My zone, your zone, our zone and the ozone.
by Richard E. Noble
We hold sacred the Right to Private Property here in the United States. But this Right has not been without controversy. This notion once included the right to buy and sell other human beings and their children. It was also used by industrialist and Robber Barons alike to shoot their disgruntled workers and to deny them the right to organize and to bargain collectively for better working conditions and higher wages.
At one point in our history it applied to women and children. A man once owned his wife and children.
This Right to Private Property has also conflicted with the State and the Federal Government – Public Domain, Eminent Domain, National and State parks, National and State forests – roads, highways, interstate, damns, reservoirs etc.
On the international level, Private Ownership has been the divisive issue of the last two centuries. We define our current political systems by it:
Capitalism = Democracy + Private ownership
Socialism = Democracy + Public Ownership
Fascism = Dictatorship + Private Ownership
Communism = Dictatorship + Public Ownership
Conflicts with regards to public and private ownership are all around us today because of zoning laws and building codes and, of course, taxes. I’ve often wondered at what dollar amount a property tax turns into a rent. And considering the above definitions, when and if a property tax becomes so large that it is considered a rent; does Capitalism then evolve into Socialism? But even more interesting than that is the question of the basis and foundation of Private Property.
Private Property is based on a principle that, I think, no American would accept as fair, just, or even reasonable today.
Property has always been gained, from the beginnings of mankind’s times, through power, force and military might. The borders of countries have, for the most part, always been determined by conquests, invasions and war. Kings and power lords conquered and doled out property to their favorites. If there were people living on the property, they went with it. If you owned the property, you owned the people who lived on it also.
In the establishment of the American Colonies, we had what were called Patroons. The Patroons owned vast estates that were given to them by charters or grants or purchased from the Crown or others or that they finagled by deceit or fraud. It wasn’t until 1839 in New York that this manorial system was seriously challenged by the tenants who lived on and farmed the land. The land barons were forced by the revolt of the people and the New York Legislature in 1846 to sell off their estates in small farms to the people who lived and worked them. Of course, they sold off these vast estates at exorbitant prices, but nevertheless the tradition of small, individual, property ownership was enhanced.
Then the big money moved to the city. It was here that men like John Jacob Astor and industrialists like William “Billy” Wood and Andrew Carnegie, Pullman and bankers, like J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller Jr., turned the development of cities into their personal gold mines. Tenement housing, an apparent monetary triviality, turned into multi-million and billion dollar opportunities for their investment capital. While Astor, and those of his unscrupulous agents and middlemen, got richer and richer, they turned the tenement factory worker communities into death traps for the poor and hard working. Diseases like typhoid fever, tuberculosis, cholera and others spread rapidly throughout the tenement communities. But the millions of dollars rolled in over the bodies of the poor until once again, as the rural tenant farmers had exploded in 1839; rebellion rankled in the streets and the tenement neighborhoods of Brooklyn, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. The disgruntled and downtrodden, brought to the end of their faith in tolerance and acceptance, were finally motivated to risk their lives in the streets and back alleys. Somehow their protests were finally able to rouse the politicians, and laws began to evolve to protect the health and well being of the families living in these pits of American industrial revolutional squalor.
Astor and his super-wealthy friends then decided that it was time to give or dump the tenements onto the masses. The investment brokers would liquefy their assets. They sold their uncared for, unhealthy, vermin and rat invested, tenement disease incubators, before laws could be promoted requiring the landlords to spend some of their acquired millions to clean them up. It was a good business move. But once again, through a dark backdoor, the cause of individual ownership and private property was extended.
The prices of the tenements were high and exploitative, but somehow many hard working laboring families were able to become property owners – participants in the prized evolution of the propertied class.
Adolf Hitler dealt with the historical right to national territory and property rights – by way of Power and Might – extensively in his autobiography, Mein Kampf.
Adolf could not accept that a great nation, like his own, could be, cramped in such a tiny space in central Europe, while a much inferior nation like Russia had such a vast expanse of land to the west. He used the history of mankind to make his claim that the borders of any country are determined by the will of their peoples. Those with the will and the power, take; and those without the will and power are destroyed. To Adolf this was the fundamental principle of Civilization and an undeniable law of Nature – the survival of the fittest.
