Checking Out of Society (Medium.com)

The above article is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at some ways to avoid the hell that is other people. As an introvert I can, to some extent, agree with much that the author suggests.

However there was one part that stuck out like the proverbial canine gonads:

Living in large societies encourages antisocial behaviour, because the majority of people will never know what you did (unless you’re a public figure; and even then you can get away with a lot). Plus, the fact that contemporary societies are based on private property fosters competition, as opposed to cooperation.
This makes it necessary and unavoidable to have a big, powerful government that will keep everyone in check —  but the government itself is just a bunch of people, with the same thirst for material resources and little in the way of accountability, so it’s no wonder that governments are prone to turning rogue and abusing their citizens.

Firstly, contemporary societies are based only notionally (i.e. loosely) on private property. It’s private until the state decides that it’s not. And some 40-50% of my monthly resource acquisition apparently falls into the ‘not’ category through various means. Or perhaps, more accurately, it magically becomes the private property of the state.

There is a more subtle point here though. Clearly the author believes that private property fosters ‘competition, as opposed to cooperation’. Is he suggesting that collectively owned property fosters cooperation rather than competition? Or is there another explanation that I’m missing?

Private property is the only system of resource allocation that recognises and respects the sovereignty of the individual as having equal rights to every other individual. Freely chosen exchange of private property, i.e. trade, allows us to move resources from lower to higher valued uses and is the basis of growing wealth to improve our standard of living from bare subsistence to the wonders we see around us today. That exchange can only occur when there are clear distinctions as to ownership as the subjective valuations of the owners are the drivers of the trade. The reciprocal recognition of private property is essential to civilisation in order to mitigate conflict and therefore, contrary to the article’s claim, to facilitate cooperation. It’s an acceptance of reality, a recognition that resources in nature are scarce (in the economic sense) and that a mechanism is needed to determine who gets to control them.

Of course it must involve competition otherwise there would be no need for any kind of property, whether collective or private. But competition is context dependent and can be beneficial as it incentivises improvement and advancement. Such a distinction is not drawn out in the article, casting doubt on the use of ‘competition’ as the correct antonym to cooperation. Indeed I would argue that private property requires cooperation as not only must it be reciprocally recognised but voluntary agreement must be sought before any exchange. Competition most certainly exists in a regime of collective ownership as well, but collective ownership doesn’t provide any mechanism to resolve conflict other than, ultimately, force. Without the recognition of right of ownership resource usage becomes a rather nastier form of competition that ends in a ‘might makes right’ situation since everyone has an equal claim to usage: whoever has the most force becomes the ‘rightful’ controller of the resource. Private property incentivises peaceful resolution of conflict as reciprocal recognition of property benefits both parties, and is therefore more “cooperative” than that author suggests.

This ‘cooperation’ myth is the pretence of collectivism – that all resources are owned collectively which supposedly removes the element of inequality and therefore conflict. Except that it doesn’t, it increases it. If a resource is owned in common then the incentive is for you to get the benefit of the resource before someone else does, even if you don’t particularly need it. The value of the resource is shared so if you don’t get your slice of the value it will go to someone else. Of course everyone else will have the same incentive, and without an owner with a long-term vested interest in preserving the resource it devolves into a race to extract value and the resource is quickly depleted. Since there is no recognition of who should have access to the resource conflict is likely as the final arbiter. In socialist regimes that purport to have common ownership of the means of production, this issue is sidestepped by creating an overarching ‘force’ that decides who gets access to resources. It’s called the state and it becomes the de-facto owner of all property, and is why socialism always devolves into tyrannical dictatorships.

It’s interesting that he thinks private property requires big government (unless he’s referring to the minarchist position that a minimal govt is required to protect private property, which I doubt), while correctly pointing out the contradiction that those in govt are just as prone to popping their hand in the cookie jar as everyone else given the right incentives. Government, as opposed to a non-coercive organisation such as a company, violates private property rights by its very existence as monopoly provider of security and justice services, and is therefore a logical contradiction as a protector of private property. The property arrangement that requires a large and powerful govt is collective ownership, as an overwhelming force acting as monopoly property owner is the only way to resolve property usage conflict.

I believe the author couldn’t be more wrong on these points. Private property is cooperation. The environment where private property is reciprocally respected and exchanged is called the free market. The economic system based on exchange of private property in a free market is called capitalism. As a business owner and purported entrepreneur I would’ve thought he would understand that.

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