Isabel Patterson: “The Fiction of Public Ownership”
I was going to do a post on how silly the concept of public ownership is, but I realized that Isabel Patterson did a far better job than I ever could, so I’m just going to pass the torch to her. The following is chapter 27 of Isabel Patterson’s Magnum Opus, “The God of the Machine.” With that, I hand it over to her.
“As language is the faculty which distinguishes man from the lower animals, it is also a ready index to the intellectual level of cultures and persons. The confusion and vagueness of terms always found in collectivist theories is not accidental; it is a reversion to the mental and verbal limitations of the primitive society it advocates, the inability to think in abstract terms. This defect is strikingly evident in the collectivist arguments concerning property. Property is ownership. Things which nobody owns are not property; they are merely objects in nature. Perhaps the most senseless phrase ever coined even by a collectivist is that of Proudhon: “All property is theft.” It is indeed remarkable in its own way, for the variety of errors compressed into such brief utterance; in four words it confuses objects, acts, attributes, moral values, and relations, as if they were interchangeable.
Theft presupposes rightful ownership. An object must be property before it can be stolen. Savages and collectivists are notably ignorant of the severely logical branch of language, which is mathematics. The savage does not go beyond simple addition and subtraction of digits. The collectivist may learn formulas by rote, but cannot grasp the principle of their application to physical phenomena. He will reckon upon processes and results which could be obtained only from a factor he has theoretically excluded from the problem he is proposing to solve. The problem is to define the conditions necessary to a productive society. They must answer to the world of physical reality; nothing may be assumed to exist in physical reality which does not so exist; nor may any aspect of physical phenomena be excluded which will inevitably enter into the conditions in reality. But when the collectivist rejects private property from his theoretic economy, he excludes those aspects of material phenomena which mathematics recognizes by the third dimension. “The three dimensions of a body, or of ordinary space, are length, breadth and thickness; a surface has only two dimensions; a line only one.”
With the third dimension, cubic measure is possible; and the construction becomes capable of solid content. It would never have been possible to conceive of measure abstractly without the previous reality and concept of a unit of measure. The unit of measure of physical energy is established from solids, in terms of time, space, and mass resistance or displacement (gravity). Real physical energy cannot exist except in a three dimensional world, nor without its real existence could it have been conceived abstractly. Two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. This is the reason why private property belongs to man as a creative being (a right both natural and divine). Individual ownership answers exactly to the conditions of physical phenomena. Public ownership is fictitious; its verbal terms do not correspond to reality, to the properties of physical objects and the conditions of time and space. A number of persons may reside in the same house, but only by allotment of objects in space and time to each, either specifically or by precedence.
Nobody could live in a house if the general public were assumed to have the right to go in and out, to sit in the chairs, sleep in the beds, cook in the kitchen. Ten men may be legally equal owners of one field, but none of them can get any good of it unless its occupancy and use is allotted among them by measures of time and space. No agreement can obviate this necessity. If all ten wished to do exactly the same thing at the same time in the same spot, it would be physically impossible, whether they agreed or not. Private group ownership necessarily resolves into management by one person, with division of the product, and ultimate recourse to division of the actual property, in case of irreconcilable disagreement. Theoretically, public property belongs to everybody equally, indivisibly, and simultaneously, which is absurd; if this assumption were applied, the result would be that any person presenting himself to use the property could be asked: “Are you everybody?” and he would be bound to reply: “No”; while he could not assert any claim to use any particular division of the property.
The actual use of public property by the public is therefore limited to approximately two dimensional conditions, in which cubic measure, or solids, need not be taken into account, so that a man is regarded as a point in a line which is divisible into an infinite number of points; and with any number of lines intersecting without interference, on a plane surface. Thus it is practicable—whether or not it is necessary or advisable—to make roads public property, because the use of a road is to traverse it. Though the user does in fact occupy a given space at a given moment, the duration is negligible, so that there is no need to take time and space into account except by negation, a prohibition: the passenger is not allowed to remain as of right indefinitely on any one spot in the road. The same rule applies to parks and public buildings. The arrangement is sufficiently practicable in those conditions to admit the fiction of “public ownership.” To be sure, even in the use of a road, if too many members of the public try to move along it at once, the rule reverts to first come, first served (allotment in time and space), or the authorities may close the road.