Russia and a good many other nations of the world disagreed. A catchy phrase of the period was – Might does not make Right. As far as I know, nobody wrote a book explaining why Might did not make Right but many people felt that the notion had merit – even if they didn’t know why. Adolf went ahead and tried to prove his point, but failed. At least he failed to prove that his people and his nation had the will and the power to establish their Might as Right. Whether or not Might actually does make Right still remains questionable, but, by no means, absolutely without foundation.
During a period called the Enlightenment, the world seemed to go through a sort of introspection and soul searching. Philosophers, social thinkers, economists, political reformers and the like all began to question the right of Private Property along with a good many other long established notions. William Godwin wrote a book, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice in 1793, and in the Colonies a controversial pamphleteer, Thomas Paine, wrote a piece that he entitled Agrarian Justice. Godwin questioned the whole idea of Private Property and Paine, accepting that Private Property was a basic injustice, went on to devise an accommodation for property-less individuals.
An economist, Richard Ricardo, challenged property owners and the negative influence of their rents on the economy and wrote a book, Principles of Political Economy, challenging their moral and economic right to do so. He threw his support behind the new moneyed industrialist, entrepreneur and business community – he was a stockbroker by trade – and against the old, established class of property owner. He fought against the protective Corn Laws that were making land owners wealthy, claiming that these laws only served to increase wages, raise prices and create what is now called inflation. Ricardo, unintentionally, plants the first seeds of the class warfare which followed in later generations.
John S. Mill in his Political Economy – accepting Paine’s notion of the injustice of the un-propertied – tried to devise another solution. Paine had suggested that a tax should be placed on the propertied and that at the age of maturity every man without property would receive a cash inheritance as compensation. Mill suggested that the state would buy back from individuals all property and from then on, property would be rented or leased by the State. Henry George later expanded this idea into his Single Tax notion – but with no buy-back from the present property holders.
Then came Karl Marx and Frederick Engels who espoused an evolutionary theory of property that brought things back to Godwin. Their original idea was that private property would simply dissolve into an egalitarian utopia due to the inevitable collapse of Capitalism which would be prompted by the evolutionary destruction of monopolization. Lenin and others believed that this utopia was truly evolutional and inevitable, but evolution was just too slow. Lenin, and those who believed similarly, decided that the historical evolution of a classless, egalitarian economy needed the prodding of a benevolent dictator. True believing followers, like Joseph Stalin felt that benevolence was over-rated.
We no longer discuss the rights of the un-propertied or the moral justice of inheriting property, or people having too much property. We seem to have come to the notion that as long as a majority of individuals have the opportunity to work, save money, and buy their own piece of the planet – this is fair and just enough. The negative historical roots have all been put to the side, as beyond reclamation and practical justification.
Nevertheless, in recent years a return to introspection and moral and Agrarian Justice and soul searching has been revived. The exploitation and pollution of property and the planet has been suggested as morally unjust. There is now an argument between the property owner and the long term interests of random mankind.
Teddy Roosevelt had his preservation and set-aside notions which have given us our National Parks, forests and monuments. Today, we are now considering morally, environmentally and economically the use of an individual’s or developer’s property in relation to his neighbors – his community, his state, his country, the world – to future generations. It is the tree huggers against the libertarians.
Some go so far as to call this a revolution. The Green Revolution it is called. Peace and goodwill to man via clean water, clean air and socially correct balanced growth. The libertarians say these tree lovers are fanatics who care more about woodpeckers and brown-speckled, sap-sucking, bank climbing beetles than they do people. These people (tree huggers) hold Walt Disney as a god and fantasyland and Disney World in Orlando as a real possibility for the future of mankind and community development – these Libertarians say. And sometimes it is difficult to see if these Green revolutionaries are trying to make the world safer for people or fire ants.
On the other hand, if the libertarian has his way there may not be any more fire ants or people. We could revert back to cesspools of congested living, and rivers, lakes and oceans filled with green dyes, mercury, toxic chemicals, OIL, and non-edible, deformed, dying and disappearing sea creatures – not to mention, people (including Americans).
The “History of the Great American Fortunes” by Gustavus Myers was used in this essay – a very interesting Radical analysis of this accepted American Right.