spring operating and administers the allocation of water. The owning tribe charges for its services. If another tribe discovers a source of water it says that it will look after that water and administer it. The other tribes can now choose to go elsewhere. This works well when there are choices and many suppliers.

    These systems operate most of the time without force. Force is required when tribes decide not to obey the rules. Force may occur when one or more tribes decide the rules are unfair and to their disadvantage. If there is no compromise an application of force is likely.

    • Duncan Cairncross

      Great idea – but hardly “the most common” – not totally unheard of but really quite rare

    • Ibrahim ابراهيم

      Well, you say “force is required when tribes decide not to obey the rules”. And with that you discredit your critic of the article. Without force, or the mere threat of the application of force, rules are worthless. Because rules don’t enFORCE themselves. Divine rules threaten with after-life punishmet, if not obeyed. Man-made rules threaten to be punished by the society. So fundemantally there’s no difference between what you call “predatory capitalism” and “cooperative capitalism”. It’s both part of the real life and such descriptions are just romantic tags.

      • cscoxk

        I should not have said “force is required”. Instead I should have said “force may occur”. Thanks for pointing it out.

        In the real world we rarely use force. In the real world force is not the best deterrent. Threat of exclusion from a group is a cheaper, more effective sanction for non cooperators.

        There has to be some form of punishment for non cooperation. Punishment in the form of force is rare, expensive, and not as effective as social controls. These are of the form of you scratch my back and I will scratch yours. If you don’t scratch my back then I will not scratch yours again. There are many variations on these tit for tat strategies that do not involve force.

        • PJ London

          In the”real world” we use force every day, all day! We just employ others in the form of police and soldiers, to carry out the force because we find it too messy and you might get your hands dirty. Just as we employ butchers because we like meat but hate blood and killing things and having to clean up after the slaughter.
          The only reason that we use “tit for tat” is because if I take your tit without a corresponding tat, you will get the police or someone to beat the tat out of me.

          • cscoxk

            The most common form of tit for tat is to stop cooperating with others who break their promises. We do this all the time. This does not involve force. We simply do not do business with them.

          • PJ London

            The moment you leave home, then any trade or transaction that you engage in involves some form of contract. You may not enforce ALL contracts on the basis that they are too much trouble. But try not giving Walmart their tat once you take their tit. It is called “theft”. If someone takes something from you without giving a corresponding value it is called theft or fraud.
            All transactions are governed not by cooperation but by contract (explicit, written or implied) law. The fact that they are consensual does not mean that the coercion is not there. The vast majority and the origin of common and Roman Dutch law is “contract” law. Enforced by the courts and the police.
            99% of your life outside the family is covered by contract and thus by law enforced by police and courts. Pure unadulterated force.
            If your employer does not honor his promise to pay you do you just walk away or do you sue him? If a tradesman takes your money and fails to deliver, do you just walk away or do you sue them? The reason they give you the money or the goods, is not because they are jolly nice people, but because they will get locked up if they fail to deliver.
            The only time that one “just walks away” is when his force (Money lawyers bouncers etc.) are bigger than your force.
            The only reason that there is so little problem with commerce, fraud and theft, is that the threat of force is ALWAYS present and cowers everyone into being nice.
            Try living in Nairobi or the Cape Flats or the bad parts of Watts or Detroit.

          • Paul Robinson

            If everyone walking into a Walmart just took what they want without paying, soon there would be no Walmart, and those things stolen would no longer be available. So the threat of force is not the only thing that stops theft. For someone with a brain better reasons prevail. Most everything a person can own requires work and skill to make. To just take things because it can be done would ultimately make those things unavailable. Look at Africa for instance, there is chaos because property rights are not respected. An ordered and successful society understands the importance of ownership and respects it. The only coercion necessary is directed at those to stupid to realize that.

          • PJ London

            Having actually lived in Africa, I can assure you that you are wrong.
            “there is chaos because property rights are not respected.” No it is because they are not enforced. They are called “squatters”. There is little policing and courts.
            Sunshine I am giving up on this discussion because you clearly have your little oh-so-sweet head in a nice warm fuzzy place. So far removed from reality that it does not impinge in any way. Well the good thing is that as Churchill said “We have to look at facts because the facts are looking at us.”
            Good luck when the “force” is removed from your neighbourhood.
            May your wife and daughters enjoy the fact that reason prevails.
            You may find that many, many, many are too stupid to realise the importance of ownership or respect it. (and others are too woolly brained to recognise the fact.)

          • Paul Robinson

            The reason we don’t have chaos is because the majority of people respect property rights. If that ever changed then yes there would be problems for many. But what makes you think I can’t enforce my own rights in the absence of organized authority. Trust me. I am large enough and strong enough to hold my own in a strongest takes all scenario. Of course against many I would be vulnerable but I can call on friends and other local property owners to defend myself. But I find myself unable to make out exactly what your point is. Should no one own property? If something is possessed or being used it is owned. A dog owns his bone unless someone takes it away then that dog owns it. So what is your solution? Ownership is inherent to anything being used. Someone owns it or it wouldn’t be used, in which case the material in question is irrelevant as no one wants it anyway.

          • Paul Robinson

            We use butchers because that is a skill. It requires knowledge to know how to cut an animal properly. Hunters use butchers all the time. We use police because without them only the individually strongest could possess anything. Animals rely on individual strength to possess things until age takes that away. You really just don’t understand do you?

    • Cooperation works well when there is plenty for everyone. It does not take long for scarcity to bring up the idea of restricting any commodity to a limited circle of users, using force if necessary.

    • isnamthere

      How can a pyramid scheme be cooperative unless by duplicity aimed at those on the bottom?

    • Macrocompassion

      Landlordism is not Capitalism at all. This confusion was not present in Adam Smith’s days, in 1776, “Wealth of Nations”, when he described the 3 factors of production, Land, Labor and Durable Capital Goods. But about 1900 the villain John Bates Clark somehow got the industrial monopolists and experts to accept that land ownership was a capitalistic activity. Worse still, even today the capitalist-supported universities continue to teach and spread this untrue and socially unjust theory. Since Clark, there has been sufficient confusion in our subject of macroeconomics that landlords have managed to hold on to their sites and to speculate in their values, whilst the poor old taxpayer foots the bill with local improvements and the steadily rising usefulness that the land provides.

      Land is a natural resource of which the value rises as the population density and resulting infrastructures steadily are developed and grow. The opportunities that land bequeaths should morally be shared and were this to have happened in the past there would be no poverty because everybody would have had an equal chance to earn a living.

      A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from lack of
      opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax system which
      encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing everything and
      everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by Henry George, a
      (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists seem never to
      have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts. (I would guess
      that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and Poverty” 1879,
      Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land dominance has its own reward.

      17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and Ethics

      Four Aspects for Government:

      1. LVT, adds to the national income as do other taxation systems, but it should
      replace them.

      2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the
      production-related taxes–tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites are
      visible to all and who owns each is public knowledge.

      3. Consumers pay less for their purchases due to lower production costs (see
      below). This creates greater satisfaction with the management of national

      4. The national economy stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year
      business boom/bust cycle, due to periodic speculation in land values (see
      below). The speculation in and withholding of unused land is eliminated, see
      item 7.

      Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:

      5. LVT is progressive–owners of the most potentially productive sites pay the
      most tax. Urban sites provide the most usefulness and resulting tax. Big rural
      sites have less value and can be farmed appropriately to their ability to provide
      useful produce.

      6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large
      proportion of the present ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the
      result that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even
      when it is not used).

      7. LVT stops speculation in land prices because the withholding of land from
      proper use is not worthwhile.

      8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even
      though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites
      become available, the competition for them is less fierce.

      9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent
      hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that
      come into use.

      10. With LVT, land prices will initially drop. Speculators in land values will
      want to foreclose on their mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment.
      Therefore LVT should be introduced gradually, to allow these speculators
      sufficient time to transfer their money to company-shares etc., and
      simultaneously to meet the increased demand for produce (see below, items 12
      and 13).

      Three Aspects Regarding Communities:

      11. With LVT, there is an incentive to use land for production or residence,
      rather than it being unused.

      12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a
      greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because
      entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because
      they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.

      13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital
      goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

      Four Aspects About Ethics:

      14. The collection of taxes from productive effort and commerce is socially
      unjust. LVT replaces this national extortion by gathering the surplus rental
      income, which comes without any exertion from the land owner or by the banks–
      LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.

      15. previous bribery and corruption for gaining privileged information about
      land cease. Before, this was due to the leaking of news of municipal plans for
      housing and industrial development, causing shock-waves in local land prices
      (and municipal workers’ and lawyers’ bank balances).

      16. The improved use of the more central land of cities reduces the
      environmental damage due to a) unused sites being dumping-grounds, and b) the
      smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when traveling between home and workplace.

      17. Because the LVT eliminates the advantage that landlords currently hold over
      our society, LVT provides a greater equality of opportunity to earn a living.
      Entrepreneurs can operate in a natural way– to provide more jobs because their
      production costs are reduced. Then untaxed earnings will correspond to the
      value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT
      has been properly and fully introduced as a single tax, it will eliminate
      poverty and improve business ethics.


  • Ibrahim ابراهيم

    I like your articles because they explain the fundamental things economists oversee but which are prevalent in our everyday life.
    The tribe example can also be made within a post-apocalyptic world, for example a Zombie apocalypse.
    I like this way of thinking because now you can check your assumptions and definitions about things like property.