The public has not the essential property right of continuous and final occupancy. “Public property” which is used for other purposes than transit is not available to the public at all in any way. Part of the Executive Mansion is open to the public for transit part of the time; but the conditions were pointedly expressed when two children wandered into the building without permission and intruded into the forbidden space. The wife of the Chief Executive deemed it advisable to print a warning that such conduct was unsafe; the children might have been shot by a guard. “Public domain” which is leased for revenue is used by the lessees as private persons; and the rent is not distributed to members of the public; it is used by officials. Whatever “public” property admits of tenure in occupancy, or bears usufruct, officials occupy it or consume the usufruct, while the public pays the upkeep. “Public utilities” are not available to the public as owners. Any citizen who wishes to obtain electricity from a municipal plant must pay out of his private resources for the measured quantity of electricity he gets. He is not the owner; an owner does not have to buy the product of his own property.
At the same time, a citizen who does not use any electricity is nevertheless charged indirectly with a fraction of the upkeep in taxes, though he cannot exercise any property rights whatever in the plant. He can’t even go into the premises of right, which is the first prerogative of an owner. Public property then admits of use by the public only in transit, not for production, exchange, consumption, or for security as standing ground. Where all property is “public,” under Communism, government ownership, the officials appropriate to their personal use whatever they like, with funds for upkeep; while the public exists perpetually in the condition of passengers on a road, having no right to remain in any one spot or to use any object; all the activities of members of the public must be by permission of compulsion. It is impossible to imagine any practical method by which the use or the product of any kind of productive property whatever can be made available to “the public” as such. Though anyone who comes along may use a road (unless it gets jammed), it is not possible to devise any means by which anyone who comes along can help himself to electricity, or for the matter of that to potatoes, as a member of the public, “according to his needs.” The phrase has no application to reality in a productive society.
It is an idea limited to the conditions of wild nature, in which primitive man lives on whatever he can catch or pick up in the way of game, berries, fish, or insects.1 The collectivist is incapable of understanding this because his concept of the “collective” has no dimensions. The society founded on private property is organized for a man of three dimensions, occupying a space of his own in a world of three dimensions, through which energy flows in action and is put to use for production. The collectivist society is “planned” for a world of two dimensions, in which nothing is conceived as occupying space or causing displacement. Man is conceived to be everywhere at once and nowhere in particular, in the collective. The concept is that of a world and a society in which there is no energy, neither kinetic nor static. But since in reality every object must occupy three dimensional space, and moving objects do cause displacement, whenever communists seize the political power to try their alleged experiment, Communism is always said to be still in the future, never in the present. The present is described as “a period of transition.” The commonsense of colloquial speech recognizes the facts, with the advent of collectivism, when people complain that they are being “pushed around.”
Perhaps the collectivist has a dim notion of his logical difficulty with the no-dimensional collective; for all collectivist theories begin with the assumption of a productive machinery and system taken over from the society of private property and personal enterprise. Collectivists must feel, though they do not acknowledge it, that their hypothetical society is nonproductive, for production creates its own means of production. To obscure this difficulty, they lay stress on distribution and consumption as the crux of their schemes. But still they cannot imagine any practical method which approximates to their promise; they can only offer a paper copy of the forms of distribution devised by the society of private property, while eliminating the moral and physical relations which made those forms workable.
That is, they must use quantitative measure for goods, and of time for labor (measures unnecessary to the savage living on the bounty of nature); and a medium of exchange. But they deny the right of the owner and producer to his property and product. In so doing, they necessarily deny the right of a man to his own labor, which is to say, to his own person. All collective societies demand forced labor. With this there can be no true exchange, but only expropriation and doles. Collectivists use the word “right” but never in any context which corresponds with reality, and is capable of specific application. By the Marxist theory, of course they ought not to use the word “right” at all, for Dialectical Materialism is deterministic; therefore it admits no right nor wrong. The use of speech is communication, but Marxists use words with the intent of causing confusion; yet they assume that a productive society, which depends primarily on exact communication, can be organized after they have destroyed that means. In this they revert below savagery, and even below the animal level. They have got down to the premise of mere mechanism.
