The Inescapable US Drive to Own Stuff
March 26, 2003 6:24 AM   Subscribe

The US Consitution really isn't that concerned with Freedom, nor Democracy (doesn't even use the word) - it's all about Property. Owning stuff, owning more stuff, and making sure everybody else leaves your stuff alone. Implications for foreign policy? Anybody? You at the back?
posted by klaatu (35 comments total)

 
I bet those Native Americans who had all their property and land stolen when the U.S. Government exiled them to reservations wish they had heard of this thing called the Constitution. Silly Indians.
posted by hank_14 at 9:09 AM on March 26, 2003


....and now some time to take another blast at a country that still is among the top free nations in thje world and that has helped more people in more countries than any other....the property thing was/is important to founders. It is the list of amendments that makes the document something going well beyond property rights.
posted by Postroad at 9:14 AM on March 26, 2003


"It is the list of amendments that makes the document something going well beyond property rights."

Like the 2nd amendment, the right to bear arms?
posted by CrazyJub at 9:16 AM on March 26, 2003


Erm... I can't believe that a topic which is more suitable for a 4th grade Civics class is being posted to the front page of Metafilter.
posted by jammer at 9:18 AM on March 26, 2003


Can anyone confirm/deny that the right to bear arms was originally intended not to allow every muppet on the street to carry an uzi, but to allow for private armies to protect one's rights and to protect against an over enthusiastic government?
posted by twine42 at 9:21 AM on March 26, 2003


The guy ain't lyin'.
posted by adampsyche at 9:21 AM on March 26, 2003


wow that advert is annoying...

[on preview: where'd it go?]
posted by twine42 at 9:22 AM on March 26, 2003


Once again, old Noam Chomsky theory becomes "news". The US consitution, the world's oldest and consequently outdated, is mostly about protecting those who have property. In other words, it's about protecting the rich individuals and pseudo-individuals (corporations) from accountability.
posted by freakystyley at 9:25 AM on March 26, 2003


Can anyone confirm/deny that the right to bear arms was originally intended not to allow every muppet on the street to carry an uzi, but to allow for private armies to protect one's rights and to protect against an over enthusiastic government?

Do you really want to go down that road again?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 9:27 AM on March 26, 2003


Ah. Does this turn into a NRI flamefest?

Appologies.
posted by twine42 at 9:29 AM on March 26, 2003


I don't know about you guys, but I find the way how all our other rights are derived from property rights to be an extremely elegant design of policy.
posted by VeGiTo at 9:31 AM on March 26, 2003


Why would the Constitution include the word "democracy?" The US is a republic, albeit a democratic one. Art IV, Sec. 4:

The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government

Democracy without property rights and predictable laws isn't nearly as appealing.
posted by Frank Grimes at 9:31 AM on March 26, 2003


There's no inherent reason to base law in property rights. Property is an arbitrary concept and a legal fiction. I'm actually a big fan of the constitution and a solid fan of negative rights, but the myopic focus on property as an institutional foundation for those rights is misplaced. That being said, America is one of the coolest nations in the world, and I'm very glad I live here. That being said, I think the Onion is really, really funny. And right.
posted by hank_14 at 9:43 AM on March 26, 2003


Democracy? Not in the sense of government by the people. Democracy is an ideal; ancient Greece for instance was not a democracy but a slave-owning feudal society in which only men were allowed to debate and vote (and meanwhile the slaves were busy doing the work).

Like other 'democracies,' the US is more a form of consenting oligarchy. Issues that ought to concern people in such a system include therefore how much consent we give to the oligarchy, and also how to control the oligarchy when it tries to operate without our consent. With respect to the original post, the balance in that struggle is often dictated by the amount of property you own; but as freakystyley points out, this is not necessary news.
posted by carter at 9:52 AM on March 26, 2003


The Constitution is simply a blueprint for building a representative government.

Like any blueprint, it doesn't delve into underlying theories, alternative structures, or the wisdom of proceeding along the chosen design path.

It just tells you how to build something, as simply and as plainly as possible.

If you want the underlying theory, you have to look elsewhere.

And how on earth do you go from the linked author's words to the FPP? Advocating a property-rigths approach to the flag burning 'issue' seems like a long way from "The US Consitution really isn't that concerned with Freedom, nor Democracy (doesn't even use the word) - it's all about Property."?
posted by Jos Bleau at 9:55 AM on March 26, 2003


Why would the Constitution include the word "democracy?" The US is a republic, albeit a democratic one.

Yawn. The 'republic not democracy' line misses the point by several miles.

