In the meantime… Sociacapitalism?

In the meantime… Sociacapitalism? April 15, 2009

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?

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 the same follows for dragons and spiderman. 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, 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.

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  • Hector

    A couple of links to look at, an interview with with F.A. Hayek, over at Divison of Labor http://www.divisionoflabour.com
    MR. Hayek discusses an assortment of topics including Socialism, and a an essay titled “Ought Presupposes Can” by economist Steve Horwitz available at
    http://blog.mises.org/archives/009789.asp

  • Thanks for the post, glad to have you on board.
    peace padrevic

  • Br. Matthew Augustine Miller, OP

    Sam,

    I reiterate the welcome others have already expressed here. With regard to your post, I think your argument contains a hidden premise: that, in the present moment that is relevant to us (your own stipulation- in order to avoid utopianism), the government can be expected to enforce virtuous behavior with regard to the accumulation of wealth and capital. I find this assumption extremely hard to sustain in light of recent events. It seems to me that our government is working hard to reestablish the imprudent and unsustainable borrowing and spending that got us into this mess- a rate of consumption and spending that is unsustainable and hurts the rest of the world. Moreover, it seems to me that our taxes have less to do with wealth distribution and more to do with funding war (not to mention other morally questionable activities)- at least if the following chart is to be believed (even if not to be believed, we spend a good deal on war):

    http://www.warresisters.org/pages/piechart.htm

    I think the following link is also a good real-world example of the dangers of the parasitic relationship that exists between big government and big business:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/15/opinion/15cohan.html?_r=1&ref=opinion

    Anyway, the point being: why should we assume that the State is a neutral entity, much less one capable of measuring and regulating virtue. I am not, antecedently, opposed to the idea of the political authority enforcing virtue, I am just skeptical that this can be expected as things now stand.

  • Joe Hargrave

    Hello Sam,

    I’m the other “new guy” here 🙂

    You mentioned Marx in your post:

    “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.”

    I suppose I’m a little confused as to what “it” is here. Did you mean the argument that private property is the foundation of freedom?

    Because if so, Marx does accept that argument. He simply considers it a fantasy in a world where, as he puts it, “9/10” of the property is owned by 1/10 of the people. We might have a better ratio today but its still quite disproportionate.

    So in Marx’s logic, instead of moving back, towards distributing more private property to individuals, you simply complete what capitalism has already started and largely finished, and just make it a rational process as opposed to a chaotic one.

    It doesn’t mean that there is no room for individual initiative, since the assumption for Marx is that socialism created by the masses, not by the currently existing “capitalist government” (i.e. an Obama government). It is something they want and need, faced with capitalism’s inability to meet the basic needs of life.

    By Capital, written long after the Manifesto, he speaks of “individual property” on the basis of “common ownership” – in the context of reminding us again about the freedom of the small proprietor prior to capitalism, the creative virtuoso wielding his tools in his shop. With different technology, of course, it is clear that he envisions a re-creation of this old atmosphere on new foundations.

    Of course Marx wasn’t the most rigid and systematic thinker, so it is always possible to find some quote to poke a hole in my argument. But it would be a mistake, as some do, to assume that what he said in 1848 as a relatively young man is the final word, and not what he wrote in what he considered to be his own masterpiece (which hardly anyone reads).

  • Joe: What you wrote is what I meant by “it”. I was thinking about Marx being sensitive–as you put it here–to this critique and having a reply to it. Now, I should also say that I am no Marxist, not even close. But, on this point he clearly understands, replies to, and anticipates objections. So, we agree, for now.

    Br. Matthew: Your progression from government (the word I used in this post) to the State (a word I did not use) is a deviation from my intention in this post. The point I want to make is how my argument would require a re-conceptualization of what government is for. At the heart of the question is the purpose and nature of freedom. None of this is suppressed in my argument, as I see it, provided that we do not move too quickly from the concept of governance to the State. With time and rumination we should get there, to be sure, but not as a result of these musings, I think.

  • blackadderiv

    Chesterton once said that “if the use of capital is capitalism, then everything is capitalism.” In a similar vein, I would say that if redistribution is socialism, then everyone* is a socialist. Even a libertarian nightwatchmen state would involve some level of redistribution. The question, then, is not whether there should be redistribution, but how much and what kinds of redistribution there should be.

    *Okay, so not quite everyone. There are anarcho-capitalists out there, just as I’m sure there are some people who favor getting rid of all capital and returning to a hunter-gatherer type lifestyle.

  • Kurt
  • Phillip

    Not clear exactly what you mean. Does everyone need to own a house? Do people who are paying mortgages not “own” their house in the sense that one day, given that they continue to pay their mortgage, will really own their house? If their bed, or car or whatever, is bought on credit, do they not really own these eventually?

    Just asking.

  • Yes. I think that everyone should own their home, bed, and so on outright in the best, most-just way possible. The credit model of ownership works for a few, but has bred the more-frequent cycle of being owned by a bank, corporation, or landlord, and so on until death (and, at times, afterward). In fact, I would submit that the credit system is design to survive on the bet that people will NOT eventually own their stuff.

    Now, after we own our stuff, we should treat it generously with others, because, after all, we do not “own” anything in the most serious sense of the term.

    But, Belloc does a much better job of this in his “Essay on the Restoration of Property” and I defer to him on this issue.

  • Phillip

    Why do you think everyone should own it outright? That seems to be part of the purpose of work.

  • Br. Matthew Augutine Miller, OP

    Sam,

    Thanks for the clarification. Have you heard of Wilhelm Roepke? There was a post about him at Rod Dreher’s blog today. Touches on similar themes. I have read a bit of Roepke and liked what I read, but I look forward to getting my hands of more of his works.

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/crunchycon/2009/04/listening-to-wilhelm-roepke.html#more

  • Adder: I think I agree with you, however, the question you pose is no small potato. I think that the kind of distribution required to achieve the principle of freedom via private property would be more than most capitalists would be comfortable with.

    Br. Matt: I have not, I look forward to reading what he has to say. Thanks!

  • Phillip: Within reason, some lending seems just fine, however the kind of credit system we now live in seems to be very unreasonable. Now saving money to buy something on credit with enough down to expect to own the thing within a reasonable time frame is one thing, but that is not the norm. As I see it, to own something, is to own it, not to own it for the most part provided that I make my 36 years of payments.

  • M.Z.

    I think there are a couple seperate currents. One current would be right of use. Another current would be right to rents. I tend to think property ownership is over-rated for the common man. In particular, information asymetry tends to make the proposition of ownership not as inviting. In housing specifically, America is one of the few places where renting a place versus owning a place denotes class. As far as the asymetry goes, the best example would be a company town. If the company closes, not only are you out of a job (indirectly if not directly), your home has also just lost a significant portion of its value.

    Having moved closer to socialism over the past couple years, I do believe there is a very important role for public spaces, be they public markets, forests, or grazing land. Additionally, I think we would do well to move ownership closer to an English understanding of the right of acts tied to territory rather than our present belief that land and anything placed upon it is solely of a private character in perpetuity.

  • Phillip

    There are a lot of different homes out there. Who decides who gets the 1820 farmhouse that needs a new roof and furnace? Who gets the 2008 3000 square foot model home? Who gets the pristine craftsman that only has two bedrooms and a tiny kitchen? Who gets the 1960’s fixer upper? Who does the fixing upping?