    • Thanks, Ibrahim. This stuff nags at my brain; I seem to be genetically driven to worry at it till I think I’ve figured it out. (Then…worry at it some more!)

      • Ibrahim ابراهيم

        Always nice to see some people as mad as yourself

  • ckmurray

    Brilliant article. Your second last paragraph is very true. Why don’t we talk about property rights and the financial system like this? Because we are trained not to.

    Also, yes, Matt Bruenig is brilliant on this topic and his writings have articulated many of my sneaking suspicions that I couldn’t properly voice.

  • There are many conceptual frameworks with which one can overlay institutions like property or the state. This article sets forth one of them, but I confess I do not see why this framework is useful to an introductory economics class. Can someone enlighten me?

    • ckmurray

      That is a good question. I have been pondering how to structure economics teaching in order to provide a coherent and practical view of the world, and somewhere in that course structure this type of analysis of property rights would be necessary.

      In my view, the first semesters of economics material should contain a detailed review of national institutional structures. These are too often taken for granted and not critically appraised in economics courses.

      This type of course would start with a review of historical ownership structures which have led to modern forms of property rights. It should compare different types of property ownership systems and rule systems that have occurred in different parts of the world in modern times, along with ancient examples. Underlying this would be the ideas of Coase and Ostrom on the efficiency of non-market systems, and on the attributes of cooperative rule systems. It should also review types of monetary systems used in such societies, and the relationship of money and property to the political structure at the time.

      Now, you might say that this sounds like political science or anthropology or history or something. Whatever it is, it is not economics. But that’s really the point isn’t it? We want economists to be aware and integrated into the social sciences community, but also for them to have a grasp of what is out there in reality.

      I have taught post-graduate economics courses where most students don’t know about the rules of our banking system, and have very little knowledge of private property and financial instruments outside of their immediate experience, which leads them to engage in rather naive discussions. The point of an economics education is to provide the knowledge and tools for students so that they immediately step up from those naive discussions, which are essentially informed by the media whims of the day, and to more informed and intelligent debate.

      Back to Roth’s article and the idea of property rights in particular. Since the idea of land as a production input has been dropped in economics, having this type of discussion would ensure that later courses could not avoid the question when introducing simply two-factor production models. It also provides a basis to have discussions about normative analysis, utilitarianism and other foundational principles of economics, which are also never discussed or criticised, and are generally implicitly accepted within economics teaching. It would keep open the question of what is capital (produced gadgets, or property rights) and how we measure it. In essence, it be part of a course designed to avoid the type of uninformed economic indoctrination we commonly see at universities today.

  • Great article – It is good to remember that things we take for true and certain are actually based on beliefs and opinions. But the concept of enforcement using violence is even more primal. I like that point of view.

    This is why in fact, the raw reality of life can be apparent as soon as the social constructs that protect us vanish, like stranded in the wild, stuck in a black out or disaster area, or just confronted to someone who does not obey the rules.

    thank you for sharing

  • JohnFraser

    That reminds me of the story about the Irish landowner who sees somebody walking across his field.

    The landowner climbs on his horse and gallops over to the trespasser.

    ‘You’, he shouts, ‘get off my land’.

    ‘Your land’, replied the trespasser – ‘why is it yours?’

    The landlord is rather taken aback by this answer, but replies: ‘If you must know, I inherited this land from my father.’

    The trespasser replies: ‘And perhaps you’ll tell me how your father got this land?’

    ‘He received it from his father,’ said the landlord.

    ‘And how did he get it,’ asks the trespasser.

    ‘He received it from his father and so on,’ said the landlord.

    ‘Then tell me how the first member of your family got this land,’ says the trespasser.

    The landlord sits a little straighter in his saddle and proudly announces: ‘He won this land fighting in battle’.

    The trespasser smiles, starts to take his jacket off and says: ‘Well… get off that bloody horse and I’ll fight you for this land’.

  • Rene Macon

    This mixture of lousy thinking and mostly normative statements will certainly not be the “next evolution of economics” if it economics stays an empirical science…

    • Linus

      The degree to which economics views itself as an empirical science is exactly the degree to which it fails. So if it has ambitions to keep seeing itself exclusively that way, it’s gonna keep on failing us in exactly the same fundamental ways it has up till now. The disconnect this empirical scientific view creates between economic activity and the environment it draws its value from, and its subsequent inability to recognise non-financial value as ultimately most important (and not just irritating, to-be-dismissed ‘externalities’), is what’s been sending us down blind alleys of life-denying economic logic for generations. Time for ‘the dismal science’ to wake up and smell the real world.

      • Rene Macon

        Sure, if economics “views itself as an empirical science”, it will fail in the same way as all other empirical sciences have failed so far! What a promising perspective!

        Certainly much better as ending up as a collection of arbitrary normative doctrines, which are determined by some megalomaniac ideologists!

        • Dr. Mohinder Kumar

          Different forms of property under various systems/modes of production need to be differentiated –not just so-called “communism” of USSR type that deviated from humanism-Marxism: Property under primitive communism Slave property, feudal property, capitalist private property, owner-operator’s property under Asiatic Mode of Production (AMoP), etc. When it’s agreed that any property is exclusionary, you also agree that social reality is based on duality/class divisions which are more often antithetical to each other. So, violence and emergence of private property are twins. What was French Revolution if not action against feudal property that gave rise to bourgeois private property? What was this “primary accumulation” of capital/property explained by Smith and later by Marx outlining the process of “so-called primitive accumulation” of capital under initial stages of capitalism? Was slavery or slave owning a system of brotherhood? why do encroachments and grabbing still happen all over the world as far as the issue of land/ landed property is concerned? No dualistic system in society that is ridden with class antagonism is without blood at its roots. Explore entire human history and world civilization, commonly you’ll find wars and battles fought only for three things: “Zarr” (money), “Zoru” (woman) and Zameen (land). All are treated as private properties. Read Engels’ Origin of Family, Private Property & the State (In the Light of Researches of Lewis H Morgan) – a very nice social-anthropological type portrayal of social reality that evolved since our tribal past, studied by author right from German Zens.

          What was the purpose of European colonization? What is the purpose of putting up security guards or even informal colleagues/ neighbors to take care of your house/ property in your absence? If “respect” is so universal then why above mechanisms are adopted to safeguard your property from potential (real) “encroachers”? Why there are parts of world where despite (or because of collusion with bureaucracy) lands, properties and buildings are trespassed and encroached upon in significant way. Private Property stands for exclusion. And when there is exclusion, you’ve alienation/ separation . . . that is a potent source of conflict manifested in several ways. So, as long as you promote private property (not only means of production but personal property beyond common standards also), you are dead sure inviting class conflict if not personal conflict. People today fight in village even on “common lands” (called “Shamlat Zamin”) based on allocation made by Local Village Authority on customary basis as a matter of tradition. So, as you get land in tradition, you also get rivalry in tradition. Such is the influence of divisiveness thus promoted in our history that even petty owners choose to battle out things by sheer individualism rather than form cohesive/ cooperative/ associative groups. Does State have any role in this. I think so. At the same time, collectivism cannot be imposed also: Stalin did this huge mistake in USSR by imposing agricultural collectivism on peasants while ironically he & his Co. had smashed Soviets (Workers’ Councils) consciously! Uniting people and smashing private property is to be the prime agenda to beat tendencies of rent seeking behavior. We need to stop this paradigm of “growth” here itself. Why money/ capital should be a central requirement for every human economic activity or why State should engage in propaganda of miraculous powers of banks’ loan capital/ finance? George Henry’s proposal to tax only unearned incomes like landed aristocrats, and adding to the list institutions such as banking conglomerates (including World Bank, ADB), financial institutions (IMF, NBFCs, MFIs) etc. could help in smashing the power of anti-social finance and feudal tendencies still alive under capitalism. Tax on employees is a regressive tax. Tax on small businessman/ entrepreneur is also regressive. Tax on capitalist/larger farmers is still not a practice in many countries –i.e. how landed aristocrats have survived and flourished in parts of India as well as Pakistan. It’s socially immoral to turn nature into any form of property including common property. We, with our human nature/ human essence as intact, need to remain as extended organic parts of Nature. Then only sustainability is possible. There is No Alternative (TINA) beyond socialization of humanity within natural framework/ objective conditions.

          • MilkywayAndromeda

            It is a great pleasure of reading comments such as this one. It is obvious that writer is a thinker. Thank you.
            May I ask you to extend your thoughts on the following ideas you shared, please?

            1) “So, violence and emergence of private property are twins.”
            It seems to me that violence is something inherent of this part of the universe or of this universe. Violence seems to be a commodity available everywhere: black holes sucking, carnivores eating herbivores. Regarding things outside our body maybe we have only a fiduciary relation with them.

            2) “There is No Alternative (TINA) beyond socialization of humanity within natural framework/ objective conditions.”
            It seems that the development of digitization/AI/robotization show exactly that there is alternative.
            By the way capitalism is just a form of socialization or the other way around socialism is just another form of capitalism.