Cogs in a machine need no language. Thus collectivists talk of civil rights in a collective society, where in fact civil rights cannot exist because there is no place in which they can be exercised and no materials on which they can take effect. How can a man speak freely if there is no spot on which he and his audience have the right to stand? How can he practice his religion if he has no right to own a religious edifice, or to his own person? How is a free press to exist if the materials are not in private ownership? With state ownership, nothing can be done except by command or permission. A slave is under command and permission.
He is not free. Collectivists talk frequently of “the right to work.” What does that connote in terms of physical reality? In a free society, any man has by nature the right to work. No one may force him to work; nor may anyone stop him from working on his own property or in contract with another. But if he has no property, or not enough to yield him a livelihood, he must seek employment from others. It is never within the worker’s power to exact his own terms in full, any more than he can find in nature everything as he would have it; but since the employer must need to hire labor (else he would not be at the trouble), there is a basis for bargaining and agreement. If neither is willing to meet the other’s terms or to compromise, each may look elsewhere, to another possible employer or workman.
But it is said that the workman without property (land) is in more urgent need than the prospective employer; he cannot afford to wait, hold out a length of time for his terms, as the employer can. (It is not conceded in theory that employers go broke, though they certainly do in fact; it is rather assumed that they can sit tight forever if they choose.) Therefore, because land exists in nature and all the raw materials of production are of natural origin, it is said that if a man cannot demand and receive employment at a living wage as of right, his natural right to work has been denied. But is there any imaginable production economy in which the contingency of unemployment will not occur with much harsher terms attached to it? Certainly in a savage nomadic society, the raw resources of nature are directly available to every man (as to the lower animals), “according to his abilities.”
But the moment he begins to utilize those resources in any manner beyond the abilities of the lower animals, by making weapons or tools, private property in such objects is necessarily established. Still, any other man can presumably make similar tools from the resources of nature. Likewise, when land is brought under crude cultivation, marginal to a hunting economy—as some North American Indians grew corn at their summer camps—there need be no exact boundaries; and presumably any person might make his own tools and scratch a fresh plot of ground. But natural causes bring about recurrent famine. The hunter has the right to hunt, but he finds no game. Animals may devour the corn; there is no fence. Buildings are not tight nor durable; there is no way of storing food. Then everybody starves, and that is that. With permanent settlements, permanent landholdings are recognized, in regular cultivation.
The higher the form of production, the more necessary it is to fix ownership, and ownership may take various forms, by persons or local groups or families or other allotments, possibly subject to reapportionment. The two extremes of property title are government ownership and individual private property. The question is, by which system does a man retain his natural rights? With group ownership, a man must be born or formally admitted as a member of the group, else he has no property right. If he has, he may in certain circumstances be bound to the soil. Such was the feudal system. It was a three dimensional concept; a man had a place, a right to work on a specific portion of land.
But he was subject to forced labor so many days a year; he had no right to change his employment; and he had little chance of increasing his production, by improvement of tools. His natural rights were severely restricted; he lost mobility and choice. The presumed compensation was stability, with a local energy circuit of production. But he still suffered recurrent famine, as in a state of nature. The feudal system could not form the long circuit of energy. A runaway from one feudal group could find no place in another; he had to seek the contract society. Many did, a proof of which system they found preferable; others bought their freedom. With individual private property, every man has a natural right to own property. He may inherit it or earn the price and purchase it. Such acquisition is reasonably possible for any able-bodied and competent person, in a natural lifetime, by labor and thrift.
When he has got it, it is his own, with the usufruct. He can try out his own ideas, to improve or increase production, build on it for income, or otherwise please himself. He can accumulate provision for his old age or against vicissitudes of any kind. Further, in the contract society, if he has special abilities in management, or creative ideas, he can obtain capital on credit, with no guarantee on his part except honesty of conduct, and repayment if the project succeeds, the owner of the capital taking the financial risk of failure, while the borrower has a chance of considerable gain, and of knowing that he has earned it fairly by increasing production. These are the advantages peculiar to individual private property.
