Liberty is a persistent theme in the ongoing story of humanity. 2,000 years before the Statue of Liberty was raised over New York Harbor, liberty was worshiped as the goddess Eleutheria in Greece and Libertas in Rome. But after thousands of years of worship and statue-building, the list of rules and institutions to enforce them seems longer than ever. Frustration with big government and excessive regulation fuels the politics of libertarianism, a uniquely American ideology that promotes a free-market capitalist system with minimal government to interfere with liberty. While dismantling unjustified authority is certainly an excellent ( and enjoyable ) way to serve humanity, it is useful to understand how authoritarian structures work so that the hammer of liberty can be aimed where it will hurt the most. But the roots of unjustified authority are not only in the state — they are in our ideas. To be ‘libertarian’ means nothing without opposing the coercive violence of the police state — the heart of authoritarianism. And the foundation of the police state is private property….
Private Property vs. Possessions
Most people use the terms “possessions” and “private property” interchangeably — but there is a difference. Possession existed before the first humans and private property is just a few centuries old. The concept of possession is pretty intuitive and even animals do it — a bear possesses its cave, an ape possesses the branch it uses to scoop up tasty bugs, and you probably possess the device you are using to read this article. If an object or space is controlled, used, or set aside by someone for later use, then it is a possession. Houses, clothing, cellphones, books, and tools are typical examples of possessions and this kind of ownership has been respected in basically every society, culture, and time.
Private property, on the other hand, is a human invention that was widely adopted during the mid-1800s. Things are private property when ownership is enforced by institutions with legal authority. Unlike possessions, property does not need to be used, controlled, or occupied by the property owners — folks who rent houses, for example, are possessing a house that is owned by a landlord as property. Bears possess caves but the caves are not property because ownership is not being enforced ( although, of course, most critters are smart enough not to use a cave while a bear possesses it ). For a bear to own a cave as property, some kind of bear-police would need to agree that a cave was property and keep the other bears from using it.
To sum it up:
- Possessions are things that are used, occupied, or controlled by someone.
- Property ownership is enforced by social and legal institutions.
Property Is State-Enforced
Control of Resources
“The fox has its den and the birds have their nests but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head”
-Yeshuah of Nazareth
Just being alive is taking possession of each breath to seize the life-giving oxygen — each creature possesses the space and resources it needs to live and, if possible, to make it worth the trouble. As long as human society exists, there will be houses, clothing, record collections, and other personal belongings. Private property, however, can only exist as long as a society creates and sustains institutions to enforce the right of some people to control certain property by denying the right to others. Since the right to possess personal space and belongings is practically enforced by social and cultural norms, private property rights only matter if something is difficult or impossible to personally possess ( in other words, the law is not what stops the rest of us from stealing your toothbrush or using your kitchen sink ).
Many things simply cannot be possessed — patents, for example, only matter if the state punishes those who “steal” ideas patented by others. Ownership of copyright, stocks, financial devices, mineral claims, software, and intellectual property only exist by threatening people with punishment for not recognizing it. Institutionalized violence is also needed to enforce private ownership over physical property that is too large to be personally used, controlled, or occupied, including:
- Natural resources, such as forests, waterways, mountains, and large plots of land
- Industrial-scale facilities, such as factories, mines, and office buildings
- Residential complexes, such as apartment buildings, mobile home parks, and dormitories
- Transportation, energy, and communication infrastructures, such as railroads, highways, dams, energy grids, and the internet
Authoritarian Institutions, Bureaucracy, & the Origins of Policing
For property to exist, legal frameworks must be built to determine ownership and property rights must be enforced by authorizing institutions to sanction, punish, and inflict violence on citizens to deter them from using private property. History is pretty clear about this — in fact, modern policing institutions were developed to protect private property from angry working classes that were dispossessed by it. Before the 1800s, policing was mostly done by watchmen who volunteered to patrol their communities. As industrialization shifted production from the fields to the factory, property rights became increasingly vital to an emerging class of business-owners who replaced the land-owning aristocracy as the ruling class in capitalist society.
Union-Busting Mercenaries & Slave Patrols
In feudal times, merchants hired guards to protect their business but, as political power passed into the hands of business-owners under capitalism, the costs of protecting private property were passed to the public for the “collective good.” In the US, the original blueprint for policing institutions was drawn from slave patrols who worked with civil courts to hunt down, punish, and return black humans who they called ‘property’ to their legal owners. After slavery was legally abolished, former slave patrols cooperated with the state to organize legal policing groups.
In the North, policing was shaped by the needs of factory owners who could not keep workers from taking over factories to run them autonomously and striking for safer working conditions and decent wages. Disputes between workers and owners were often settled by a combination of government forces and hired guns ( always in favor of the ones paying them, of course ). Security firms were gradually integrated with state authorities on frameworks developed by anti-union security and slave patrols to create official, publicly-funded forces capable of securing the ‘right’ to private property.
The Shadow of Private Property
Private property is the cornerstone of capitalism. Property rights — which benefit fewer people each day — cannot be secured without a force capable of defending those rights from the vast majority who do not benefit from it. In other words, the state must be ready to fire upon the hungry crowds at any time to protect property that wealthy owners cannot possibly control themselves. For private property to exist, society must make laws to protect the rights of property-owners by imposing penalties on those who violate them. If it is necessary, these penalties must be forcible and violent — without violence, the institution of private property would dissolve as soon as any armed group opposed it. And the threat of violence must be more-or-less everywhere or else property rights would be limited to certain areas.
Property needs a police-state to exist.
Policing Controlled by the State
Protects Property — Not People
The thing about police states is that, if you leave them lying around, the state tends to use them. As this post was written, students in Georgia burned a police car in response to the police killing an unarmed student and mass protests erupted in St. Louis after the courts ruled — yet again — that no one is responsible for the killing of a black man by police. The Georgian student’s name was Scout Schultz and they were the 856th person killed by the police this year — but the tally increased to 860 before this post was published. The number is likely to be higher, of course, by the time you read this.
More than 160 human beings have been arrested in St. Louis for protesting and 3 protesters have been charged with inciting a riot in Georgia at the time of this writing. The St. Louis chief of police explained they had arrested more than 80 people in one night because some protesters had “knocked over concrete flower pots, trash cans and newspaper stands and threw rocks through windows of downtown businesses.”
Capitalism Is Never Libertarian
There is only one way that a landlord can convince an apartment building full of people to pay most of their wages in rent just because he ‘owns’ it. And there is only one way millions of folks can be convinced to sleep on the street right by many more millions of unused buildings and vacant, un-affordable houses. The credible threat of violence. It is the only one way five people can control more wealth than the bottom 50% of the global human population.
Personal possessions can easily be maintained without the state-sanctioned violence of a police state — humanity did that for thousands of years with citizen-led, community-level policing. And we can do it again. But private property rights cannot be maintained without violence. A capitalist society can never be a free society — it takes the constant presence of violent force to sustain private rights of ownership over society’s productive forces and resources for billionaires and business interests. Property or liberty — we only get to pick one.