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“Property” is a concept concerning the relationship of people to one another regarding objects that have value. It refers to who is included in the circle of people with a legal right to utilize or dispose of the object(s) in question, and who is excluded. The object, at least in any direct sense, is unaffected by these relationships (of course, it may be affected in terms of how it is utilized, destroyed or exhausted). While at first glance it might appear that property rights define the relationship between individuals and objects (both tangible and intangible), it really defines relationships among people by identifying who can and can’t exclude which others from access to or utilization of those objects (sometimes with the assistance of third parties authorized to enforce these rights).

Two essential truths about property are in tension with one another:

1) A market economy depends on well-defined property rights, and preferably extensive private property rights (in which the right to access and to exclude others from access is vested in a single individual), and a hybrid, predominantly market economy is the most robust producer and distributor of wealth yet discovered; and

2) Property is theft, especially historically.

Most Americans bristle at the second observation, usually assuming that it implies a denial of the first, even when both are stated. But the second observation is clearly accurate, though a bit paradoxical itself (how can property be “theft,” if “theft” presupposes the existence of property?). As a “first cause,” when a human being or group of human beings first encounters land or other objects that they lay claim to, this is the creation of property. Calling this first encounter “theft” is a bit of  a stretch: It can be depicted as “theft” from all other would-be claimants, since it is held by force against others unable to exert superior force, such that its possession isn’t a function of first encounter, but rather a function of greater might. But the “theft” really occurs once the force is exerted.

For the sake of argument, let’s consider this first creation of property to be the one instance in which property is not theft; if those who encounter first can hold it, let’s say they are entitled to do so. All other involuntary transfers, when someone takes property by force from another, can then be considered “theft,” and any subsequent transfers of such stolen property can be considered exactly that.

From prehistory into the modern age, territories have been possessed, defended, conquered, and expanded primarily by means of force. Probably no current tract of land is possessed primarily by the decendents of those who first encountered it. Probably every or virtually every current tract of land is either possessed by someone who is descended from, or was originally purchased from someone who was descended from, some individual or group who took that land from others by force. Thus, all land is stolen property.

There is a line from my novel, set in an ancient civilization, in which a warrior of non-noble birth who is leading an up-start army against the nobles of his own land tells his gathered soldiers before the decisive battle, “if we lose this battle, the nobles will shackle us in chains and label us criminals for doing ourselves what their great-grandfathers did for them.”

It’s not difficult to extrapolate from this objects other than land, since such objects are ultimately derived from the land in various ways (from mined ores, logged timber, and so on). If the land on which resources are found is all stolen property, then the resources exploited upon it are as well.

But that is then and this is now: Given that well-defined property rights, and particularly private property rights, are a cornerstone of a robust economy from which everyone, to varying degrees, benefits (in relation to the alternatives), what difference does it make? The difference it makes is that we stop pretending that property is a god-given right, and that its distribution at any given moment can be defended as somehow inherently just. Of all of the virtues that private property legitimately can be defended as providing, fairness is not, and never has been, one of them.

One of the defining characteristics of private property is the right to give it to whom one wishes at any time, including the right to devise to whom one wishes upon one’s own death. That means that people are born into an inequitable distribution of originally stolen property. Every baby at birth is born into a property-context not of their own making, not to their own credit or fault, which yet determines a great deal of what their opportunities will be. Such determinations are not just due to the direct material implications of the differential property-contexts into which people are born, but also into complex consequences of the property differentials, such as social and professional networks that parents have, the traditions and habits and attitudes associated with the possession and preservation of property that they transmit through socialization, and so on.

Many on the right today want to pretend that the persistent disproportionate poverty of some categories of people –most notably, Native Americans and African Americans– is due to failures of their own. But, while there are complex mechanisms by which this occurs, it is clear that the First Cause of that persistent disproportionate poverty is the fact that people from these categories are born into long chains of unpropertied lineage, chains that began with the theft of the land from those who occupied it when the Europeans arrived, and the importation and conversion of others from another land into property themselves.

There is another complexity, perhaps more salient but even less obvious, that renders the conceptualization of private property as inherently just and equitable a ruse to protect what is in fact quite unjust and inequitable: The fact that property, and wealth, are produced by social processes that involve complex, articulated in-puts and result in socially institutionalized distributions of the product of those processes. In other words, the political economy by which we produce and distribute wealth doesn’t distribute it fundamentally on the basis of merit, as some conveniently mythologize it to be, but rather on the basis of privilege, as has been the case throughout human history.