          • Dr. Mohinder Kumar

            Violence flows from aggression that is primordial. We all i.e. human species have inherited (animal) aggression in more or less same proportion uniformly. You can say aggression is common trait of all humans. I must make slight change in my sentence, bracketed: “So, violence and emergence of private property [under bourgeois capitalist system] are twins”. I made this necessary change since violence/aggression in humans is older than emergence of private property in society. You can say aggression is primitive/primordial trait. If you happen to go through correspondence through letters b/w Einstein and Sigmund Freud (in Einstein’s book “On Politics”) you find Freud suggesting that human aggression can never be removed/ annihilated but it can at the most be suppressed/ repressed. You can say it’s “indestructible” (like atoms, mass, energy or like radiation of radioactive materials. We’ve Physicists in this gathering –they may correct me if there is any mistake in my proposition. This aggression is carried over from animal world and inherited in our genes. It’s endemic, generic and universal as you said correctly. The only thing is it’s manifestations are varied.

            Now how do violence/aggression and “private property” fit together and unleash a dynamics/dialectics whose consequences are anti-human. Anti-human because humans at the same also have an active sense of cooperation/ association/ sharing and exchange. This cooperative-human aspect is affected adversely when violent-human aspect gets into contact with the evolution of “private property”. Sartre’s “fused groups” of cooperative-conscious-individuals somehow get defeated by the force of fusion b/w violence/aggression and private property since the latter (private property) is an exclusionary idea that separates/ alienates/ divides. It’s becomes a lethal combination when primordial violence in minds + newly emergent (daily emerging/sustaining) private property idea are fused together.

            Therefore, only “socialization” process of individuated individuals can counter both primordial aggression as well as new-born/still-born private property. I think there is no other way. And there is no need of other way also. Humans need to walk along the pathway of socialized individuals only –but not as “living together in isolation, as Sartre questioned it beautifully.

            Capitalist production process is the first form/ mode/ system of economic production in the history of mankind that first of all “socialized” individuals on such mass scale; this had never happened before under slavery or feudalism. Herding together of slaves under slavery or feudal serfs/ tenants/ peasants (who were allocated parcels of land for family subsistence) were never herded together collectively on such massive scale as capitalism did post-industrial revolution in England. Then it spread all over and is still expanding. But it needs to be noted that this “socialization” as Marx studied it closely, is restricted to “socialization of production” of commodities, not “socialization of distribution” of gains/ profits/ returns/ rewards of such production. Distribution under capitalism is still individualistic, not socialized. Wage-laborers are just herded together to mass-produce commodities at a large-space (factory, including today’s corporate or bank’s office or like Manhattan Project of the USA involving hundreds of top nuclear scientists/ physicists put to sit together secretly to produce atomic bomb). Gains / economic surpluses are not shared equally among capitalist owner and wage-laborers.

            The kind of “socialization” proposed by Marx was characterized by both socialization of production as well as socialization of distribution of gains/returns among all individuals in a socialistic production process which knows no employer and no employees/ wage-laborers. It’s irony of history that Stalin & Co. turned soviets’/workers’ revolution toward state capitalism sort of thing –consciously, by sabotaging the theory and practice of uninterrupted “permanent revolution”, by interrupting it within the geographical confines of USSR –revolution in one-country. It turned into grand project of individualization/ isolation/ separation of revolutionary USSR workers. So, China of Chiang Ki Shek too had its own version but nonetheless atomistic/distinct model of socialism/communism. Then other countries. Why from Russia it did not spread to Western Europe? Why not in USA? Why not in India (then gaining independence from Britain)? Because there was no globalization of labor of USSR that first started socialist revolution but was curbed and smashed from within and without by control over “soviets” of workers’ councils. Today, you’ll see the concept of Self Help Groups (SHGs) and SHG-Micro-enterprises or Producers’ Companies/ Collectives under programmes of collectivization of producers in India and elsewhere but these are not real socialization processes whereby producers/ workers have equity of ownership/ control/ management –they’re all run by loan capital of banks. You can say, they are parts of socialized production processes of “companies” whose de facto owners and controllers are banks, MFIs and Financial Institutions.

            You’ve mentioned “digitization” (computerization), “Artificial Intelligence” and “robotization” as alternatives to . . . probably capitalism, if I could understand your post properly. The point is whether these are used to aid/assist/complement humanity or for other alien purposes. I tend to avoid over-speculation or predicting their outcome.

            Our coming into being in this world/ universe is pure chance or accident. Consciousness in beings is a human-organic trait. Ultimately human essence is to prevail . . . but within larger nature’s framework. Hawking says AI/ Robots could tomorrow go haywire and control us . . or never respond to the signals, if any received, from aliens which may have existed and advanced their technologies billions of years ahead of us. The point is: If that is so, then advanced aliens must logically have searched us long ago and nonetheless may have put CC TV Cameras to have a watch on us since time immemorial –in case they are presumed to be technologically ahead of us by millions of years. Speculative thought may not have to shed the thread of human reason. Matters of AI or robots going haywire, etc. are pure speculative. Let us be humans as we are humans, first of all and ultimately. Our immediate and long-term goal has to be to encourage transcendence of bourgeois / corporate / state private property. Human exclusion is immoral. Association has to be our morality. Globalization of labor has to be our morality. Civilizational journey/ movement doesn’t come to stop at capitalism and capitalist property. Human properties are more desirable than regimes of capitalist private properties. I think Climate Change may teach us that lesson though as Spinoza said Nature doesn’t have consciousness. May be “The Unconscious” ultimately prevails over divisive human “conscious” to defeat the idea of “private property” for its transcendence to achieve holistic human “socialization”.

          • MilkywayAndromeda
          • Dr. Mohinder Kumar

            This post (with image/quote) keeps daily appearing from the Milkyway Galaxy to this portion of the Earth where I happen to be. I’m thrilled to guess who the person on Milkyway is. To specify my earlier statement, Stephen Hawking warned that we may receive signals from aliens but should not reply. Why? He thinks aliens may be antithetical or hostile. How do we know? Is our brain wired against impending risks all the time OR it’s the impact of existing social system that is essentially hostile/ violent about which there is no doubt?

            If I am allowed to classify our epistemological/ practical-real difficulties of human world, I’ll categorize these broadly into two categories: (i) The Human Question; and (ii) The Question of Nature (not just this Earth/ World/ Universe but all imagined/not-yet-imagined Universes (Multiverses) whose ideas keep coming to our minds to excite and thrill us. Our tragedy is that we’re as yet not fully equipped to solve these basic sub-questions of the meta-human question. By now this human/social world question should have been solved –so that we could move on with our full dedication/passion to resolve the theorems of Nature, which is there to be appropriated by us in mind but we’re here concerned about private property by parceling out the Earth, then Moon, then Mars. Nature must be mocking at us! And alien species as well! I go with Hawkins as he considers those alien civilizations billions times/ billions of years ahead of us (he uses Earth’s time calender). But we may disagree with him to think that these alien civilizations are hostile to us; I think they are really more civilized –otherwise we cannot call them “civilizations” (or advanced life systems). If we are not empirical (due to utter lack of data –can’t we be little logical and consistent also?).

            I tend to wonder whether those alien lands shall be having the concept of private property/ownership (to be differentiated from personal ownership). I don’t think so. We imagine them to be hostile because in our imagination we mirror our image in them. We’re too slow on Question of Nature. I also wonder how bureaucratic-administrative realm must be allowing smooth research into the questions of nature while landed property everywhere on this Earth is mired in administrative-bureaucratic-revenue obstacles.

            Don’t we find finance/ capital/ money as unnecessary/costly intermediaries in our approach/ understanding/ grasp of Nature including land and other bounties? Moving a step backwards, isn’t the idea of ownership/property on private basis an absurdity? In EPM-1857 Marx poured a sharp-cutting satire on land/ landed property/owner under feudalism/early capitalism: Land (a portion of the earth) and owner tagged with the title of LANDLORD. Conquests have played a key role in the evolution of landed property and land relations all over the globe. It’s this thinking which drives us and also Stephen Hawking to imagine (rather speculate) that aliens shall one day conquer us.

            See another side of Marx about whom Theodor Shanin said that he was known to more number of people on this Earth than Lord Krishna (God) was known. Did Marx ever venture into those abstract speculative-imaginative-spiritual questions of “secret of nature”/ universe/multiverse, etc? He was totally immersed in the Human Question. But still we find our priorities are full time entertainment on this human-social question –not only bloggers but even social scientists also. Serious research is lacking, coming-up, yet very slow. Ideas are there but their implementation is constrained by state’s control. State has to whither away as it is the chief protector of private property/ private interests/ self-indulgence.

            Human Question has deeper roots, or we’re complicating it if it’s already a complex network of relations. If that’s so, why are approach is truncated/ atomistic/ individualistic? It’s so because the notion of private property in all forms runs through our veins along with blood. Private property is in our blood. It’s in our approach to every question we encounter or pose. It’s in our solution: Privatization of economy, for example. “Private” is posited as the universal answer to all the sub-questions of the social-human meta question. Approach will not change as long as we are dependent upon State and derive our livelihood and nourishment from state. That way a private corporate and state systems are no different. Both of them prepare financial balance sheets. And on this balance sheet of the state/corporate, humanity/humans are invariably always a liability to be dispensed with but never dispenses as long as its primal form (asset) is there. This duality where asset is one side of the reality ensures that liability of humanity/ humans treated as “labor” persists.

            If we think a little, we find Steve’s problem (which is also entire working population’s problem) is manifold: Money as “value store” (expanding faster than Walmart store or even faster than universe after Big Bang); Private Property; and State. All these three as a trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh of Hindu mythology are inter-connected. Though, Shiva was destroyer in this trinity, we can’t say with surety which of the three, viz., Money/ Pvt.Property/ State is greater destroyer as all are destroyers. Then why not Hawking’s mind attuned to such reality speculate about aliens as hostile? But Milkyway doesn’t appear to be so.

          • MilkywayAndromeda

            It is very educating reading your thoughts dear Mohinder.
            Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

            Would it be possible that property does not matter in the sense that is an illusion?

            Maybe the real thing is control (power) and what we see is property.

            Who control the assets? Not the owner but the manager (or the ones who nominate the managers ☺), the politician (or the ones who nominate the politician that are allowed to be elected ☺).

            A person might own the house but if the person has debt it is just an illusion the ownership.

            The person might own participation units in a hedge fund but who control his property is the fund manager…

            Regarding your reflection of SH they are good food for thought indeed.

            Regarding who am I it is easy, check it here:

   (I am the first author…)

            And you are you? ☺

          • Dr. Mohinder Kumar

            “Would it be possible that property does not matter in the sense that is an illusion? Maybe the real thing is control (power) and what we see is property”.

            Concept of “Maya” (illusion) in Hindu mythology is supreme, and it runs the clock of its social life, since ages. Thus speak our religious heads and brains: “This world is nothing but ‘Maya’ (Illusion); it’s not real”; it’s illusionary”, etc. etc.Religion comes handy in propagating illusion. Rightly Marx said: “religion is the opium of the people”. and before that thus spoke Hegel (something to the effect) that music has a big role in dissemination of religious thought (read illusion) in India. What do we gather from this? Society is exploited –no doubts about it. society is tired of its pitiable and pathetic existence –no doubts. In such a state when a worn out person (under pressure of arranging daily livelihoods, wages, worries and mere survival needs) fails to add two plus two and finds as answer either five or whatever number in his/her inebriated state of mind intoxicated by primitive religions, illusions, etc. he becomes a philosopher, on REALITY: He starts talking about what is “reality”, “reality” is this or that, this is real and that is illusion, . . . totally gripped by metaphysical questions of all sorts. And it’s general phenomenon and general state of mind/ existence in global society. That’s why “property” and everything which torments mankind or individuals . . . looks like “illusion”. Religion has a great role to play in making poor workers philosophers of metaphysics, the-other world, ideal world, heavens, etc. . . because this life is hell for 99% of the people.

          • MilkywayAndromeda

            We should book a skype session. You a source of inspiration. How is your next week? I am in Helsinki time zone. So please choose an hour before 17:00 Helsinki Time.

  • Jim Perkins

    My mother “owns” a farm in Iowa. I have fantasized about subsistence farming for a long time now. But I could never quite get my head around how it is that any single human being can make a claim to physical reality that . . . from a philosophical perspective, belongs equally to all (and not just humans), as we say in the law, as tenants in common. (However, your comments about animals having “territory” are interesting, but even so such territory must be protected with violence . . . or potential intruders must be assimilated with persuasion — but this is a side path that runs too deep for the present discussion.) That is, no individual or group of individuals is entitled, a priori, to the exclusive use and enjoyment of any real asset. “God makes his rain to fall on the unjust as well as the just.” Thinking like this makes it very difficult to “earn a living.”

    Henry George appears to me to have come closest to solving this dilemma with his premise that all real and natural assets/resources are owned by the community, represented by the government and, ideally, should be rented to the member or members of the community able and willing to provide the highest return to the community/government for granting the use and possession of and exclusion of others from using or possessing such assets. He then proposes that the government entirely fund its functions with a land tax . . . but I expand his concept of land to include all natural elements.

    Even in George, however, we run into problems of externalization and a failure to see the interconnectedness of all parts of the natural universe.

    • Jake Burkhalter

      The state recognizes and backs up your claim to exclusive control of a piece of property. In exchange, you might be required to compensate the rest of us on an ongoing basis in the form of levies and taxes.

  • Property is an agreement within a sovereign territory among its citizens. At the start, not everyone may have had a vote, but stable relationships on this point enables civilization to progress and specialization to deliver benefits to all. In the U.S., where initial land acquisition was by purchase or theft of land from the original tribes, land grants were made and recorded in the deed book. The county is a unit of law and order, chartered by the colony to the petitioning property owners of a territory so they could have a court, a sheriff and a deedbook. Virginia early on was four counties, but as areas became settled, the residents petitioned for chartering a county so they could do their business without a long ride to the county seat. To build a road, property owners had to petition the court, agree to maintain the road, and get a county road order. This is a much longer story, but the net point is that private property is a community agreement that the records in the deedbook are the chain of ownership. Maintenance of the book is a county function and people pay for the system via fees for recorded transfers. Wills were entered into the record which related to many types of property – legitimizing transfer. All of this supports the law and order of the county and any municipalities therein, which cumulatively supports the state and the nation. Personal property – titled vehicles, etc are also covered by systems of authentication, as well as the means for their being pledged for loans, or final ownership being contingent on paying the initial debt. This is what we the people government does for us. Violence can not be used to take things from us. Law enforcement protects our property, but it is our own law abiding behavior that is the true value of the governments we have organized. This security system is not cheap. Anything of high value is high maintenance. The financial folks didn’t like the cost of deed transfers, so they set up their own system for swapping property without the real, historic paperwork. That was criminal, but so big the folks who allowed it – gave in to that violence. Now there is not clear title to millions of properties? Who knows what is the full count. A friend of mine was an appraiser during the easy credit home speculative valuation wealth-effect run up of housing prices in the 2000s. He said the lenders didn’t want true appraisals, comparison to other similar properties in the historic manner, they just wanted a drive-by confirmation that there was a property there. He quit. The problem with balance sheet accounting is that balance can easily be achieved by over valuing the assets, even when they aren’t fully owned. Use of home equity as an ATM missed one very important caveat, at the ATM money does come out, but is it a draw on a current balance or an advance? The advance is debt and has to be repaid plus interest. Your kids know money comes out of the machine – they say just go to the ATM, but adults are supposed to know if that is debt money coming out. The goal of home ownership and the debt required to achieve that is that, unless it is paid off completely, you don’t own the ranch. If you achieve that – the mortgage payment part of home ownership ends and you just have to do maintenance, utilities, and taxes. The speculation game is to sell, pay the outstanding debt and move to a cheaper place, where the amenities of your existing community don’t exist. Cheaper places are that because they don’t have the amenities of more costly ones. It is a great economic benefit that we’ve created this we the people government to have rules of property ownership, as this avoids the violence of a warlord tribal society.

  • Derryl Hermanutz

    Great article. The kind of clear concise cutting to the heart of the matter that evonomics is becoming known for.

  • Jannik Thorsen

    Economics is a pseudo science that arbitrarily defines its way out of all the hard questions. Its not an evolutionary science and economists grasp of history is weak.

  • Blucross

    Steves opening logic is incorrect !
    I am curious about this group who refuses to take him to task about it.
    Steve says ” Animals don’t own property. Ever.”
    ~~~ hey You reader, think about that for 2 secs, do You believe that is true ??
    Have You never heard of wolves, or badgers or Salmon in a stream, or Mountain sheep.
    They and about every other animal owns a territory.

  • rfyorkinpdx

    I have believed for years that most Americans who call themselves Libertarians are really Propertarians. Their most important fundamental belief is that private property is sacred. Neither Goldwater nor the Pauls were or are against civil rights. Their position on these issues is based on their belief that no property owner should be compelled by law to honor these rights.

  • Douglas Levene

    I’m not sure I buy the author’s original example. Ownership of a natural resource, like a spring, may have been a stretch for primitive minds, but you can be sure that ownership (dominion, control, possession, right to convey) of individual resources (a nice club, a fur, whatever) was recognized from the time of the earliest men. I have found in teaching law students in China that even after 60 years of communist propaganda, they all have an intuitive sense of property rights not very different from what we think in the West. So I view all attempts to undermine that sense and get people to think of property rights as purely artificial and subject to change on political will, which is the author’s agenda, let’s face it, as misguided and doomed.

    • MilkywayAndromeda


  • Swami

    I find the “property is based upon coercion” paradigm to be useless. Indeed, it pretty much is contradicted by what separates humans from other species. With dogs, ownership is indeed based upon coercion. The big dog takes what it can from little dogs. Ownership goes to the one possessing the bone after all challenges are fought off.

    The defining theme of coercion as an explanation of property does more to obscure than it does enlighten.

    With humans, property is a convention. There are agreed-upon rules which we consent to which decides who has control of what property. Traditional norms which have evolved includes ownership goes to the person first discovering something, creating something, occupying something, improving something or receiving it from another with clear ownership. What makes property work well is that it is not contested constantly via coercion. It is a shared convention.

    Once we get the convention, and establish the rules and supporting institutions, the magic occurs because coercion is greatly removed from the equation. It becomes the exception not the rule.

    Of course all human conventions, at a backstop level, are supported by the threat of violence for those wishing to violate or disagree with the convention. But this is true for life liberty and the pursuit of happiness too. But nobody argues that freedom and happiness are rooted in coercion. They aren’t. Neither is property. Indeed it is rooted in non coercion.

    The author almost groked this when he wisely noted that “…consensus and agreement is what makes ownership ownership. Absent that, it’s just possession and control.” But then he lost the insight and reverted back to the big dog version of explanation.

    I will extend the argument of convention further. Not only are property “rights” based upon shared intersubjective beliefs, but they are shared beliefs which have proven their usefulness in creating successful, prosperous communities. Societies with well defined and respected, and practical property conventions thrive, while those where property is not clear and is constantly questioned and contested are a wreck.