Then let the case against private property, its possible disadvantages, be stated with the utmost rigor, at its possible worst. Many persons may have inherited no property, nor yet have had time to accumulate any from their earnings before encountering hard times. True that some might have had the chance, and neglected it; but it is never true that all the unemployed had that previous chance. Some are young; others worked productively but met with sickness or loss. And even the imprudent cannot be deemed to have forfeited their natural rights. That opportunity may recur in the future does not soften the immediate pangs of want. Part of the lifetime of such persons will be a period of hardship, which may seem rather worse because others are more fortunate by no effort on their part.
But is it true that the unemployed are in this condition because they are denied access to the land? In Europe, during modern times, practically all the usable land was owned. There was no wild land to which an unemployed man could have “access”; and the owners of land were unlikely to permit the unemployed to use it rent free. But in the United States, there was never a day, in “hard times,” when the unemployed could not have had “access” to wild land, or even to owned land which the owner would have let them use for production. Yet in hard times men did not go into the wilderness. The statement that the land frontier took up the slack of unemployment during industrial depressions is a whole cloth falsehood. On the contrary, the frontier was settled from the capitalist production overflow of good times. During hard times men withdrew from the frontier, even abandoning homesteads, and turned back toward the areas of more advanced development, the towns and industrial regions.
They looked for wage jobs. So it is said that the unemployed are denied “access to the means of production,” which includes the land. But the means of production of an industrial economy are not to be found ready made in nature. The man who wants employment then requires something more than his original natural right. He requires the use of the tools, accumulated capital, and organization of a high productive economy, to apply to the resources of nature. But this definition still does not cover the whole difficulty. The owners of industrial property occasionally run at a loss, to keep up their plant and business connections for the future. In the United States, during times of stress, many employers would certainly be glad if they could run in full employment for the time being at the bare cost of materials, maintenance, and wages of labor and management. Dividends can wait, and often are deferred.
But if an idle plant, including even a stock of raw materials, were handed over to unemployed workers, thus giving them free “access to the means of production,” the workers would be unable to get continued production out of it, to pay for their labor, because that depends on continued exchange at a profit; they could only use up the stock and stop work. Then the unemployed man in a private property economy has not lost his natural rights, and is suffering no greater hazard or privation than he would in a state of nature. He is free to quest for what he needs, but it is scarce for the time being, hard to find. Would he be willing to return to a state of nature as preferable? No. His refusal is rational.
The hazard has in fact been greatly reduced; for the United States, the one great free economy the world has ever developed, has never known famine, although the Indians in the same territory were subject to it. There is no loss, but net gain. The hardship of the unemployed man is not that he has been denied his natural rights, but that for the time being he is not provided with something he did not have in nature. But what he lacks cannot be defined merely as access to the land or to the means of production; it is an immediate connection on the long circuit of energy. The gravamen of the collectivist complaint is that in hard times, there are goods undistributed, productive machinery standing idle, and men in want of work and goods.
Though the goods are in fact rapidly distributed, at a loss to the owners if need be, and productive employment resumed, this is not deemed to constitute an optimum for a working system, allowing for possibilities of improvement in its specific operation to get better results along the same main line. Then the real accusation against private capitalism must be that it does slow down occasionally; breaks and stoppages occur along the line. It does not function with absolute, unvarying, mathematical regularity to supply everybody’s wants continuously and unfailingly and without exception, regardless of the infinite risks of human fallibility, moral and intellectual. The collectivist promises an organization that will never break down even temporarily. He insists that he has the plan of the perfect, “automatic” machine.
On its own terms, this theory is insane. If reduced to specifications, it must be like the wonderful One-Hoss Shay, in which every material, part, and detail was exactly as strong as every other item, so that no part could break down. The imaginary One-Hoss Shay did wear out, but all at once, completely, in utter disintegration. The collectivist absolute government is expected to “wither away” and disappear in the same manner; but although the government is the only specific form the collectivist has in view, he insists that on its dissolution there will be some other kind of organization to take its place automatically, he can’t say exactly what—the proposal trails off into incoherencies and mutterings of revelations to be made later.
