Crisis Thinking: On Property

When there’s a crisis, people tend focus on the present situation and ignore the abstract, regardless of the wisdom of doing so.  This is reason enough for us to do the opposite.  And so I pose for consideration the following question:

Of what use are property rights to a man who has no property?

You’re going to hear this asked a lot going forward.  It’s an important question, and one well-deserving of an answer, but posing it directly risks missing the point of what’s been happening in Minnesota and across the country.  Because there are only two reasonable answers immediately apparent, and neither holds up to scrutiny.

These are: “None” and “Hope”.

A man with no property has no use for property rights.  The tenant has no use for landlord rights; the man with no money has no need of a bank.  Laws against theft protect those with nothing the same way sharks need braces.

And yet the counter to this is evident:  The man with no property has at least the hope of gaining property.  Were this not the case, why indeed would anyone participate in looting?

Those who merely repeat slogans in lieu of conscious thought will chant Property is theft.  It’s perfectly valid if you understand it; however, the phrase doesn’t refer to consumables.  This is the worker’s complaint against the capitalist who owns the factory, the tenant’s against the landlord who won’t fix the drains.  But even the worker’s revolutions depend on fair distribution of food; people need to have the security of holding what they’re about to eat or use or society collapses.

That last is the purpose for property laws:  Without them, society collapses.  It doesn’t become more just or perfect; it doesn’t become ripe for revolution.  It goes away.

But why would a man with no property care about this?  The hope of gaining property, sure — but what if this man also has no hope?  How then do we persuade him to respect a law that does not directly serve him?

Historically, the rule of law was imposed gradually and people either learned to accept it or made the choice to leave society — hence the term “outlaw”.  Anyone who refused the law, say for instance a serf who left his land or a peasant his lord, was outside its protection and could in many circumstances be killed without consequence.  It was considered automatically justified because of the person’s status as an outlaw.

In today’s America few respect the law as a whole.  Most of us hold lawyers in contempt; most of us take the law for granted until it gets in the way — and then we speed, or drive under the influence, stream movies illegally, and so on.  We cheat on our taxes and evade jury duty.  When we see someone getting mugged, we don’t get involved because being a witness is so much trouble.  And that’s true even for we who are served by the law — who pay taxes at all, who own cars, and who have run into lawyers outside a courtroom.

But if your exposure to the rule of law is only on the receiving end, you think differently about it.  If you were the kids with the spray paint who ran and got away — if you were ever arrested for selling loose cigarettes — if you had or used or dealt drugs and went to jail — If that’s the sum total of your experience with the police, even if you’ve never had your door busted down, you’re going to think of the cops not as public servants but The Enemy.

You conservatives tuned out when I mentioned drugs.  Don’t.  We’re talking about a quarter of our population, and they’re not all black or brown; this is not entirely about race.  Some of these people are your kids.  Some are your neighbors.  And they hate cops with a raw naked passion.  It doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong; just acknowledge that this is how things are right now.  We don’t live in an ideal world, but rather the world that is — so we need to look at what is and see if it needs changing.

Be assured:  It does need changing.

Any country that imprisons more than one percent of its population has something seriously wrong with it.  We call ourselves the “Land of the Free”, the which is becoming increasingly ironic as our prison populations increase, surveillance becomes normal, and our police militarize — all this while violent crime shows a strong downward trend and has done for two decades and more.

This is not normal.  This is not right.  This is authoritarianism; it is a police state with free speech — unless you’re on Twitter or Facebook, of course, or you’re using Google to search.  You’re allowed to say whatever you like so long as nobody can hear you.  Write anything you want and we’ll tune the algorithms so nobody can read it.  Go wherever you wish, just so long as you don’t mind that the government is keeping tabs on you with drone overflights.

We need to stop this now, before it’s too late — and for many millions of people, it already is too late.  There’s a viral video of young black men looting a small shop owned by a black man — while he’s standing right there in the parking lot pleading for them to stop.  A reporter ran up and asked one of the looters why he’s doing that, says that he’s hurting his own community.  The reply?  “I don’t care.”