Anyway, yeah. Sort of. But you have to think of John Locke's political philosophy here. 'Every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.' The point being that property starts with a kind of property-over-yourself, and hence you get the concept of 'liberty' And as VeGiTo says, it's pretty elegant, though very much written by the Whig middle-classes for the Whig middle-classes. (The irony of this being embraced by a bunch of slave-owners, I'll leave to you.) It's a foundational principle of Marxism, too, if you're interested, since the proletarian struggle is based upon the need to challenge the alienation of labour from the individual.
posted by riviera at 10:48 AM on March 26, 2003


Anyway, to the piece itself:

"The right to freedom of speech" really means the right to hire a hall and expound your views;

Bollocks. That's an arse-backwards reading, particularly when the first amendment is prohibitive of state infringement, rather than an imposition of conditions. Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park, the Quaker preacher in the old town square: all of these offer alternative views without questioning the basic right.

the "right to freedom of press" (where, as we have seen, speech and action clearly cannot be separated) means the right to print a pamphlet and sell it.

Again, that's cart-before-horse. The means of production do not frame the right; the diminishing marginal costs of publication prove this all too well.
posted by riviera at 10:55 AM on March 26, 2003


In the last paragraph, liberals are called "scorners of property rights."

I'm all for property rights. Did I miss a memo, or am I just a bad liberal?
posted by GreyWingnut at 11:01 AM on March 26, 2003


Shout me down if I'm wrong here, but... this is something I've been thinking about and I would like to hear your opinions.

Back when the American constitution was written, there was nothing like the huge, enormously wealthy, multi-national corporations we have today. This goes for the constitutions of most other countries as well. Does this mean that our consitutions need to be amended? None of them were written with such powerful and wealthy organisations in mind.

What would Locke, Smith, Mill and the other guys have said if they were told about the size and power of today's corporations? Would they have thought that the laws they tried to work out should be applied to multi-national corporations as well?
posted by Termite at 11:47 AM on March 26, 2003


They kinda did, termite.
"We may congratulate ourselves that this cruel war is nearing its end.
It has cost a vast amount of treasure and blood. . . .
It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes
me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war,
corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places
will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong
its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth
is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.

I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety
of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war.
God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless."

- Abraham Lincoln, letter to Col. William F. Elkins, Nov. 21, 1864
I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
- Thomas Jefferson to George Logan, 1816
It's also worth noting that it was around the mid-to-late 19th-century, when Lincoln said the above quote, that corporations were more and more successful and shedding the restrictions many states had placed on corporate charters even prior to the founding of America, including restrictions on corporate lifetime, on scope, and on political activity.
posted by hincandenza at 12:13 PM on March 26, 2003


Hey Termite...your post seems to to imply that "size and power" of today's corporations are inherently evil/wrong/corrupt/bad/etc.

If you believe that to be true, can you explain why...?
posted by davidmsc at 12:16 PM on March 26, 2003


Termite, check out the Dutch East India Company, which predates the US Constitution by almost two centuries. Similarly, the British East India Company, established at about the same time, which was eventually absorbed into the Empire. These are massive examples, but trading companies often exercised at least a quasi-governmental control over their territories -- this was seen in the North America as well, as with the Hudson's Bay Company.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:27 PM on March 26, 2003


The problem is that when the corporations reach a certain degree of power, then they start gaining some of the aspects of government, in particular the ability to restrict the freedom of citizens. Of course, there is no law saying you have to sell your soul to a corporate master, but in some parts of the country, it is very difficult to eat without paying tithe to a non-human entity, and it is, as I'm sure we all know, quite the pain to deal with essentials such as health insurance if you aren't protected by a corporate employer.

Is this inherently bound to happen, given 'big and powerful' corporations? I think so. The corporation is a kind of machine for making money. At some point, the market will be saturated with the corporation's primary focus, and it will be forced to either: A) be happy with what it has, B) start expanding into new fields, or C) start eliminating competition. We see actions B (Pepsi owns Taco Bell) and C (Starbucks, anyone?) on our very streetcorners. And since the corporation is not tied to the decisions of any rational moral being, and is not held accountable for its crimes so long as it is improving the GDP, the corporation has no reason to choose option A. This, in my opinion, is bad, because eventually this system will weave itself into the functions of government (as we see with G_Spiggott's examples, and more recently, the replacement of military research labs with military contractors) and we'll have a country that cares more about the welfare of its businesses than the welfare of its people. I suppose we can now start arguing on whether this point has already passed or not...
posted by kaibutsu at 12:47 PM on March 26, 2003


Davidmsc: It's getting late, so if you don't mind I'll settle for a short answer, although a long answer, by someone who isn't as tired as me, would be better. Power corrupts, they say. A huge, enormously wealthy, powerful corporation is perhaps not inherently bad, but if that power isn't counterbalanced I'd say it is inherently risky. The gap of power between a huge corporation and an ordinary citizen is very big and that arouses my suspicion and distrust.