There is just one more alleged objection advanced by the collectivist, his final argument, against private property. It is said that after a given stage of capitalistic development there will necessarily and always be more men seeking employment than there will be jobs; therefore the workman will have no real power to bargain and get a fair wage, but must take whatever the employer offers. This is a variant by reversal of the Malthusian theory. Malthus thought there was a “law” by which population tends to increase faster than production, so that workers must be forever “pressing against subsistence” (as animals might in nature)—nothing but immediate limitation of population could remedy the evil. Theoretically, of course, the world could be overpopulated, beyond what its natural resources could support; but Malthus was arguing particularly about the problem of poverty with a going productive system in a world which still had plenty of unoccupied space. Now his supposed law does operate in a collectivist economy, because that economy will not admit improvement in the means of production; hence collectivist societies have legitimized infanticide in the past.
Although Malthus lived during the period when industrial production was getting under way, he seems to have fallen into an arithmetical catch, like the fallacy of Achilles and the tortoise; or else he thought production had already reached or almost reached its highest capacity, and could be so figured. Anyhow, the collectivists were forced to admit that production had refuted Malthus, increasing prodigiously, year by year. Then they had to say that the trouble was “overproduction”; the workingman would work himself out of a job pretty soon! This theory has evoked the phrase “technological unemployment,” which is said to be caused by mechanical improvements in the means of production.
That is, if a machine is invented by which one man can do the work previously done by ten men, it must put nine men permanently out of employment. It sounds plausible, but is it true? Malthus imagined a fixed limit of productive capacity per person, an arbitrary quantity. (He must have had that in view, for there certainly is a limit to the number of children any adult can bring into the world.) The collectivist, with the theory of “technological unemployment,” assumes a fixed number of jobs, another arbitrary quantity. In the feudal system there was such a fixed number of jobs, established by allotments of land in a given area, and ratified by the feudal lord and the community.
This condition did not have to be stated in theory, it was factual and inevitable in the circumstances; but unhappily it has been carried over into theorizing on free enterprise, in which it has no meaning. In feudalism, the specific limitation on the number of jobs might stretch or shrink a little, but it was fairly constant. No such rule can be applied or even imagined as applicable to a private capital free enterprise system, if the facts are examined. In the free economy, there can be no fixed number of jobs, not for one minute. Employment, production, and consumption in a free enterprise society cannot be figured on the same ratios or relations as are assumed by collectivists (which have in fact obtained in collectivist societies).
The ancient collectivist societies assumed that a given number of persons could produce a given quantity of goods; which could then of course be divided pro rata. (What it always came down to in practice was bare subsistence.) Then if all the available land or materials were in production, the maximum number of jobs were filled; somebody would have to be put out of a job before another could be taken on. And if an extra quantity were produced, on total reckoning, for the given quantity of labor, it would diminish to that extent the demand (necessity) for labor. Theoretically, it would put somebody out of employment. This reckoning is really made on a strict subsistence basis, in which “consumption” is just what people eat and wear.
But in a free enterprise economy, increased production increases the number of jobs. It might be said that one job creates another, which is true as far as it goes, but open to misinterpretation; for only productive employment does that. If a man were paid to pick up pebbles on the beach and throw them into the ocean, it would be just the same as if he were in a “government job,” or on the dole; the producers have to supply his subsistence with no return, thus preventing the normal increase of jobs.
Putting the unemployed on the dole does not increase “purchasing power.” The dole divides up whatever is already in production. “Purchasing power,” per se, is exchange. Increasing production does increase “purchasing power,” and therefore creates jobs. Are there fewer men employed in the great steel industry than there were in hand forging? or in rail and motor transport than in wagon and pack transport? or in the building trades with steam shovels, concrete mixers, and so forth, than in handicraft building? No. The real result is not only that people have more tools, larger houses, and travel more, which must tend to maintain employment—they also want and have things they never had before.
Motor cars need tires, roads, gasoline; houses are equipped with new conveniences; when people travel they want hotels, amusements, more clothes—all of which means the creation of more jobs, new jobs. Nothing increases the number of jobs so rapidly as labor-saving machinery, because it releases wants theretofore unknown, by permitting leisure. In a pre-industrial economy, jobs are made by simple division of labor; acquired skill and organization permit some economy of effort; but on the whole people literally have not enough surplus energy to want much. What does any person who is thoroughly fatigued want?