This system of distribution primarily on the basis of privilege functions through a variety of mechanisms. One such mechanism is that the occupations that receive the highest remuneration are the occupations that require the longest education. Since such education is expensive, it is more easily accessed by those who have the money to invest in it. Since wealth is inherited, and few have earned much on their own prior to entering into such advanced education, it is the wealth of one’s parents that determines the ease of access to the educational opportunities which position one to remain wealthy in the future.

But there are subtler aspects of this system as well, subtler mechanisms embedded within it. Not only are inequitably distributed material endowments transmitted from generation to generation, but so too are the inequitably distributed skill sets and cultural adaptations that are associated with that inequitable distribution of material endowments. Parents teach children how to cope with the world that the parents encountered and understood, and, even as times and opportunity structures change, the sub-cultural adaptations to past circumstances remain embedded in the lineage of socialization transmitted from generation to generation.

While some social mobility exists, and some individuals rise out of the most opportunity-deprived circumstances to achieve phenomenal success against the odds, the actual statistical rates of social mobility are far lower than what many imagine them to be, and the exceptional cases both fewer and less accessible than many imagine them to be. For every exceptional case, there are some set of particular circumstances that applied in that case to make it exceptional (e.g., the good fortune to find an exceptional mentor, an unsually fortuitous genetic endowment, etc.). The underlying fact remains that the opportunities available, on average and in the aggregate, between those born into poverty and those born into wealth are inequitably and unjustly distributed.

So the challenge becomes how to preserve the robustness of markets, which depend on the existence of private property, and at the same time mitigate the inequities and injustices inherent in the existence of private property. This is really what the development of the wealthiest nations, particularly over the last 80 or so years, has been all about: Spiralling toward some balance of robust markets dependent on clearly defined private property rights, and administrative interventions that both preserve the health of those markets and increase the equity of opportunity faced by members of society despite the inequities inherent in private property rights. (The fact that such interventions not only can be used to increase the justness of distribution, but also are necessary to maintaining the functioning of the market economies at all, is evident throughout the historical record, in which periods of underregulation have led to spikes in the concentration of wealth followed by catastrophic market collapses, most notably in 1929 and 2008.)

Though the two necessary functions of government in a modern predominantly market economy (i.e., preserving the efficiency and well-functioning of markets, on the one hand, and increasing the equitability of the distribution of opportunities and benefits produced by those markets, on the other) are closely intertwined, I am focusing only on the latter in this essay. The question is how best to mitigate the inequities of markets without undermining them (and, indeed, whenver possible, enhancing and invigorating them).

There are two areas which rise to the fore: 1) Improving real access to education, at all levels; and 2) heavily taxing inheritance. In fact, education, at all levels, should be completely publicly funded, and the way in which it can be completely publicly funded is through inheritance taxes with gradually rising marginal rates approaching 100% at the extreme heights of personal wealth. Obviously, this is politically impossible in America today, but is approximated in most other developed nations to varying degrees, with unambiguously beneficial results.

There is more involved in improving real access to education than simply making it free to all at all levels. It would also involve community development and related up-front investments which would increase the ability of those who are currently born into lower socio-economic strata to succeed in school, so that the opportunity available is a real one rather than merely a formal one. That is something I discuss in my essays on education (see. e.g., Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons, West Generation Academy, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve).

However we move forward, however we address the myriad challenges and opportunities facing us, it’s time we did so by letting go of the mythologies which insulate social injustice from scrutiny, and instead confronted our world and our social systems as they are, with both strengths and weaknesses, both virtues and shortcomings. There is much that works well and should be defended, preserved, and built upon. And there is much that doesn’t, which should be examined, analyzed, addressed, and improved upon. That is what the human endeavor is all about.

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An exchange between myself and another poster from The Denver Post comment board:
Airborne All The Way wrote:This is actually an important issues having deep ramifications for our society. As noted in the Harvard lectures of Michael Sandel, we have the concept of self-ownership. That includes the fruits of our labor. There are people who work hard and risk much to succeed. Others will not work hard or act in a prudent manner. Why should they have a call on the fruits of those who have?