    The benefits of effective property institutions and beliefs are that they lead to clarity on who owns what and how to go about acquiring things in ways which are constructive toward others (coercion being explicitly prohibited). Effective property conventions stimulate preservation and improvement of value, as well as cooperativeness and interdependence between people.

    The author is right that a property claim doesn’t just define who does control property, but also defines who is specifically excluded from that property. This isn’t a bug in the system, it is its virtue, as this eliminates tragedies of the commons and constant struggles and conflict.

    No. Property isn’t rooted in coercion. It is a shared convention which replaces dog eat dog coercion with voluntary interactions and positive sum, win-win interactions. It defines who has control of what, how to acquire and create more value, and it aligns interests.

    • Ted Bundy

      Your argument is based on the myth of the rational economic actor. Irrational primal instincts & tribalism are the fundamental rule of the land, and there is a correlation between diversity and rational civility in any given population. Societies that are smaller and culturally homogeneous are more likely to conform to shared values,, while societies like the USA are a chaotic diversity of cultures embroiled in a long history of irrational and unresolvable tribalism. Your ideal society is never happening here.

      • Swami

        My argument is in no way based upon the myth of the rational actor. It is based upon how humans are innate norm adopters and followers and how competing societies eliminate less successful ones. Other examples of shared intersubjective beliefs and norms are passing on the right (or left), the QWERTY keyboard, holding doors for people, and so on.

        Sociologists and anthropologists have long since shown that people spontaneously use norms to coordinate behavior and expectations. As societies grow in size and complexity, the norms get codified into rules, then laws, then enforcement mechanisms and courts and other institutional arrangements solidify these norms if necessary. Over time, the norms and institutions surrounding them evolve and adapt, or don’t, at the risk of the health and prosperity of said society.

        I agree diversity and civility are often inversely related, but it does not counteract anything about the origins of property conventions.

        For an example of decentralized, evolved development of property rights based upon shared and coordinated norms, I suggest learning how property rights are assigned, coordinated and protected among surfers. There are no external enforcement mechanisms, yet surfers are able to coordinate their activity to establish property rights (on waves) based upon shared conventions and norms.

        My point again is that to explain property via coercion is to define a thing based upon what is NOT distinctive about it.

        • Ted Bundy

          “My argument is in no way based upon the myth of the rational actor. It is based upon how humans are innate norm adopters and followers and how competing societies eliminate less successful ones. Other examples of shared intersubjective beliefs and norms are passing on the right (or left), the QWERTY keyboard, holding doors for people, and so on”

          Humans are still innately irrational, even as they adopt norms, follow and especially when they are competitive. Humans are driven by loss aversion, fear of the unknown, tribalism, greed, selfishness, racism and all sorts of prejudices. It depends on the demographics and history of a society, and you are idealizing a society that exists in a cultural vacuum, as if its possible to separate politics and economics. It is not.

          • Swami


            We are obviously talking past each other. I have no idea why you keep stressing that people are innately irrational. I have no idea why my stating that property conventions are based upon shared norms which then get institionalized is “idealizing a society that exists in a cultural vacuum”. I have no idea why you assume I am remotely interested in separating economics and politics.

            If you want references on some good books which clarify how humans coordinate norms to create effective social organizations, I can provide them.

          • Ted Bundy

            I’m not denying that people are capable of coordinating norms. My point is that it is subjective because humans are innately irrational animals. Sure, people can coordinate norms, but its subjective to human nature – tribalism, identity politics, bounded rationality, selective perception, loss aversion, greed, selfishness will eventually undermine order. Entropy is universal. There will always be people who feel the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, no matter how good they have it & they will disrupt utopian order to get there. A perfect order is innately unnatural

          • Swami

            Thanks for elaborating, Ted. I certainly agree a perfect order is unnatural, and that entropy and disruption are ever present threats. I also agree that violence and coercion can always trump coordinated norms. But this does not imply that coercion is the foundation or essence of property.

          • PJ London

            Thank you for your opinion, would you please point to a place on this earth, which is identified as “property” where violence, coercion and compulsion did not play a part in the “owner” becoming the owner. I accept that there are some uninhabited portions of the Amazon, Sahara and the Arctic, which are not “owned” but please give me an example where “property” was not acquired by violence and/or the threat of violence.

          • Swami

            If you can give me a place where life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were not acquired and defended by violence and the threat of violence. Are life and liberty based entirely, “full stop” on coercion and violence? If so, how much explanatory work is violence and coercion adding to the explanation?

            Please reread all my comments carefully before responding. Thanks.

          • PJ London

            Please stop with the condescension and misdirection. You stated “I find the “property is based upon coercion” paradigm to be useless. Indeed, it pretty much is contradicted by what separates humans from other species.”
            You are saying “I find the “property is based upon coercion” .. is contradicted …
            I am not interested in discussing life, lib… etc. until you can answer a simple question. This is a discussion on property!
            “please point to a place on this earth, which is identified as “property” where violence, coercion and compulsion did not play a part in the “owner” becoming the owner.”
            Clearly you cannot, which makes the rest of your other comments moot.

          • Swami


            If liberty and life also don’t exist anywhere absent coercion and violence, and if life and liberty are not based, full stop, on violence and coercion, then I am implying that perhaps property isn’t either.

            As I implied in my initial comment, I understand that violence has to be neutered with violence. But once violence is neutralized, norms and conventions of cooperation can emerge.

            Dogs have no need of a concept of property. What they possess, they possess until they are coerced away. Coercion and violence explain it all quite nicely. Property is a set of shared conventions which determine who controls what. Once the conventions are set and agreed to then the magic is that it runs without constant violence and disagreement. It is a violence and coercion and disagreement and interference control mechanism.

          • PJ London

            So you agree that property, the one tangible that amongst the intangibles, is dependent on violence and/or the threat of violence.Was, is and always will be.
            As to the other three, they too are entirely dependent on the threat of violence or the ability to withstand and repulse violence. Your dreamy world is exactly that “In your dreams, Snowflake”.
            The people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Zimbabwe and every single other country in the world understand that. All except dewy eyed fools. The only thing that allows you to entertain silly thoughts and ideas, is the fact that someone, somewhere is willing to use violence to protect your property, your life, your liberty and your pursuit of happiness.
            When that person says “screw it. I am tired of all this” and retires, in about a week or maybe 10 minutes, someone else will come along and take your property, lock you up as a slave for your labour and kill you for disagreeing with his ideas on religion or maybe just for fun.
            See how much your Pursuit of happiness means then.
            Everybody should understand that at any point in time, they may have to pack all that is important to them in a backpack, and walk away from everything they own and everything that they hold dear. It has happened throughoout history, it is happening now (last 20 years) to millions of people, mainly through the greed and violence of NATO countries, and it can and will happen to you, wherever you reside.
            The sooner the world wakes up to reality, (Ooooh that is so cruel) the sooner rationality can implemented.
            Sorry to shatter your little dreams (actually, no I am not sorry)
            As to your last sentence, I cannot believe that a rational human being can be so ignorant. Dispense with all courts, prisons and police forces and see how long your “magical” conventions will last.

          • Swami

            You are not a very nice person, are you?


          • PJ London

            Awww did I burst your little bubble?
            Have I invaded your safe space?
            Did that nasty man say nasty things that made you feel all scared?
            Let me quote the greatest non-violent leader of all time Mahatma.
            “Gandhi also explains that someone who cannot use violence to defend themselves or their family is a helpless coward and a “worm.”

            In his own words from the text Between Cowardice And Violence

            “…He who cannot protect himself or his nearest and dearest or their honor by non-violently facing death may and ought to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor. He who can do neither of the two is a burden. He has no business to be the head of a family. He must either hide himself, or must rest content to live for ever in helplessness and be prepared to crawl like a worm at the bidding of a bully …[When violence] is offered in self-defense or for the defense of the defenseless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission.”

            So little swami, remember that you are protected by big nasty men with guns, and without them you would be a slave in some nasty persons household subject to their whims and moods.

    • Unlearning Economics

      One could use this to argue that all government structures which are based on ‘convention’ or ‘shared beliefs’ (excluding the obviously violent, like war) are not based on force – including taxation, social security and even (non-violently) obeying a policeman.

      Also, you’re ignoring the situations where property literally and transparently involves force/violence, from everyday stuff like people being removed from the property of others to more brutal establishments of property like the foreclosure movements or colonial property structures.

      • Swami

        Well, if one wants to argue that, then I encourage one to do so. Yes, many functions of government, including aid to the poor, the perceived value of money, and obeying the will of the majority, are based upon conventions and shared beliefs, they are effectively institutionalized.

        I am not ignoring that the exceptions and violations to norms are indeed backed with force. My fourth and fifth paragraphs explicitly addressed this. In large complex societies this is monopolized by government.

        Let me be clear. This meme that property is based on coercion is backwards. What distinguishes humans from other animals is that we first and foremost coordinate our activities via shared norms and conventions and beliefs. The use of coercion is the last step, not the first.

        • Unlearning Economics

          You didn’t really deal with the same point. It’s not enough to state, in the face of actual large scale coercion in order to establish property rights, that property isn’t really coercion because it’s a shared norm. You have to deal with how property has sometimes (often) been historically established and why it’s OK to adhere to the structures which are based on that historical coercion.

          You do have a point about norms but you are making it too strongly and conflating things. For example:

          “But nobody argues that freedom and happiness are rooted in coercion. They aren’t. Neither is property. Indeed it is rooted in non coercion.”

