The right to own property is an essential element of liberal and conservative value systems alike, and appropriately so. Such rights are the defining difference between serfdom and freedom, between extractive feudal economies and modern democracy. But certain beliefs of conservatives with regard to property are problematic.

Hard-won personal property rights were intimately entwined with the gradual emergence of more general freedoms in both England and the American colonies. Shortly after these freedoms were won the United States gained its independence, then took these new rights a critical step further by disallowing hereditary titles and extractive rights altogether.

Before the English were a force in the new world, the Spanish crown had from the first granted monopolies to their invading Conquistadors in the Americas. The laws forcibly imposed by them, including monopoly grants, were specifically designed to extract all the wealth of the conquered people and the country and to give it to the Spanish overlords. No others could own property, and the products of their labors went mostly to allow the ruling class to live in luxury.

While Spanish lords lived lives of luxury provided by their system of near-slavery, the English social system had moved in the direction of democracy and equality. England and northern America came to flourish, while the economies of former Spanish colonies largely fossilized, leaving large parts of the population of Latin American countries in economic servitude even today. Great wealth surrounded by deep poverty are an echo of colonial oppression and monopoly laws put in place by Conquistadors.

Difficulties in Democracy

Important as the right to own property is, certain problems arise from conservatives’ uncritical embrace of property rights. Among them is a false belief that there must be either total agreement with the conservative dogma as they state it, or embracing of some odious political system that denies property rights. A similar point of contention is that conservative writers often attempt to conflate any disagreement with their precise beliefs to be the equivalent of schemes to seize and redistribute property. Both are nonsense for the same reason. Belief that there must be limits to property rights is neither socialism, fascism, nor communism. Unlimited right of ownership in a democracy in practice differs only in detail from English feudal rights or Spanish monopoly rights, as I shall show.

It is the right of any person in the US to seek wealth. But great wealth is not gained through work. You cannot get rich by working harder. Rather, wealth is gained through manipulation of money, property, laws, and people, all of which have broad effects on others. It is here that the danger of plutocracy exists. The seed of potential abuse lies within freedom itself.

The more property a person owns in a democracy, the greater the chance that this ownership will infringe on the freedoms of others. I believe this tendency is inherent within the ideal of property rights. The Robber Barons provided many good examples, with their massive holdings and special arrangements with government that pushed everybody else’s rights aside, including their right to own property. This kind of power is not the same as a state-sanctioned permanent monopoly, but the effect on others is similar. In practice, it had many elements of an extractive economy.

Danger Zone

The wealthy often intrude on the processes of politics for their own benefit. Their power comes from money itself, and the rest of the population has no countervailing power, which is itself an inherent danger. Some of the wealthy routinely seek control of the very laws and regulations under which their wealth is generated. This anti-democratic tendency is dangerous because favoritism can become implanted in the law. Favoritism in the law differs only in degree from extractive monopoly.

Wealth is not automatically evil. Far from it, but a couple of rotten onions makes the whole bag stink. The persistent smell constantly reminds us that there are some among the mega-rich who have no interest in the welfare of the country.

Today, tyrannical plutocracy has created extractive polities all over the world that are much the same as historical arrangements for monarchs, aristocrats, and conquerors in their economic effects. Once in power, tyrants rewrite the laws and the rules of ownership and wealth to benefit only themselves. Resistance may be punished with murder, because the tyrant owns the army. These pernicious schemes are extremely difficult to overcome, and even when they are, the new leadership often becomes worse than the one it replaced. Zimbabwe is a good example of this.

In modern extractive societies, poor people routinely fail to take advantage of apparent financial opportunities because they are fully aware that the rich sooner or later will find a way to seize all wealth for themselves. Why bother? In democratic societies the effect may be more general and more subtle, but the poor can nonetheless be prevented from rising above a state of poverty by the political power of the rich.

An important way in which our process differs from extractive kleptocracies is that even the most wealthy people in the United States do not control the Army, and cannot simply order it to kill their opponents. But the Robber Barons did own an army, the Pinkertons and various collections of murderous goons, and this army did kill their opponents, with deadly raids on labor union gatherings as well as on encampments of the poor and destitute who were demanding their democratic rights.

Even though we in the United States have from the beginning avoided the conditions of feudal England, the potential for abuse is an inherent part of the right of property ownership and democracy.

Limits Are Essential

Overcoming the wealth-generated powers and the infinite greed of the Robber Barons took a long time, and involved many bitter battles. The results were important new laws limiting plutocracy that are still powerful today, and which are regularly challenged by rich conservatives. The need for democratic control over the ultra-rich because of the unlimited greed and anti-democratic tendencies of a small percentage of them is ongoing.

What we see with the ALEC cartel is an anti-democratic, self-serving agency wholly controlled, even owned, by the radical conservative billionaire Koch brothers. The entire purpose of ALEC is to prepare legislation designed solely to promote the interests of the very rich and the ultra-conservative, which their legislative sycophants submit without change. No further proof is needed that anti-democratic elements of the extractive society exist even in strong democracies.

The difference between such people and those of 17th century England who had hereditary rights to extract the wealth of others, is that our laws have given them, the Koch boys, the right to own property and get rich. The enormous irony is that this allows them and others among the very wealthy to seek ways to overcome the very laws that were designed to bring equality.

That’s what is wrong with today’s conservative insistence on unlimited property rights.


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