The Ends of PropertyJanuary 22, 2010
Whether you subscribe to the Hobbesian contractual theory of property, the Rousseauvian finding of property as the root of inequality, the Marxist theory of alienation and surplus value, the Proudhonian conception of property as theft, or even, arguably, the Lockean labor theory of property, there must be some sense in which the plight of every surviving Haitian leaves you with raging question marks dancing over your head.
The attached must-read essay from Professor Guy-Uriel Charles (Duke Law), sums it up nicely. “Stop calling quake victims looters,” he says, pointing out how offensive the journalistic use of the term is in the face of dire circumstances.
I couldn’t agree more, but I’d just want to add one thing, with due attribution to Hobbes.
The charge of looting doesn’t make a damn bit of sense in this state of nature, because the idea of property doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. Nobody owns anything now. Nothing. Not a loaf of bread. Not a bar of soap. And most definitely not a high definition television set. There are no institutions to establish these rights; though there are no representatives of institutions to enforce such rights. The absence of enforcers isn’t what crushes the very idea of property (sorry Hobbes), but the utter nonsense engendered by the idea of property.
Seriously? Seriously? …Seriously?
Does it really make sense to talk about property ownership in the face of absolute devastation, in the face of starvation, dehydration, and the death of one’s siblings?
Sure, we might grasp at maintaining order by re-asserting these rights, but talking nonchalantly as though they persist through the even the most devastating events. “Damn looters, stop goofing around and put the shoes and shirts back on the shelves.” But Haitians are in a dire state at the moment, a state so dire that it does not make sense.
To the starving, food on a plate is not property. Food in a field is not property. Food in a grocery store is not property. It is food, first and foremost. It is property only once regimes of ownership and jurisdiction once again make sense.
“That was McNulty’s store, but is no longer,” is all the authorization one needs to move into a phase of complete disregard for jurisdictional boundaries. The walls no longer stand, the shelves no longer stand, the contents of the store are just objects.
I appreciate deeply Charles’s argument, but it seems to me to miss this fundamental element. There is no property in the state of nature. It’s just stuff.