          Freedom is literally the absence of coercion. Nothing really has to happen for someone to be free; people merely have to leave them alone. On the other hand, for property rights to exist people have to be excluded, using coercion if necessary, from pieces of the world. As for happiness, it is distinct from both freedom and coercion because it is a state of mind.

          The problem with the idea that property is defined by shared norms and beliefs is that these norms differ between people, over time and place. Therefore property will only be respected insofar as people respect those norms and beliefs. Once one person or group of people does not – for whatever reason – coercion comes into play to prevent them from violating the existing structure of property rights. But there may a perfectly good ethical reason for them to do so (e.g. ‘why does your tribe get all of the water while my tribe dies of thirst?’) so the coercion is unjustified.

          In other words, your defence of ‘property’ in abstract can only work insofar as property is serving its social purpose and nobody – or virtually nobody – has good reason to systemically dispute those property rights. This is not the case in many areas of the modern world (the homeless, starving, destitute) and so your defence of property cannot work as a defence by fiat. If you agree with that then I doubt your position is really far from mine, Steve’s or Matt’s.

          • Swami

            Great discussion. Allow me to respond point by point….

            “You didn’t really deal with the same point. It’s not enough to state, in the face of actual large scale coercion in order to establish property rights, that property isn’t really coercion because it’s a shared norm. You have to deal with how property has sometimes (often) been historically established and why it’s OK to adhere to the structures which are based on that historical coercion.”

            It is true that the shared norms and institutions of societies have historically been forced upon other societies and sub groups. It is also true that democracy and freedom of speech have been forced upon others and that both continue to exist only so long as we are willing to coercively defend them.

            “You do have a point about norms but you are making it too strongly and conflating things. For example:
            “But nobody argues that freedom and happiness are rooted in coercion. They aren’t. Neither is property. Indeed it is rooted in non coercion.” Freedom is literally the absence of coercion. Nothing really has to happen for someone to be free; people merely have to leave them alone. On the other hand, for property rights to exist people have to be excluded, using coercion if necessary, from pieces of the world. As for happiness, it is distinct from both freedom and coercion because it is a state of mind.”

            No. Freedom has to be defined and agreed to as well. Where does your action stop and its effect upon me begin? Does telling a vicious truth about me cause me harm? Am I free to torture flies? Free to refuse to help drowning children? Free to fire an employee and replace them with another? Free to pee on the fork you are holding? People have to coordinate their norms, behaviors and expectations around the details and exceptions. In larger more complex societies these need to be institutionalized into courts and laws and such. When two people disagree on freedom, or someone attempts to use force to limit a person’s freedom, then only coercion or the threat of coercion protects it.

            Freedom and property are both shared and coordinated norms. Neither is defined by coercion, but both require coercion or the threat thereof in the background to protect it.

            “The problem with the idea that property is defined by shared norms and beliefs is that these norms differ between people, over time and place. Therefore property will only be respected insofar as people respect those norms and beliefs.”

            Indeed. If people don’t share and respect common norms, then property becomes contested. It is now going to the big dog. Absent shared norms and beliefs, it goes to how possession is defined in every other species other than humans.

            “Once one person or group of people does not – for whatever reason – coercion comes into play to prevent them from violating the existing structure of property rights. But there may a perfectly good ethical reason for them to do so (e.g. ‘why does your tribe get all of the water while my tribe dies of thirst?’) so the coercion is unjustified.”

            I never said there are not good reasons to suggest norms change. It is entirely possible that the norms around property are totally dysfunctional in a given society. Shared norms may very well be ethically bad. Communism had shared norms on property too. They were just ineffective compared to alternatives. Foragers have shared norms on possessions too, including shared norms that many things are not owned individually but they are extremely different from our own. For foragers, the norms can very well be very different and yet quite effective in their context.

            “In other words, your defence of ‘property’ in abstract can only work insofar as property is serving its social purpose and nobody – or virtually nobody – has good reason to systemically dispute those property rights. This is not the case in many areas of the modern world (the homeless, starving, destitute) and so your defence of property cannot work as a defence by fiat.”

            I am not defending (nor attacking) anything. I am explaining the nature of property. I guess you could say that I am explaining the practical role of property, but there are as many possible conventions as there are societies. Norms can be functional or dysfunctional. Certainly I believe modern western norms on property — broadly considered and conveniently oversimplified — serve a strong role in facilitating broad scale cooperation and coordination. But as above, I believe forager norms did the same even though they were usually quite different. Communists had shared conventions on property too, and though not completely ineffective, it just proved not to stand up well to competing norm sets.

            From what I read of Matt, I actually suspect he might agree with me on property, though it is hard to tell as he keeps burying his thoughts on property with his attacks on libertarians. Two separate issues.

      • Paul Robinson

        If the person being removed from the property respected the owner’s property rights he wouldn’t have to be forcefully removed. Why is this clown on the property in the first place. Foreclosure is the result of non payment of money lent, money is a form of property, to procure a house and land. The agreement for forfeiture is written into the mortgage agreement, freely entered into by the borrower. In fact without being lent the banks property for that purchase, he couldn’t have bought the house in the first place. Houses are built they require work and workers are payed money a form of property.

        • Unlearning Economics

          1. You clearly have no idea what you’re talking about. The foreclosure movements do not refer to modern foreclosure on houses but to early Capitalism in the UK and elsewhere where land was actively taken from its previous owners (peasants) so that they would work in factories.

          2. In any case, the discussion is over whether property as an institution is coercive. You have not refuted this claim but simply called those who violate the institution ‘clowns’. This doesn’t change that the institution must be enforced via coercion, and neither does anything else you say.

    • isnamthere

      “There are agreed-upon rules which we consent to which decides who has control of what property.”

      And how did these “rules” get “agreed-upon” except through violence and later acquiescence?

  • I agree with another commenter, that the business about coercion and violence is a distraction from the message, and unnecessary to the argument. It unnecessarily makes me think the writer is a “taxes are theft” nut, since those are the terms always trotted out there. It’s possible to respect someone else’s property because one wants to live in a society where property is respected – you don’t need the implication that we’d all rob each other blind if we could get away with it.

    At any rate, it’s nice to read thinking like this – it echo’s something I’ve been saying for years: The only thing you can actually buy is behavior. If I buy land, nothing about the land changes. What changes is people’s behavior. What you are actually buying is everyone else acting as if you own what you bought.

    The fact that what you are buying is behavior has nothing to do with specifying the mechanism which enforces that the behavior occurs. The enforcement mechanism is a distraction; the interesting thing is the fact that you’re buying behavior.

  • curatingsex

    Yes, I agree that this is a good article. Two addenda reveal its larger significance:

    1) cost-benefit thinking is a distinctly human adjunct to the implicit balance sheets the author discusses here. Many economists make the mistake of assuming (it’s a matter of belief or ideology for them) that ALL human decisions are of that type and thus that cost-benefit decision-making runs the planet. Except that research shows that right vs wrong or moral decision-making also occurs w/o reference to the implicit cost-benefit analysis economists tend to assume AND that it occurs in a completely different place in the brain (from MRI scans) AND that when they are in conflict the moral decision-making ALWAYS [spoiler alert!] trumps the cost-benefit decision-making. Which explains why ‘terrorists’ are so infuriated when offered money ‘solutions’ to their moral issues. Read Scott Atran for the details. Cost-benefit thinking is for markets; precious few of the MAJOR human decisions in life are negotiated or even evaluated or even found in markets.

    2) the violence that decides and perpetuates all of this ownership is a distinctly ♂ feature in the human species. Human ♀♀ do not as a rule do physical violence. The extremely rare exceptions occur in defence of very close personal relationships and people such as a child, parent, spouse or other closely known person. All human institutional violence (including the economy as mostly practiced now) is perpetuated by institutions designed by the human ♂ mind to advance the aggression that is his being since about two months after his conception. His whole nervous system including his brain develops in this Testosterone (T) bath for about 7 months before he is even born. His sister never has such T exposure; she gets her T from the adrenals and other (minor) sources. She does not do testes that crank the T day and night throughout his adult life, forever.

    Both of which speak to why human decision-making in groups large AND small needs to be made by a gendsex balanced group of people in order to reflect the whole range of human sexgend [read:violent] diversity. If only ♂ OR only ♀ minds make any such decisions they are single sex oriented and designed to fail in any larger societal grouping where all sexgends are enfranchised equally.

    Two recent and hugely important sources for these conclusions are The Silent Sex:Gender, Deliberation and Institutions (Princeton U Press 2014) and What Works: Gender Equality by Design (Harvard U Press 2016). which are both significantly influenced by the ♀ minds involved in producing them. At last!

    best to all,


  • Kevin O’Leary

    Do I own my body? The things I make with my own hands? If I plant and tend a fruit tree do I own the fruit?

    In Ireland in the 19th century coastal farmers “made” fields on stretches of bare rock by composting seaweed. Did they own that land?

    The idea of property as the ill gotten gain of violence works in your neat little fable but reality is far more complex.

    The key distinction between the possessions of animals and humans is that we make things. We invest our own labor, in huge amounts, in building things that often outlast us. It’s that fundamental difference that gives rise to property. Rent seeking on a squat is an abberration of that, not the norm.

  • When I first gave private ownership some thought I concluded, as did

    Steven Roth and his commenter John Fraser that property belongs to the last person who took it by force. Culture just supports the property’s passage from person to person until that property is again taken by force, or the property is diminished to zero benefit. For example, coal is burned, soil is depleted of its minerals. Mineable minerals and metals are too dilute to provide service. These rules of operation have thus far promoted human existence, however, they may not promote sustainability.