The answer to your final question is simple: Because wealth is not only or always distributed to those who produce it, or to those who work harder, or even to those who are fortunate enough to enjoy valuable natural talents. While these factors play a role in our complex political economy, they do not play the only role, nor, statistically, do they play the primary role. The number one statistical predictor of one’s future socioeconomic status is socioeconomic status at birth. As a statistical fact, the descendants of those who were historically oppressed and exploited are grossly overrepresented among those today who are most impoverished. Either you employ the implicit racism of suggesting that those particular races produce higher proportions of the lazy non-meritorious, or you admit that there is still gross inequality of opportunity laced into our political economy.

Not everybody lives in a world of false dichotomies, in which we must either embrace extreme individualism, or extreme collectivism; or in which if you do not believe in a complete disregard for our actual interdependence and our actual shared interests and basic values of human decency and fairness as a polity, then, by default, you must be completely against any emphasis on personal responsibility or respect for many very real virtues of our market economy. Some live in a more complex and nuanced world, in which there are real challenges we must face, and real difficulties in facing them.

When you get past the oversimplistic ideological noise, and get into the details of how economies work, how social institutional systems evolve, and how power and opportunity are distributed and horded, even in modern capitalist democratic societies, you look to the information-intensive challenges of our life, and deal with them as rational, intelligent, compassionate, and sane human beings.

Unfortunately, too few of us ever take that vital initial step.

In 2007 in America, 34.6% of all wealth in this nation was concentrated into the hands of just 1% of the population. 80% of the population, a full four fifths of all Americans, were left to share among themselves just 15% of the total wealth in the country. it could only be the most contemptuous elitism that would suggest that four fifths of all Americans are so worthless that they merit, together, less than half of what the richest one percent merit.

It’s a fiction that to modify this inequity within the context of a market economy destroys that economy. Western European nations have comparable per capita GDPs to America, but far lower gini coefficients (the statistical measure of the inequality in the distribution of wealth), and, despite your mythology, far higher social mobility (i.e., more opportunity than Americans to succeed by virtue of their own efforts). They also enjoy lower infant mortality, lower rates of homelessness and poverty, more effective and cheaper healthcare systems, and higher levels of self-reported happiness.

Nor did they all accomplish it by borrowing their way into an economic crisis: Germany has had a stronger economy than the U.S. for decades, was less affected by the recent economic crisis and recovered from it sooner than the United States, and, by your reckoning, is a far more socialist country than we are.

Our national history, and our deeper political economic heritage, are not just about your extreme individualism, but also about our sense of interdependence and shared purpose. Benjamin Franklin understood the importance of working together as a polity to address social problems, and spent his life devising effective means of doing so. Two centuries before Franklin and across the pond, John Donne wrote that “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

A century after Franklin, also in England, Charles Dickens had a tormented specter remind a person whose words so strongly resemble so many of your own that “‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

These concerns that I raise and that you so blithely dismiss are a legitimate part of our national business, of our moral responsibility as a polity, of our burden as members of a society.

Step out of the pages of your right-wing comic book, and join the real world, the one in which it is a travesty to claim to be concerned about America’s debt but then scuttle a $4 trillion dollar debt reduction deal that was on the table because it involved small “tax increases” (in reality, closing of tax loopholes that are essentially subsidies to the extremely wealthy), “tax increases” that the overwhelming weight of professional economic opinion from across the ideological spectrum (including, for instance, supply-side economist Alan Greenspan) insists are absolutely necessary. And in order to ensure that we don’t do what virtually all economists agree is what we should do, these noble warriors are willing to blackmail the nation with a self-imposed economic catastrophe that will greatly exacerbate the debt problem and destroy the national economy at the same time.

As I wrote elsewhere: The party that claims to be serious about addressing our debt not only refuses to consider any package that includes actually paying down that debt, in defiance of the overwhelming weight of economic opinion from across the ideological spectrum, but also 1) has scuttled the larger debt-reduction plan in order to do so, and 2) threatens national economic self-destruction unless the nation capitulates to their “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical” demands.

In the world of responsible and informed people, we put the facts on the table, the real facts, and we work toward solutions, real solutions, not what The Economist magazine rightly called the “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical” strategems being advanced by your ideological representatives today.

There are no panaceas; I am not suggesting that I have some magic wand to wave which eliminates all inefficiencies and resolves all dilemmas. But we do have minds, and we do have means of using them. And we do have huge resources mobilizing our collective genius in myriad ways to work together, as reasonable people of goodwill, doing the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That is all that I advocate.