With this question I also wanted us (and myself) to look at these corporations as someone who had never seen one of them before. We have grown up with them, so they look pretty natural to us. I believe that looking at everyday phenomena from a large distance, from outer space, so to speak, helps us see them sharper, better.

Hincandenza: thanks for the rapid quotes. Spiggott: thanks for reminding me that large corporations are not a thing of the 20th century.
posted by Termite at 12:56 PM on March 26, 2003


I bet those Native Americans who had all their property and land stolen when the U.S. Government exiled them to reservations wish they had heard of this thing called the Constitution. Silly Indians.

Interestingly, the problem of how to legally appropriate land originally occupied by native Indians (who had no concept of ownership) was one that taxed earlier settlers.

The method settled on was the same one used to great success by the earlier conquistadors in South America: formulate a legal agreement, write it down, and get an Indian to sign it. Couldn't read? SELLER BEWARE!

The problem of how to exterminate the now illegally occupying Indians taxed them less.
posted by RichLyon at 1:13 PM on March 26, 2003


P. S.

Another cause for distrust is the extreme shortsightedness that is controlling the actions of those big corporations. You've probably all heard of some corporation that reported a profit of a couple of billions. However, that profit was smaller than the expected profit -> the shares plummet -> shareholders get unhappy -> the company has to do something quickly... What kind of future will we have when all that power and wealth is just planning for a couple of months into the future?
posted by Termite at 1:13 PM on March 26, 2003


riviera: The point being that property starts with a kind of property-over-yourself, and hence you get the concept of 'liberty' And as VeGiTo says, it's pretty elegant, though very much written by the Whig middle-classes for the Whig middle-classes.

Yeah, but you also have to keep in mind the change in meaning over the years of the word 'property'. The Lockean idea of property was much more wide-ranging than than the modern concept of private property -- it included 'civil liberties' as well. It wasn't so much a creation of the 'Whig middle classes' either -- to what extent either Whigs or the middle classes can be said to have existed in c. 1681-3 is a moot point -- but something he inherited from the natural rights tradition via a reading of Pufendorf.

I guess the problem is getting at this historical meaning post Marx, who produced compelling -- but much more narrow and unhistorical -- analyses of property and alien labour, which have subsequently been projected onto Locke, although Locke was talking about something quite different.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:34 PM on March 26, 2003


A question that's always troubled me, one that's unfortunately far from hypothetical: when a multinational corporation commits serious crimes (like, say, mass murder), against people in a foreign country, and does so with the complicity of the local government, under what jurisdiction can the corporation be prosecuted?

It could be argued that it's the responsibility of the local government to enforce law, so the US shouldn't have to prosecute said companies -- that country should do it. But when the corporation is effectively richer and more powerful than the country and has the government in its pocket, does that mean it's good and right that the crime go uninvestigated and unpunished? We have war crimes trials, censure and sanctions that can be laid on countries (which we do unevenly to say the least), but no equivalent for corporations. When a company transcends or evades national laws and there is no meaningful body of international law that applies, what recourse remains?
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:34 PM on March 26, 2003


Another cause for distrust is the extreme shortsightedness that is controlling the actions of those big corporations. You've probably all heard of some corporation that reported a profit of a couple of billions. However, that profit was smaller than the expected profit -> the shares plummet -> shareholders get unhappy -> the company has to do something quickly... What kind of future will we have when all that power and wealth is just planning for a couple of months into the future?

Is this the fault of the company or the fault of the shareholders? I guess both share the blame. If shareholders were patient enough to look long term instead of trying to turn over their shares for a quick profit, and if companies looked long-term instead of trying to make the day-traders happy, people might actually hold on to their stock. I partly blame the booming .com days for a lot of this. All those IPO's from companies with questionable business plans only encouraged people to look short term with their stock holdings.
posted by gyc at 3:28 PM on March 26, 2003


gyc - that's a good point, and it's one of the problems with the notion that corporations only have a responsibility to return a profit to shareholders.

The shareholders (collectively), are like a boss who says 'Just get the job done, I don't want to know about the details'. Individual shareholders don't really feel responsible about unethical things the company might do because they didn't tell the company to dump toxic waste or whatever. The company meanwhile says - "Well, we're in a competitive industry and if we paid to have this waste properly disposed of we wouldn't turn a profit and our shareholders would withdraw their investment. What were we supposed to do?".