    In considering this predicament I soon realized that the primitive parts of our human brain are responsible. The thinking that allowed us to survive for thousands of generations,—` when our peers died off, is now threatening our existence.

    Humankind’s sapience, observed the bad results of its own primitive brain and developed culture to help constrain the worst behavior. These constraints are part of a social contract that takes away some personal freedoms of individuals so the whole group lives better.

    Steven Roth points out private property became part of the social contact 10,000 years ago and money 800 years ago and each has gone through several incantations. More recently humans added abolition and suffrage to the contract. Last century they added prohibition and then subtracted it. So the social contract is an ever changing and fluid document.

    Humankind is now faced with a sustainability problem. The behaviors resulting from our primitive brains, even constrained by the existing social contract, are about to destroy large portions the ecosystem, collapse our civilizations, and through starvation and conflict kill most of the human population. Maybe it’s time to investigate additions to the social contract that produce sustainability.

    Most people will not like any additions to their social contract — social contracts take away enjoyed freedoms. Any additions will be as welcomed as abolition was to slave owners. Yet, with sapience, a new contract might be adopted if it can be shown to attain sustainability — avoid tragedy.

    If you liked Steve’s article about You Don’t Own That! The Evolution of Property

    you will understand the more extensive additions to the social contract required to attain sustainability included in part 4 of a working paper

    Unwinding the Human Predicament.

    Jack Alpert

    • Jack- I’m familiar with your work. After seeing your comment I went to and specifically to … I’m curious what you think about the Augusta National Golf Club model that I briefly put forward elsewhere on this thread…

      • Matt I did not mean to be so vague in my post. I had embedded the URL’s in the text and it stripped them. I edited my post by putting them back the full URL into the text.

        I have proposed a sustainable civilization in the
        Unwinding the Human Predicament.
        In this theoretical civilization ( something that is difficult transition to)
        all earth services are held in common. All species for all time periods have equal ownership. ( means you can not burn fossil fuels because there is no way future generations can have them after this generation burns them. I am not blowing hot air I have actual designed a civilization that does not run on fossil or uranium fuels. It does not mine resources but only recycles them. And it consumes renewables below the rate they are produced.

        Which means any species living in any time period ( including humans) Can annually lease a part of the commons for private use. However when the person dies, the lease is assumed by another person or the property is return to the common pool to be re-leased

        The transition from today’s private ownership to commons ownership is complex happens over an one hundred year time frame. I could use some help if you are interested. I am not a philosopher and I have only a very primitive knowledge of Philosophy so I can not respond to you comments on Marx and Hagel. Even your ANGC example went over my head. I am engineer, so the physical elements I propose have to work at the plumber’s perspective. I usually leave money out. The civilization I have conceived uses energy tokens as interchange and represent a call on kwh of hydro dam output. And like dam output llthey have dates of expiration because water that goes over the dame and not through the turbines is lost. Since the water is part of the commons, the tokens are distributed equally to all members of society. I know I am throwing a lot at you at once. But it is explained at, the box to right of my face is a good place to start. Please feel free to contact me. I have several ways we can hold face to face meetings. 5-10 minutes of that will let you know if you want to get involve in some serous work. [email protected]

        • Jack- I’ll contact you directly after I have a chance to look through your material more thoroughly. If I am not mistaken, at some point you made the case for having only one child…

          “However when the person dies, the lease is assumed by another person or
          the property is return to the common pool to be re-leased”

          This is the Augusta model except the pool is not “common” but only includes those who have power. ANGC just got a two-for-one member (minority and a woman!) when they initiated Condoleezza Rice as a member. While Condoleezza is probably well off financially, she would not be able to afford an Augusta membership if it was offered in the “free market.”

          My point with respect to Marx is that he recognized that private property is not all it’s cracked up to be.

          I think that it is important to keep in mind that most people are not interested in change. Between my family and my wife’s family there is not a single individual who is even coming close to living a sustainable lifestyle. Here in Spokane we are experiencing a baby boom as many are having at least 3 or 4 children…

  • Fulgencio Salvado

    Another viewpoint: How can we own something that outlives us? Long before we were born, the land was already there. Long after we are gone, it will still be there. When we die, we are buried and the land owns us. We cannot own something that owns us.

  • The downside of private [individually owned] property… The following is from Richard Bernstein’s “Praxis and Action.” “So too, Avineri shows us how in an obscure section of the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
    we can detect the origins of Marx’s conception of private property. By
    dialectically twisting Hegel’s defense of the right of primogeniture,
    Marx sketches for us what was to become a major thesis for him, that
    under a system of private property, it is an illusion to think that man
    is truly a master of his property. Man is himself made into an object of
    property and his own products master and enslave him. One by one Marx
    subjects Hegel’s claims in the Philosophy of Right to the same sort of dialectical critique.” [p.37]

    I have come to think of the Augusta National Golf Club as a potential model of property ownership albeit without ANGC’s latent purpose of defending the status quo. It is reported that initiation fees and dues are kept low so that they can control membership. While the model I have in mind would be inclusive rather than exclusive the key is understanding that it does not make sense for us all to own our piece of property — whether it is for golf and/or for decent place to reside and/or for a place to grow organic produce, etc. The rules that are in place would attract active-minded people who can actually do something meaningful other than spending their days sitting in front of a computer and commenting like I am now. We are now a society that is far more talk than action.

  • Certain things ought not to be private property. Rather, they belong to us all in common. They are the commons.

    There is a 17th century poem that speaks to this:

    The law locks up the man or woman
    Who steals the goose off the common
    But leaves the greater villain loose
    Who steals the common from the goose.

    The law demands that we atone
    When we take things we do not own
    But leaves the lords and ladies fine
    Who takes things that are yours and mine.

    The poor and wretched don’t escape
    If they conspire the law to break;
    This must be so but they endure
    Those who conspire to make the law.

    The law locks up the man or woman
    Who steals the goose from off the common
    And geese will still a common lack
    Till they go and steal it back.

    It isn’t just the goose that relies on the common. Every one of us does. We depend on access to land, to water, to the electromagnetic spectrum, to natural resources, to the entire natural creation. And when we permit some — individuals, corporations, tribes, trusts, universities — to own them without returning something (fair value) to the rest of us for excluding us, we perpetrate and perpetuate injustice. Does the term rent-seeking ring a bell? It is the annual rental value of the commons we’re talking about.

    If you’re familiar with the history behind the board game Monopoly, you might recall that it was based on a 1903 game called the Landlord’s Game. Look it up.

    In the 1880s and 1890s, virtually everyone knew the idea that the commons were rightly our common treasure. The #2 best seller was a book called “Progress and Poverty,” and it was widely discussed. It kicked off the Progressive movement.

    Today there are many websites devoted to the ideas. Google “Henry George” “quotable notables” “quotable nobels” “Progress and Poverty”.

  • polistra24

    Bruenig’s definition of theft doesn’t match the normal legal definition, and doesn’t match the practical definition either. Force is NOT universally involved. Among social animals and humans, a large part of theft is by deception and trickery. Force may enter the picture if the victim tries to get the bone or money back, but generally the thief has already run away or skipped town by the time the victim understands what happened.

  • DavidT

    How quickly we forget Engels’ classic The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.

  • R Scott LaMorte

    I believe the short version of this is “All property is theft.”

    No? =)

  • BryanKavanagh

    Then we might go back to the very derivation of the word ‘owner’, reputedly the Middle English ‘owerner’: he who owes the land rent which, although squaring with Leviticus 25:23-24, has been studiously ignored by Jews and Christians alike. This is seemingly so banks may secure incredible unearned mortgage income out of capitalised land rent, then package mortgages up into asset-backed securities, on-selling them, hopefully before the financial collapse that their rent-seeking has generated sets in. The movie “The Big Short” explained the process extremely well, demonstrating that nothing at all has been done to curtail bank rent-seeking in future. Maybe if we were capture more publicly-generated land rent to the public coffer, there’d be less for the FIRE sector to capitalise into unearned profits? Clearly, an inverse relationship exists between these bank-induced land price bubbles and wages/profits/productivity.

  • roylangston

    Sorry, but this article is worthless, as it fails to comprehend — indeed, even to mention — the crucial difference between appropriation of what was already there and production of what was not already there. The former inherently abrogates others’ liberty rights, the latter does not. The latter is therefore the only basis of rightful property, the former simply a socially accepted, legally approved form of theft and slavery.

    • John Pablo

      The clearest explanation of ownership and property that I have ever encountered is this: “The Idea of Property” by Joseph Milne

      • Roy Langston

        Milne’s article is also worthless. He claims, “Since the accepted basis of property is expedience, or human law by convention, this removes the legitimate ownership of property to the producer.” But just because expedience is the “accepted” basis of property does not mean it is the ACTUAL basis of property. Understanding the actual basis of property requires us to understand WHY it is expedient, and this Milne cannot do, as it invokes only evolutionary advantage, and leaves God out of the equation.. So he ends up ascribing final property only to God, and denying property in the fruits of one’s labor.

