Why the Right-Wing's Cherished Idea That Your Liberty Is Your Property Is a Danger to Us All
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
There is a considerable degree of historical irony in the fact that the word "Republican" derives from the Latin res publica— which means the public thing—yet Republicans are privatizing, and thereby eliminating, every public thing they can get their hands on.
From the privatization of public utilities, and public broadcasting (recall Mitt Romney's campaign promise to cut funding for PBS?), to the charter school movement which aims to privatize public schools, to ongoing lobbying efforts to sell off public land to mining and other industries, Republicans (though not just Republicans) and conservatives are determined to convert the public thing—the res publica, or the commons—into a private thing, transforming the public good into fiscalized, private goods.
While it is questionable whether such policies do much aside from further concentrating wealth into ever fewer hands, one of the conservatives' main rationales for pursuing such a path is that privatization of the world leads to greater and greater "liberty." Among the more vocal proponents of this view is the conservative radio host and author Mark R. Levin.
In broadcasts of his popular radio show, and in the pages of his best-selling books, Levin consistently invokes not only the notion that " private property and liberty are inseparable," but that a person's right to live freely and safely is inextricable from his "right to acquire and possess property." In spite of his and others' tireless proclamations, this so-called right to acquire property is more often than not hostile to actual liberty.
Indeed, in many respects the acquisition of property is indistinct from what Levin posits as the very opposite of liberty: tyranny. For, one must recognize the historical and economic fact that, contrary to Levin's and others' contention, property and wealth do not originate merely from one's personal labor and effort (anyone saddled with unforgivable, interest-bearing, student loan debt will be familiar with this). More often than not property derives from the coerced labor of others. Fast-food workers, Walmart employees, and other low wage workers, for example, generally have little choice but to labor for poverty wages, all the while providing billions of dollars in profit to the top 1%.
In addition to being derived from the world of people—from labor, knowledge and culture—property is also extracted from the greater world of nature. And in a finite world, of finite resources, the free—unregulated—extraction of what comes to be designated as "property" generally necessitates depriving others of what exists as a commonly held thing: the res publica , interwoven in complex, interdependent ecological and cultural networks.
Because the disturbance of the res publica 's equilibrium often results in significant harms, interventions must be undertaken with respect and care; that is, beyond laws prohibiting theft, kidnapping and fraud, limitations must be imposed on persons' so-called rights to acquire property. Additionally, because the right to acquire property has historically involved monopolizations of resources which place people in increasingly dependent positions (contrary to the requirements of liberty), the right to acquire property must be limited further. In spite of the fact that such limitations—including, but not limited to, environmental and antitrust laws—protect people from actual harms, and so are vital to liberty, they tend to be anathema to conservatives. What appears to be a contradiction here, however, is reconcilable when one considers the fact that, for conservatives, concepts such as liberty and "distribution of wealth" are usually narrowly, uncritically and self-servingly framed.
While conservatives disparage attempts to regulate the economy in ways that would protect the public, they do not seem at all disturbed by the actual, de facto day-to-day regulation of the economy that occurs as a result of the normal course of things. War, subsidies to businesses, tax breaks—these all regulate the economy, and redistribute wealth, as much as anything else. Though there seems to be no end to the pleasure conservatives derive from proclaiming their disdain for "social engineering," the fact of the matter is that policies that include cutting taxes on the rich, giving away valuable public lands to corporate interests for pennies, subsidizing a gargantuan military industry, and spending public money on private building projects, are social engineering projects as well; it's just the engineering of a far less egalitarian society.