Increased government regulation might help on a national level, but if corporations in other countries aren't playing by the same rules, the government can't really restrict corporate activity without damaging the economy. And it's hard to get re-elected if you damage the economy and hurt big business.

It's a bind alright, if anyone has a solution - answers on the back of a postcard please...
posted by backOfYourMind at 6:08 PM on March 26, 2003


Shame on you all for not calling this guy on his convoluted logic. For example:

Civil libertarians have long placed their greatest stress on a sharp difference between "speech" and "action," and the claim that the First Amendment covers only speech and not actions

Excuse me? I think this is something screaming out for explanation. I think a civil libertarian could be expected to aver that actions that violate someone's right to non-interference are not protected by free speech, but that virtually any expressive action is protected by free speech. For example, nobody who counts certain actions among the forms of protected speech would assert that killing someone else constituted protected speech. And if you use your own gun to do it, you're using your own property so that should be okay, right? There's no question as to whether or not one's right to free speech supercedes anyone's right to life, and if you don't believe me, try yelling "Fire" in a crowded movie theater. And for him to suggest that panhandling in a subway is anything like murdering someone is absurd.

Fortunately, this argument was overturned on appeal

Yeah, that is fortunate. You don't know what it's like to be miserable until you've been asked for change on your way to work.

Note the way in which the focus on property rights solves all recondite issues.

Okay, it works in the case of flag burning when the issue is couched in this simple-minded fashion. But does everyone who thinks I should be able to burn my flag in a public square think I should be able to display images of an extremely brutal pornographic nature while I'm at it? Why not, it's my property.

To reduce free-speech issues to issues of property rights is to commit a gross oversimplification. In my view, it's in terms of one's right to non-interference that such issues must be analyzed. You certainly are your own property, as are others their own property, but using your own property in this sense often means damaging someone else's in the case of speech. In order to make sense of this, we need to not only determine what we can expose others to, but also determine what we have a right to not be exposed to except by choice. The "you can do whatever you want with your own stuff" point of view may settle these questions, but its answers are troubling on a lot of issues.
posted by alphanerd at 6:33 PM on March 26, 2003


I'll file this one under "Gross Simplifications of Complex Issues" and call it a night.

Scorners of property rights, indeed. What recondite issues is this guy talking about? The flag burning "debate" is one of the least abstruse in political history. Either you think people should be allowed to burn flags or you don't. How you interpret the vaguely worded First Amendment in that regard says nothing about your definition of "speech" and everything about your attitude vis-a-vis burning flags.

If I thought that any flag burning amendment had a chance of ever passing, I suppose I'd worry about it; but it seems to me that legally it's more or less a dead issue since Texas v. Johnson. For now, anyway...
posted by vraxoin at 8:23 PM on March 26, 2003


saw this thing on reason's hit & run where capitalism.net is giving away mises' socialism for free :D

It's a bind alright, what recourse remains?

the court of public opinion? like i wouldn't underestimate it. "externalities" (that which is not accounted for in contractually oriented society) often go ignored or are improperly measured precisely because they're hard to quantify. it's like someone pees in the public pool enough, eventually people are going to notice (doth protest)... cuz they didn't pay a buck for this experience--swimming in parts per million of pee. they appeal to the lifeguard and, if arbitration is fair, they kick the offending polluter out. externalites are like economic karma, as long as people are keeping track! it's the dream of perfect information...
posted by kliuless at 8:45 PM on March 26, 2003


A friend of mine's .sig (dunno the source):
"I'd rather someone wrap themselves up in the Constitution and burn the flag, than have them wrap themselves up in the flag and burn the Constitution."
posted by notsnot at 10:20 PM on March 26, 2003


Hey Termite...your post seems to to imply that "size and power" of today's corporations are inherently evil/wrong/corrupt/bad/etc.

If you believe that to be true, can you explain why...?


Let me take a stab at this.

Perfect competition is when n o economic actor is large enough to affect the price. In this case, the invisible hand of profit maximization also leads to the greatest social efficiency. Demand equals supply, and price reflects cost. This is the moral case for capitalism, as made by Adam Smith, and many others since.

But when someone, or some company, becomes large enough to affect the price of what he/she/it sells, then they maximize their profits by settin g the price above, and the supply less than, what it would otherwise be. (And for US publicly-held corporations, maximizing profits is a legal obligation.) The imperfect competitor corrals more revenue than they otherwise would, making them that much stronger, able to affect price even more. The rich get richer and the rest of us get screwed.

For more details, consult any elementary economics textbook. Mine is an old (1961) Samuelson, and yes, he does call imperfect competition "evil".
posted by anewc2 at 3:19 AM on March 27, 2003


« Older Life's a Game   |   Get stiffed Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments