First of all, I am super excited to be here. Second of all, I am sitting in the library after picking up some books for my wife and headed to the airport to pick her and the boys up from their stay with my in-laws while I was away at a conference (scheduled over the Triduum! – more on that later). So, I am posting something that I wrote earlier, and edited quickly just now, at a blog that will soon cease to exist. Thirdly,–just in case you don’t know this–I want everyone to know that I am super excited to be here (if one can truly “be” in the virtual world of the blogosphere). Here we (I) go!
One of the basic principles of a free-marketeer or capitalist (or call it whatever you like) 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, to a certain extent, we own our self and our identity. One of the concrete effects of this principle of freedom in action is the ability to own private property.
I am friendly to this sentiment for many reasons. I too like to think that I belong to myself to an important and relevant extent. And because my family rents a small (we like to call it “cozy”) apartment and we look forward to the day that we can buy a modest home of our own.
This critique (regarding private property) is something that socialists of all types are keenly aware of. Marx mentions it in his (and Engels’) Manifesto and, whatever you think of that, it seems to follow that if socialism removes private property, then, we lose a relevant amount of personal autonomy and there is something bankrupt about that.
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 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), at least these two things need to happen from the get-go, pragmatically speaking:
1. There needs to be actual property (land, brick, mortar…) to be owned in the first place.
2. The person needs to be able to access and claim 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 (points 1 and 2) 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 afterward?
The reason I say this is that very few people actually own their stuff these days, much less their property–their home, their bed. For most, the reality of life is that a few people own lots of property that they may let us borrow–for a hefty fee, of course–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 fascist communists states have. In other words, what is the relevant difference between a lack of freedom produced by a state or a market?
Here is the conundrum, as I see it: Capitalism in its autonomy-principled form cannot exist in any relevant or concrete manner without some way to make that autonomy happen via private property 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.