The answer is just nothing. And if he works very long hours, he has no time either, to use what he might conceivably want. By conserving human bodily energy, multiplying the production from a given expenditure of muscular strength, the free economy enables men to want things which are unimaginable in a state of nature. Here is a strange exemption of human organization from the general implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Physical energy manifested through inanimate mechanism—gasoline introduced into a motor car, electricity in a vacuum cleaner—does not cause that mechanism to want, or require, either more or less than a given quantity, known beforehand, which it can accommodate, of which a fixed percentage will be “lost” in transmission, and the rest will go through to perform a measured task.
A man can absorb only a limited quantity of physical energy in food, but at the level of well-being his wants increase progressively and incalculably for other things: and he himself is capable of creating devices to augment his energy and then to put it in use for his novel purposes. His circuit is intrinsically different from any specific circuit composed wholly of inanimate materials. Strictly quantitative mechanical calculations, by ratio or number, cannot be applied beforehand to human free productive organization as a whole. The free enterprise system starts correctly with a concept, corresponding to reality, of a three dimensional man in a three dimensional world, having free will, the moral capacity for contract; therefore it predicates individual private property, by which he may secure his own place, from which point his relations in time and space are left to agreement and self-adjustment.
The economic sphere is reserved from the static political clutch, because it is understood that the quantity of production and changes of position are not calculable in advance. The collectivist theory starts with a no-dimensional man in a no-dimensional collective and a two-dimensional world, excluding private property, yet it assumes three-dimensional production and division of the product. It is impossible to elucidate the innumerable contradictions implicit in this muddle. The collectivist doesn’t even try to work out a practical system of his own, consonant to his theories; he merely goes back to barbarism for distribution by edict, while at the same time he says he will use the productive machinery of free enterprise, which in fact can operate only by the inductive pull of distribution by free exchange. In arguing against free enterprise capitalism, the collectivist always adopts the false assumption of a fixed number of jobs in that system.
Conversely, in arguing for collectivism, he always assumes that there will be as many jobs as there are workers. The government will make the jobs. The one definite and unequivocal stipulation of the collectivist is that all property shall be in government ownership for the collective. In that case, everyone must ask for work from the government; and no one can have any resources which would enable him to make better terms by waiting. Neither is there any other employer to whom the worker might apply. In free enterprise, the jobs are spontaneously created by the productive system. The person who wants to work is hired directly by the person who wants work done, each being free to seek the other; each is interested personally in the benefit. (If it is said that a contractor hires men to do some work someone else wants done, it is still a fact that the contractor also wants the work done, for his own benefit.)
Every want operates directly to stimulate a supply; every supply is a stimulus to discover a want. (Supply creates demand as much as demand brings out supply.) Throughout the longest series of exchanges, every person has a direct interest in getting the goods through, or producing them; so that the general sequence creates the long circuit of energy, by an unbroken transmission. The collectivist’s theory of inevitable “class conflict” in the free economy rests on the economic fallacy of the “wages fund.” It assumes a fixed quantity to be divided between “labor” and “capital,” so that neither can get any more except at the expense of the other; therefore their interests must be diametrically opposed and antagonistic. Certainly individuals must always have their separate interests; but in the free economy, there is nothing to divide until “capital and labor” have come to an agreement, hence their separate interests draw them together.
And increased production can increase both shares, not one at the expense of the other. Where the government is the sole employer, someone may certainly want to work, or want work done, or want a certain product; but he is never in direct exchange with any other person who has a like interest in the transaction. The man who wants work must ask the government for some kind of a job and for a portion of the alleged “general” production. Thus between what he offers and what he wants an agency intervenes which has no interest in the transaction. The immediate incentive is really the other way; officials won’t want to be bothered by taking on more people for whom “jobs” must be “made.”
