The ‘Private Property’ Chokehold on Equality

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Further Meditations on Worship of Wealth

Great wealth leverages “rights” arising from prehistory: that treasure accrues when possessed as “private property,” thus granting “owners” godlike control (to sell, gift or trade, to dominate, to lay waste). Though “private” means independent of the state or church, our Founders implicitly sanctified material goods when dedicating the republic to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And individualism, as in personal liberty, personal happiness.

One wonders why Founding men of means, enraged against “outside” violations of past commercial rights, didn’t add “property” to this triad of noble goals. What is liberty or happiness without decent living conditions plus the wherewithal “to make a good living”? Does America’s legendary singularity — a frenzied work ethic for “making money”— correlate with happiness and life —or anxiety when haves, gaining their perch, forever dread bankruptcy, even poverty? For the record, “private” spans both personal possessions (homes, cars, guns) plus corporate/organizational property (for profit, not-for-profit, whatever).

Though inequality must have appeared before cities, religion, or political dynasties, it’s still going strong, the modern Divine Right of Property. Did not wealth begin when some beefy cave dweller growled, “Mine, by right. Beware: do not touch”?  That innovator fused “outside” stuff with “inside” personhood — and every monarch since anchored status, muscle and fealty with superior holdings. The word “treasure” speaks volumes: the noun means fabulous wealth, the verb, that which we highly cherish, even venerate.

Though property ownership dominates every era and place, massive wealth concentrations since the 1870’s, the offspring of industrialism, altered the entire dynamic. So much so this new “divine right of private property” allows a select gang of billionaires today to bomb democratic rule, let alone mass prosperity for generations. Until progressives (again) disrupt the sanctity of “private” property, what halts the multiple trespasses against the middle class, majority rule, and the rights of the public?

No reform means abandoning what above all made America exceptional: socioeconomic mobility for immigrants enamored with freedom, especially freedom FROM want and poverty. No reform means the great lever of crony capitalism endures, wherein high risks are socialized by the many while profits are privatized for the few and, worse still, under-recorded and under-taxed.

New Deal, Reincarnated

What else drives the Bernie Sanders movement — already lurching beyond a campaign — to restore our best, system-saving revolution, the New Deal, the pinnacle of the Progressive Era? What else drives groups like Revolt Against Plutocracy? To educate, then force redistribution of earned income that recognizes the need to justly share collective national productivity. Is this a hard concept, even to fans of Trumpery: let all who contribute to the economic complex, without which there’d be no great wealth, get a fair share.

Economic justice doesn’t outlaw generous, merit-based payoffs: the brightest innovations may still reflect “private enterprise” but how many true advances “come from nowhere” without parentage? Rewards will come, but does success warrant a $50 billion+ personal bonanza, a payoff less about individual merit than hugely-integrated world markets filled with countless inputs and variables. What “free enterprise” succeeds without other people’s money, family or venture capital, leveraged with additional loans, or private stock and/or IPO sales?  And no industrial or hi-tech bonanza exists without public infrastructure, communications and transportation systems. No hermit banks a billion bucks.

The Everything ‘Sharing Economy’

So, if the Internet relied heavily on federal funding, why not return fractional profits (as tax credits) to obligated “risk investors”? How much government debt accrued for military, science and space research made high-profit companies and industries possible? Where are the “socialized dividends” for tax trillions since WWII spent on medical breakthroughs, a natural way to protect Medicare?

To the degree assets are a zero sum game, what rational or humane measure justifies the Walton family worth over $150 billion, more than some countries? That pencils out to over $20 for every living, breathing earthling. And the great Walton advance — high efficiency, bulk warehousing (low prices, often low quality) kept profitable by squeezing Walmart vendors and employees.  

Amassed private property is an epic world problem, thus wide reform is key to any systemic solution. When do we separate justified profits from what increasingly looms as illegitimate takings from the commons? What Andrew Carnegie called “surplus wealth” still justly needs to be returned to the source, with unending peer pressure that whoever “dies rich, dies disgraced.”  

We’re awash with talk of the latest darling, the “sharing economy,” yet would not a New New Deal re-establish this as general, humane and sensible standard for capitalism? Uber and Airbnb are splashy leaders, but what fair-minded take fails to see the complexity of modern capitalism as morally a “sharing” economy — in critical work done but ill-paid. For founding theorist, Adam Smith, capitalism was not endorsed simply to make the few rich but as a moral good to serve the general welfare, truly lifting all boats. 

Private Property, Public Menace

How extraordinary that the glaring oppression of private property remains the invisible elephant in the room. Who doubts how many huge “private” fortunes are accumulated by passing on huge liabilities from “externalities” (pollution, waste, disease, ruinous landscapes) onto public shoulders? How radical is it to insist accurate “profits” reflect (and be taxed) by what “doing business” fully entails? Hold manufacturing liabilities to impeccable business logic, not what lobbyist influence-peddling lets them get away with. How long can the commons survive when our most affluent free-loaders are not only “too big to fail” but “too immune and insular to cover expenses”?

Likewise, forget about addressing global dilemmas (climate, resources, population, pandemics) while ignoring private industrial powerhouses, overt obstacles to solutions. Post Robber Barons, the always thin line between public interest and private property vanished, especially as cheap transport and communication murder boundaries. Few crises, like burning tropic forests or dirty coal, certainly not nuclear plant meltdowns, remain local. The same moral incentive to share profits applies to worldwide resources: does not every connected earthling “own” rights the part that sustains his life? Should not the vast multitude, not 200 families, decide how the earth is used, or rather misused? “Ownership” rights transcend land titles and police power, especially in a country nobly grounded in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Did I miss where our Declaration declared only Yanks deserve such blessings? What shining beacon on the hill lights up only the next hillside?  

That makes grassroots, inclusive bottom up models the only defensible paradigm that begins to reconcile our national mandates with how our laws and courts work. Otherwise, our foundation blathering is so much trumpery.  Either we connect all the community inputs with all the consumer outputs of all “system users” — or we are stuck in contradictions that ignore how our best science models life on earth.

This is not about banishing property or possessions, only bridging the gap between a much too powerful elite vs. huge marginally unpropertied, thus disenfranchised majorities, however blessed as “created equal.” Is it all mythology? If not, we have to confront outmoded notions of private property, including the happy delusion none of us is more than a transient owner. That perspective ultimately indicts the immoral worship of wealth, for that is to glorify impermanence. A century hence, who owns your home, if it exists; or walks “your” land or enjoys what you now hold as hallowed possessions?  Challenging “the divine right of property” is today’s progressive mission, aligning us an historic, heroic tradition that deposed the divine right of imperious kings and religious figures who endorsed such palpable nonsense.

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Robert S. Becker
For over a decade, Robert S. Becker's independent, rebel-rousing essays on politics and culture analyze overall trends, history, implications, messaging and frameworks. He has been published widely, aside from Nation of Change and RSN, with extensive credits from OpEdNews (as senior editor), Alternet, Salon, Truthdig, Smirking Chimp, Dandelion Salad, Beyond Chron, and the SF Chronicle. Educated at Rutgers College, N.J. (B.A. English) and U.C. Berkeley (Ph.D. English), Becker left university teaching (Northwestern, then U. Chicago) for business, founding SOTA Industries, a top American high end audio company he ran from '80 to '92. From '92-02, he was an anti-gravel mining activist while doing marketing, business and writing consulting. Since then, he seeks out insight, even wit in the shadows, without ideology or righteousness across the current mayhem of American politics.

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