Monday, April 6, 2009

Capitalism and Property: Pragmatically Speaking

A lot of interest seemed to be generated by my experimental musings on socialism and capitalism, but I grew tired of the shoot-from-the-hip tone of that project and left it behind until I felt better about things. I am not sure whether this is what I've been waiting for, but, it is something (for me) to think about.

One of the basic principles of a free-market or capitalist (or call it whatever you like) stance is that freedom from big-government or a socialist state gives the human person the ability to flourish autonomously. And autonomy is key because we like to think that we are all self-possessed, that we own our own self and identity. One of the pragmatic effects of this principle of freedom is the ability to own private property.

I share this intuition in practice because my family rents a small apartment (one bedroom for my two sons, my wife, and I) and look forward to the day that we can buy a modest home of our own.

And this critique is something that socialists of all types are keenly aware of. Marx mentions it in his (and Engels') Manifesto and, overall, it seems to follow that if socialism removes private property and personal autonomy, then, there is something bankrupt about it.

Now, leaving socialist apologies behind, I think it is important to ask the question, "How?" How is it that capitalism can provide private property to a person? In other words, under what conditions can this private ownership take place?

I would submit that, in order to for the capitalist principle of freedom to actually happen in the form of the ownership of private property (which is a subset of the idea of self-belonging, I think), at least these two things need to happen from the get-go, pragmatically speaking:

1. There needs to be property to be owned in the first place.
2. The person needs to be able to own that property in some reasonable way.

Now, if we accept those conditions, then, we must ask the question of, "Can?" Can capitalism provide those conditions to begin with? Or, we might ask the more cynical and leading question, "If not, then, what?" If capitalism cannot meet those conditions, then, what are we to think about it and do?

It might be possible for a capitalist utopia, that we create out of our heads, to meet those conditions with certain ideas about human nature and so on. But, in the present moment that is relevant to us, I find it very hard for capitalism to meet such conditions unless some kind of redistribution was to happen.

The reason I say this is that very few people actually own their stuff these days, much less their property--their home. For most, the reality of life is that a few people own lots of property that they may let us borrow for our houses, business, and so on.

Having said that, we might also reflect on the reality that nations (like the USA) also exist on credit these days. Both scenarios seem to deeply erode at the principle of freedom that enables the human person to own, and therefore have autonomy over, their property and, ultimately, their self.

By this analysis, one might argue that the freedom of the free market has produced much of the same, problematic ownership issues that a fascist communists states have (for more about that comparison, see my ongoing series on fascism and liberal society)

Here is the conundrum, as I see it: Capitalism in its principled form cannot exist in any relevant manner without some way to make it happen in pragmatic, daily affairs. Therefore, one might be well advised to keep the principle of freedom provided that we reject the notion of freedom to amass wealth and favor the notion of freedom to control one's desire for things--the kind of freedom a person who stays fit and healthy displays and a glutton does not--and from that begin to see the role of the government as the authority to make sure that people control themselves.

This means that when someone wants to come back for thirds and fourths (or eighteenths) at the buffet of capital, there would be a principled reason to restrict that. In doing so, we might find that people would live under conditions that would actually allow them to own property in real, practical affairs and, most importantly, to regain a sense of what means to exist as a human person, not a human resource.

In short, it seems to me that without the socialist principle of redistribution we cannot, in the present age, achieve the capitalist principle of freedom.


Rocco said...

I'll have more to say later, but I'll let this guy speak first:

samrocha said...

I hope that is a joke. And even so, I find it repulsive. For the first time in human existence we possess the ability to self-destruct, among other things. Take a look at Neil Postman's "Technopoly" for a more detail (but admittedly polemic) account. I am no "let's go back in time" guy, but, that doesn't mean that I have to reject JPII's indictment of our contemporary culture as one of death either.