I have touched on this topic a few times before, but it seems apropos in light of Labor Day and an article an acquaintance of mine shared about a battle in California with respect to the line between public and private beach areas and access to the public areas. He linked to the article and complained about the public beach advocates invoking the power of the State to the detriment of the private beach advocates. I read the article and was a little startled at how my take was almost 180 degrees different from his. To me, it was pretty clearly the private property owners who were invoking the power of the State to the detriment of the public beach advocates.
Now, I’m not naming the acquaintance and have not particularly inquired about his thinking, so the assumptions I make here should probably best not be ascribed to this individual. But, I speculate that my disagreement with what I assume he thinks comes from some very deep assumptions about the nature of property that I don’t share or about which I’m at least skeptical. And, I believe, it comes down to a notion that property is somehow independent of government. It’s not. Property is government. You’ll see arguments that property is a “natural right” — it’s in the Declaration of Independence, after all. How could it not be natural? But, from what we can tell about how humans have lived and conducted themselves for the 200,000+ years that homo sapiens has existed as a species, fixed, heritable, exclusive rights to land is very much not the norm as a matter of nature. We see the concept of property rights to land taking root roughly 10,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution — we’re looking at something like 95% of human history not involving real property rights. The point being, not that property rights are bad, just that they are an artificial construct, not “natural.”
And, those rights are inextricably dependent on government. Having real property rights means, as a general proposition, that the government will, on your behalf, exclude the rest of the world — by force if necessary — from using that patch of ground. A startling concept if you think about it. Here is a patch of dirt that, for thousands upon thousands of years was available for the use of anyone who could reach it (and, assuming a disinclination to share, was strong enough to fight off anyone else who happened to also want to use the area). Now, in a fairly dramatic shift, we are going to create a system of ownership, dispossess (usually by government force) anyone who isn’t part of our system (in the American case – the Native Americans), and, thereafter, use communal resources (including the military, the police, the courts, government surveyors and recording offices) for the benefit of the individual owner to exclude the rest of the world from interfering with the ownership rights the person enjoys under our system.
Again, these property rights are not bad. So much of the good civilization has achieved in recent millennia depends on them. All well and good, but so what? Why the history lesson and focus on semantics? Because it takes a huge blind spot to regard those private property rights as somehow not being government. And this has a real impact on modern political discourse.
Advocates of “small” government are, in no way, proposing to limit government support for and enforcement of private property rights. That this is a legitimate function of government is taken for granted. Not even thought of as government, really. So the “small” government advocates can “Other” government and run against it without jeopardizing the huge infrastructure of government upon which they depend extensively. They don’t have to get into the messy business of arguing about why their government-backed policies are better than your government-backed policies. They can just rely on the fact that, by ignoring their government-backed, pro-property preferences and limiting or eliminating government involvement in other policy initiatives, their interests will be preserved. And they’ll be preserved without the need for haggling over whether their interests are better than yours. They aren’t self-interested. They are merely “against government” (if you ignore the extensive government required to create, define, preserve, and enforce property and contractual rights.)
Again, contractual and property rights are very, very useful. But there are costs and benefits to everything and, with this huge blind spot we have with respect to those sorts of rights, the people who benefit most from these particular kinds of rights are largely let off the hook when it comes to demonstrating the utility of the government support they enjoy.
To add some Labor Day flavor, think about the usual sorts of arguments we see when it comes to unions. Collective bargaining rights are seen as artificial and suspect — justified only if the public is very clear on their ongoing need. (See, e.g., the “Oh, sure, unions used to be necessary but things are better now, so we don’t need them anymore” argument.) It’s not uncommon to hear someone argue that labor laws constitute an artificial constraint on the market — let laborers and owners negotiate a price without government putting its thumb on the scale of the negotiations with these unfair labor laws that benefit unions and workers. Meanwhile, the property rights and contractual rights that give owners much or all of their leverage in negotiations are simply regarded as “natural” and government policy in creating and enforcing such rights are never questioned. The utility of property rights versus labor rights are rarely compared directly and weighed one against the other. And the reason such cost/benefit analyses are rarely conducted is because of this blind spot that takes property rights for granted and being somehow outside of government.
Property is government. Mostly it’s *good* government. But, government nonetheless.