There are two painful truths we must face:  First, our system failed this young man as much as it did the elder; second, this looter is lost to useful society and we’ll probably never get him back.

Going forward, we need to change things so that we don’t lose so many people.  First and foremost, we need to stop making it so young people don’t view police officers as the enemy.  When that happens, the officers become inured to the attitude and can’t help but view offenders as their enemy in turn.

There’s a reason you don’t use soldiers as a police force.  Soldiers are trained to confront and eliminate an enemy threat.  When a military unit is put in a position where they are being addressed by an angry population, it’s a matter of short time before the soldiers identify the people as the enemy.  And when you militarize the police through equipment, occupation, and training, it’s likewise inevitable that they will adopt the attitudes of a soldier.  Incidents such as the death of George Floyd will occur, or that of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, or that of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.

And so the question arises:  Why are our police militarized?  Why do they have armored cars and Kevlar vests and rifles?  Why do they commonly get issued riot gear and tear gas?

Breonna Taylor’s home was invaded by police who had a warrant for a different address.  She was shot and killed by cops who were expecting an armed response from drug dealers, and who had been fired on by a resident.  They were on their way to a drug raid and they took a wrong turn.  They were there because of the War On Drugs.

(Note:  Had she been white, she’d still be dead today.)

I’m not in favor of drugs.  I rarely smoke pipe tobacco, rarely drink alcohol, only take aspirin when I need it.  So when I tell you that the government has no natural right to prohibit people from knowingly and of their own free will abusing their own bodies with dangerous chemicals, please be assured I have no ulterior motive; I’m speaking thus because I believe it to be true.

When there are laws that are unjust, people hold those laws and the people who enforce them in contempt.  When there’s a law that is commonly perceived as absurd, people stop obeying it.  When disobedience is so common that laws can no longer be enforced, the entire establishment is weakened, and the rule of law fails.  This is a pattern that has been repeated throughout history; I’m not inventing it.

There are federal laws against marijuana, but most states refuse to enforce them.  States have no legal right to pick and choose among the federal laws they like, but they do anyway, largely because this particular law is outmoded, outdated, and universally unpopular.  The result is a situation where most of the country routinely breaks the law.

There are eleven million foreign nationals resident in the United States without permission to be here.  (Editor:  I’m told the term “illegal alien” is dehumanizing, so we’re now using “paperwork-deprived resident non-citizen”.)  The border is porous — largely because of the War On Drugs but also because it’s huge — and those who make it through can vanish easily into cities where law enforcement refuses to enforce immigration law.  It is ultimately futile to attempt to deport these people, and yet we keep trying.

Corporate America — including Target, incidentally — routinely evades paying taxes.  They do this perfectly legally most of the time because the tax code was written that way.  It’s not that they’re evil; they’re soulless and without conscience because they’re not people.  And yet, thanks to Citizens United, they have the ability to sway politicians to write laws in their favor.

I ask you:  Is it any wonder that citizens — of whatever color, of whatever creed, whatever class — Is it any wonder that they have lost respect for the law?  For the lawmakers?  For the lawyers?  For law enforcement?

Mark my words, and mark them well:  When respect for the law fails, the rule of law fails.  We face either the tyranny of the police state or a rising measure of anarchy and social nihilism.  It does no good to hide from this truth, to deny it, or to take half-measures.  Our only choice is whether to accept the horrible inevitability of dystopian life (with either of these futures) — or to oppose it.

We oppose it by doing the following:

  • End the War on Drugs.  We lost.  It’s over.
  • End the war on immigrants.  Create alternatives for the desperate and a path to citizenship for those already here.
  • Tax corporations justly.  Use the money responsibly.
  • Ensure a path not merely to subsistence but to success for all citizens.  I don’t know if this means U.B.I., but if it does then so be it.

Yes, we also need to police the police.  When there’s institutionalized wrongdoing, we need to protest — peacefully, lawfully when it’s possible, patiently, and inexorably.  When protest has consequences, we accept them, for without the danger of consequence our protest has no value.

But we must first change our society.  Otherwise, we will surely deserve the future we build for ourselves.

Stay safe, my friends.

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