Rousseauian Gymanstics

So says Rousseau:

The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine’, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’

This is one of the most profound assumptions adopted by those who disparage private property. I don’t know if Rousseau’s being genuine here by trying to isolate and equate, for example, the horror of X (where X is any conceivable atrocity or conjunction of atrocities) with the existence of private property and the exclusivity that comes along with it.

Is he trying to suggest that X is inherent to private property–a necessary property and part of the essence of private property, as it were? Obviously this flies in the face of necessary and sufficient conditions, since X is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of private property, unless, of course, one considers envy or jealousy an atrocity. But that would be intellectually dishonest, and one would have to engage in extreme definitional gymnastics to avoid this consequence.  However, I could claim emotional trauma from being excluded from someone’s property, and this seems to represent something that is tied into private property. This hardly is a cogent objection, though.

Now all of this in response to Rousseau’s second statement. So far, I haven’t even explored the consequences of the negation of private property. I don’t even think the negation of private property is even practically coherent. When I say it isn’t practically coherent, I mean that the negation of private property doesn’t necessarily lead to a contradiction similar to the (retortable) contradictions that arise as a result of the denial of necessary truths, such as 2+2=4 or ~(a + ~a). Although this might be controversial to people who uncritically embrace polylogism or Eastern logics, it is virtually unquestioned in contemporary philosophy.

I’m going to make a pretty bold claim here: Every attempt to abandon private property in favor of other societal orders or mechanisms will invoke properties necessary to private property, whether this is done implicitly or explicitly. I don’t actually think that people really have an issue with private property, so much as they have an issue with who owns it. In fact, that seems to be the programme of many socialist thinkers who wish to bring democracy to the private sector or market. Private property seems to function as an intolerable autocratic institution, dominated solely by individuals. Note a few different examples:

  • The ability to consume item X, sell, rent, mortgage, transfer, exchange or destroy their property, and/or to exclude others from doing these things
  • The ability to sell, rent, or mortgage item X
  • The ability to transfer item X
  • The ability to exchange or destroy item X
  • Finally, the most important property is the ability to exclude others from general use of the property and from engaging in the above actions.

Can anyone imagine any such system that can avoid these conditions which invoke the existence of private property? It doesn’t matter if you call it socially owned, it doesn’t matter if you call it public property, or democratically owned property, or even if you deny the existence of private property entirely, it follows inescapably that if you adhere to those conditions, then you adhere to private property. The only problem with the concept of private property, then, is how many names there are on the property title itself.  Some may consider it unjust that there is only one name, or a handful of arbitrarily placed names on the title. But even adding a whole host of names does not change the fact that it still functions as private property because of the conditions attached to it, which are listed above.

Some blatant examples of this are as follows:

  • The collective ownership of the means of production by the proletariat and any derivative structures.
  • ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.’ Rousseau fails to notice not only the intuitive implausibility of this extravagant claim, but he ignores the fact that one cannot claim the fruits of the earth unless one has some sort of property claim to it.

This will be a theme that I’ll be developing over the next few posts. It cannot be done in a self-contained post; I’ve opened far too many strings of argumentation for that to be the case.

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