        • John Pablo

          You say “he” (Milne) “claims, Since the accepted basis of property is expedience, or human law by convention, this removes the legitimate ownership of property to the producer.”, when he does nothing of the kind!
          He is telling us that, “What George is pointing out here is that so long as it is assumed that land can be property, confusion must follow about all ownership and all distribution of wealth. And the reason it causes this confusion is because no ground in natural law can be found for the claim of land ownership, and so ownership as such is forced out of the realm of natural law and into the realm of human law, That is to say, property is only a matter of human convention, and this is the case with all ownership, all distribution and all labour. Yet, as George points out, Mill sees that distribution or exchange of wealth must come under natural law if it is to be just, but since land is included in his notion of property he cannot support this truth without contradicting himself.”

          And he adds:
          “So that we are absolutely clear on this, George go on to say:

          ‘The real basis or property, the real fundamental law of distribution, is
          so clear that no one who attempts to reason can utterly and consistently
          ignore it. It is the natural law which gives the product to the producer.
          But this cannot be made to cover property in land. Hence the persistent
          effort to find the origin of property in human law and its base in
          expediency. (p.461)’
          “Here George makes explicit what he regards the real basis of property, ‘it is the natural law which gives the product to the producer’. This means
          that property can only be in things produced by human work, and so
          cannot include anything not produced by human work. Neither land nor
          any resource already present in Nature can be property, unless it be
          regarded as the property of God who created it.”

          • Roy Langston

            As I quoted Milne directly, and put the quote in quotation marks, I’m not sure what you are claiming. I know George’s position. Milne’s is different, as he says himself.

          • Roy Langston

            John wrote: “You say “he” (Milne) “claims, Since the accepted basis of property is
            expedience, or human law by convention, this removes the legitimate
            ownership of property to the producer.”, when he does nothing of the

            John, that was a direct quote from Milne, as any reader can verify for himself. That’s what the quotation marks mean. Of course Henry George understood the basis of property — products of labor inherently come into existence in the producer’s possession — but Milne is not happy with that.

  • Paul Robinson

    What communist nonsense. Property rights are based on respecting someone’s use of the property in question without that person having to fight for it constantly. The argument presented does not take into account the property owner’s efforts at developing or maintaining property. Property can be a simple tool made and used by a hunter gatherer in a communal setting. The effort and care of that tool makes it his. If the simplistic argument presented was changed a bit. Perhaps the water source has impurities or is difficult to access. The “evil” tribe in question has developed a way to purify the water and to make it available in vast quantities for other’s use. In doing this they may have less time available to procure necessary items. They trade the water for these items. How is this spring not theirs. Of course if the other tribes chose to not respect that ownership war would result and the property can be forcefully taken. The new owners while not developing the spring originally go on to maintain the functions established for centuries, it is now truly theirs. If unmaintained the spring reverts back to it’s unusable state. Work is necessary to maintain it. Work and effort would certainly confer ownership.

    • PJ London

      So the only thing that confers “Property rights” is someone else “respecting” those rights. But what if the someone else is say a bunch of bikers, or if the well instead of water held oil and that someone was BP, then as you say “War” will result.
      Your argument holds water as safely as a sieve. You yourself destroy it within your comment and yet fail to see the fallacy.

      • Paul Robinson

        I don’t know why you bring in bikers and BP. First off oil is owned by the owner of the well. It takes knowledge and equipment to make use of the oil so not just anyone can take possession of it and use it. There is a subtle yet significantly important distinction between ownership and coercion. You own the cloths on your back, the shoes on your feet, the watch on your wrist and the lunch you are eating. Without ownership and the respect for ownership you would have to fight off anyone and everyone that wants to take those things constantly. Only the strongest would possess anything and the unwanted scraps would be left for the weak. This is how it is in nature. But let’s just say that ownership and coercion and exactly the same, then what was even the point of writing an article to state the obvious. Why not just write an article about how everyone eventually dies. Of course for those that can see the purpose of the article is clear. It is to convince fools that being enslaved by a Communist government is in fact good. You see the slave owns nothing, not his cloths, not his shoes, not his watch not even his lunch. All a slave has or uses belongs to the Master be that a person or government it can be taken any time. This is a very important distinction between a freeman and a slave. The freeman may walk with ragged cloths, on shoes with holes and eat his lunch of humble fare but he possesses those things and himself, his thoughts his words, and his actions. The slave possesses nothing even if he has fine cloths and food he is below the freeman. This article was nothing but Communist propaganda to ensnare fools.

        • PJ London

          A moment’s thought would have shown that I introduced Bikers and OIl companies as they are notoriously uninterested in other people’s property rights. But clearly such thinking is beyond your capability.
          You do not address my point which is simply “the reason that people do not take the clothes off your back and the shoes from your feet is NOT because they are ‘nice’ people but because the police will come and lock them away!”
          That is it. Full stop. Move to any country where the police are not in control, walk down any street in the “bad lands” of America after dark , waving money or even nice shoes, see how long you survive.
          Your ownership of anything lasts exactly as long as you can fight off those who want to take it from you.
          The point of writing the article is to try and make idiots who actually believe that they have “ownership” merely by possession aware that they are living in a dream state.
          If you think that you are free, please show one thing that the state including the wonderful USA cannot or does not take from you at their pleasure.
          You may want to look up taxes, civil forfeiture and eminent domain, before writing something stupid.

          • Paul Robinson

            I realize from this post that you are probably not a Communist apologist. You are very pessimistic though. Not everyone would steal except for prohibition by law. Many people have ethics and that is what stops them from being animals. Bikers are not interested in property rights doesn’t presume everyone with a motorcycle i hope. You probably mean stereotyped outlaw bikers. Well let’s face it. They are protected by law as well. If vigilantism were permitted they wouldn’t last long. Same for most gangs. But if lawlessness was taken to it’s eventual conclusion, they would ultimately be walking gangs, because gasoline would be unavailable, and replacement parts or new bikes would also be unavailable.

    • MilkywayAndromeda

      Why communist?

  • junktex

    If you pay property taxes you don’t own it.The state does

  • Leo Hirschocker

    How can an entity with limited time and scope ‘own’ something which is limitless. You can’t own land or other beings or the Sun or a planet or water or air.

    • PJ London

      So how is the weather there in La La land?

  • isnamthere

    Based on what? Sounds like you are the slave…to private property and profit.

  • MilkywayAndromeda

    Dear author and dear commentators

    Are there any invariables in the universe that are ingrained on homo sapiens sapiens that we just magnify?

    I mean the expansion mechanism (since big bang for example) brings associated attrition/friction. Meaning that with homo sapiens sapiens the expansion mechanism could be translated with the worship of “growth”. More “growth” means more attrition/friction (violence). So more people, less resources, etc and the same mindset leads to the institutionalization of things such as the ones mentioned in the article and in the comments.

    I am looking for some invariables markers that accompanies “all” the entities of this universe or this part of the universe.

    Unfortunately we have no time to discuss subjects of great importance such as this one 🙁

  • Helga Vierich

    Tribes seem to be a rather late development – most appear to originate as risk-aversion strategies. You have lineage systems emerging when a leader – usually the most rusted older person, becomes responsible for accumulating and maintaining some form of surplus production to offset risk during droughts or other years of hardship. Thus if you can store surplus food or accumulate extra animals in a domestic herd, these are managed by some senior person who its trusted – someone with a reputation developed over years of displaying competence, conscientiousness and reliability. The contributors to this common safety net are ensured that anyone who for example falls ill or suffered other personal hardship may be provisioned until they can recover, and the whole community can reliably survive on stored surplus even through famine years. I interviewed lineage headmen in tribal communities in Burkina Faso who had up to eight years grain in store, all contributed form the surplus production of individual households within their lineage. This was while I was working with a West African project that was part of the CGIAR-sponsered International Crops Research Institute fore the Semi-Arid Tropics. Previously, while doing research among hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari, I found a quite different system of risk aversion strategy in place – people maintained wide-ranging ties with kinsmen and friends – these permitted them to move out of drought-hit areas by joining people they had kin or friendship links to in regions where resources were better. This worked reciprocally, so that the distant friends (some even in other language groups) you sought refuge with during a bad year would in turn seek refuge with you if drought hit their region.

    In the light of all this, I would suggest that the model presented int his blog is a bit oversimplified. Sedentism and reliance on fixed resources is more likely to lead to higher risk of malnutrition and even starvation if there are no accumulated stores. Reciprocal access between groups of villages in such an economy – over wider culture areas than would be represented by one community are of vital importance. This is especially true in semi-arid zones. Individual property rights to land actually are pretty pointless – and hostile and exclusionary relationships among such communities would seem a rather riskier option than more cordial and negotiated mutual respect of village territories (mostly held communally and thus managed communally as Elinor Ostrom has found). It is much more likely that these risk aversion strategies tended to create mutually beneficial alliances over large culture areas, and that it was only with higher population densities that some kind non-usufruct tenure developed as a prelude to inherited forms of “land as property”.

    I actually witnessed such a transition happening in one of our ICRISAT villages due to the loss of half the village territory to a government created game reserve, form which the farmers were now excluded. This necessitated such a shortening of thew fallow cycle (form 28 years to less than ten) that over-cultivated fields lost fertility and outside sources like manure and chemical fertilizers had to be used to keep them productive. THAT was the point where a sort of inherited farm trnure developed within families – sons inheriting fields directly form their fathers. Land shortages developed as population continued to rise and more deforestation occurred, topsoils were lost, and water tables started to drop.

    Some families who suffered labour shortages at the beginning of this shift wound up with very small holdings or no land at all. I saw the emergence of an actual landless class. These people were only able to survive by exchanging their labour for food.

    • MilkywayAndromeda

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts from direct contact with reality.☺