Then the government distributes the product. It is of no interest to the persons employed in distribution whether the quality is good or not, nor whether the stuff is handled for the convenience of either the producer or the consumer; because neither the producer nor the consumer has the power to decide which distributor he will patronize, or how much he will pay for an article. He must go to whatever depot his ticket indicates, and take whatever there is, on the fixed terms; or do without; while the persons employed in distribution will wish to handle less rather than greater quantities. The officials will get theirs first and best. Yet all these persons must ask the government for employment all their lives. It is idle to demand it as a right, for they have not the least power to enforce such a demand.
They cannot accumulate materials and land by which to make themselves independent; and certainly they cannot pick up any tools offhand and go to work upon the first material or plot of land they come upon. They must ask for everything, day by day, hour by hour. If it is true that with private property some persons, having no property at a given time, have no “access” to the land or to the means of production, and are thus at a disadvantage in seeking employment, then under collectivism everybody is in that condition. Every workman has lost all his natural rights, and gained absolutely nothing in return. He is still subject to famine, and gets at best bare subsistence; but he can neither stay in one place of right, nor move about of right. Long trains of prisoners transported in cattle cars to a place where they do not wish to go are in the logical condition of members of the collective. It is specifically against the interest of officials in a collective to increase production above bare subsistence level, for “the people.”
It would only give them more bother; and it would (if consumed) tend to increase the energy of the miserable population, and make “the people” unruly.2 Even when the interest of the officials does call for increased production of war materials (the officials being desirous of saving their own necks), the need has to be met by importing machinery and goods at the cost of a reduced margin of subsistence, or on credit, a debt which will never be paid. What power, in what circumstances, can the individual have against government? In a free economy, there is a government of limited powers. Individual citizens own the productive property.
Whether or not it is expressed in a formal charter, the limitation of the power of government is kept in effect by the fact that the government must get its supplies from the citizens by taxation, and the taxation can be kept within limits by a proper division of the political agencies (checks and balances) and a proper representative system, the representatives being obliged to seek re-election. Nobody is presumed to have the right to demand employment from the government, because it is well understood that government “jobs” are non-productive.
However, if he has a vote, the citizen without property has a means of bribing the government to make a job for him, by expropriating the property of another citizen. Such bribery depends entirely upon the ownership of private property by other citizens. If the process is carried on until all property has been expropriated or made subject to expropriation, no citizen, no voter, has any power left against the government, or any bribe to offer to the government. In the collective, where there is no private property, the government owning everything and the individual nothing, the power of the government is absolute; and it is immaterial what claim the worker may make, he has no means of obtaining it.
The government certainly can “make jobs,” but there is no connection of supply and demand, no induction on the flow of energy. The only effective demand is that of officials for what they personally want; but as they are under no necessity of producing in return, there is no exchange; it is simply a net charge on forced labor. The circuit of energy is cut with every transaction. Further, if the no-dimensional concept of the collective did approximate to reality—which is impossible—the “right to work” would be utterly meaningless. No part of the collective could act without the whole acting in accord. If a person is supposed to be only a component of the collective, and one person wants to do even one thing, he must theoretically get the consent of every other person, be it a thousand, a million, a hundred million, or two billions. It is ridiculous.
Of course, what the person really has to do is to get the consent of certain officials. Now in the free society any person wishing to undertake an enterprise in which capital and various persons will be employed, must obtain the consent of the owners of the capital and of the persons who will do the work. That is not always easy, but he can apply directly, and those concerned can make their own decision according to their view of their own interest. Very few original ideas return production immediately; innumerable ideas fail expensively; but those concerned have the right to take a chance and the loss.
How can any official even be granted explicit authority to take a similar chance? He cannot. The matter requires personal judgment on every single proposal. Can every official of the collective have authority to dispose of all available materials? No. Can each official have authority to dispose of a given portion of available materials for—what? For a proposal of an experimental innovation, made by anybody, while nobody knows what the result will be? Of course not. What is the official to do? He may deal out a favor, but it must be at a risk to himself with no particular inducement in the prospective returns. And what inducement is there to the innovator, the man of creative ideas? None. Hence the collective society is static. Whatever productive machinery it contains must be inherited or borrowed from a primary field of freedom elsewhere, a free economy. With such borrowings, nobody in the collective need be responsible for the decision and expenditure involved in the period of original invention.
The machinery can be taken over at a fixed cost. It can even be copied at a fixed estimate; but it can’t be invented. The history of small nominal collectives within a free economy leads to extremely misleading conclusions because the relation to that free economy is not recognized. Many fail forthwith, but few such group experiments have “succeeded” in a remarkable way. Where the founder of such a collective prescribed a rule which cut the group off from social relations with the free society—as by celibacy among the Shakers or the “community marriage” of the Oneida community—a strict internal limitation on consumption and a discipline of regular labor could also be prescribed. In these “successful” experiments, the communities not only got a living; they actually got rich.
Why, then, it may be asked, is not collectivism at least a practicable system by which people can be secure and rich at the expense of their liberty, if they are willing to surrender their liberty? The answer is, because there would be no surrounding free economy from which they could get rich. These enclave groups sold their products to the free economy and converted the gain into real property, land and buildings, static forms. But the individuals concerned never surrendered their liberty; it was impossible to do so, while the free economy existed. Any member of the collective could walk out any minute he chose.
No member of the collective could really be subjected to personal punishment, imprisonment, or even the prescribed discipline of labor, as by deprivation of subsistence, by the collective, while the free economy existed. Only those who voluntarily submitted to it were in the collective, and only for such time as they chose. Nothing in their economic procedure was peculiar to the collectivist system. Anyone in the free economy could get rich by the same labor, thrift, and accumulation as the collectivists practiced. Everything in these groups which is pointed to as the fruit of collectivism was owing to the free economy: the means of production; the market whereby production was converted into static wealth; the laws by which life and tenure were secure; and even the habit of self-discipline by which the rules were observed and labor performed.
Above all, there was no power whatever of actual compulsion, of the brutalities, torture, starvation, exile, execution, which collectivism inflicts when it has the power. Altogether, private property is the only basis of a productive society, the only means by which anyone can ever have free “access to the means of production,” not of permission but by natural right. In any society, or if there were but one man on a desert island, work must be done; that is a law of nature. But only in a society of individual private property can a man have a say as to the conditions in which he will work, or acquire property on which he can work just as he pleases, or accumulate property by which he may ensure subsequent leisure, or improve his skill or the means of production for his own benefit. The incidental hazard of a free society, which is that of nature, that some individuals may be temporarily unable to command a livelihood, is the permanent condition of every man in a collective society. In giving up freedom, the individual gets nothing in return, and gives up every chance or hope of ever getting anything.
Private individual property is not only the most favorable condition for a high production economy. It is the only transmission line by which high production is possible at all. What does any collective society promise even in its most extravagant propaganda? Simply that it will copy the production of the free societies—which in fact it cannot do. In the nineteenth century some Socialists promised a return to handicrafts, although handicrafts developed with private property, not government ownership. Workingmen were not attracted. The Communists then promised machinery.
During the past twenty-five years, collectivism has been imposed on one European nation after another. During that period considerable improvements in machinery have been made in the United States. Has any collectivist nation made any improvement in machinery? None. The Nazi collective promised workingmen in Germany cheap cars, which American workingmen have had in increasing numbers for twenty-five years. Has even one cheap car been produced for or obtained by a workingman in Germany? Or in Russia? Or in Japan? Not one. Has the standard of living risen in either country?
No, it has fallen far below the nineteenth century level. As a reasonable test of the respective claims and performances of the collective society and the free society, when they exist simultaneously, which will individuals join if they have the choice? Millions of persons came to the United States and remained gladly, as long as they could gain entry; they stand in line now for admittance under immigration quotas.
How many persons have sought admission for citizenship and permanent residence in Russia, Germany, Italy, or Japan under collectivism? Have professed collectivists from Germany sought admission to Russia? No, they seek the United States none the less, if they can contrive to get here. The borders of the collectivist nations are closed—to prevent their own people escaping, as from a jail. And the happy collectivists crawl through barbed wire to get out.”
Posted on October 12, 2013, in Economics, Political Philosophy and tagged Austrian Economics, Communism, Isabel Patterson, Marxism, The Fiction of Public Ownership, The God of the Machine. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.