Why the Right-Wing's Cherished Idea That Your Liberty Is Your Property Is a Danger to Us All
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.
While conservatives tend to find the idea of redistributing wealth and property to be generally repugnant, they rarely find anything problematic with the manner in which wealth is distributed in the first place. The narrowness of the aperture through which they view history not only allows them to confuse the historical for the natural, it allows them to turn a blind eye to huge swaths of reality as well.
Though this process of privatization did not everywhere proceed in the same manner, it nevertheless occurred (and continues to occur) throughout the world, with as many variations as there are cultural distinctions. For instance, while the Cherokee people of the southeastern US owned their land in common, working as much of the land as they liked so long as such use did not infringe on others' interests, this way of life came into conflict with US territorial expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries. Initially encouraged to privatize their land, so they would in turn sell it to white planters who wanted the land to grow cotton (to be picked by slaves kidnapped from Africa), the Cherokee nation refused. While their sovereignty was respected so long as the US feared the Cherokee's military might, by the time of the Jackson administration US military strength was sufficient to force the Cherokee nation to the will of the US. When the Cherokees refused to sell their land, they were "ethnically cleansed" - i.e. the Cherokee people were forcefully removed to present-day Oklahoma on the infamous Trail of Tears; the land (the res publica) was privatized, and remains so to this day.
All of this is to say that—contrary to the claims of apologists of the status quo—a present-day redistribution of the world's wealth is not merely a question of distributive justice (of dividing society's wealth equitably among its members); the redistribution of society's wealth is required in order to correct a monumentally unjust enrichment. Justice requires ensuring not only that the people of the world receive those resources necessary for human flourishing; it also requires dispersing murderously obtained concentrations of wealth, restoring the people of the world to an approximation of their pre-wronged position. In other words, redistributions of wealth ought to be regarded more as restitution, or reparations for past harms, than as charitable or otherwise generous acts.
This leads to an important point. While conservatives, among others, may be concerned with tyranny, and with the potentially tyrannical power of the state, one must not overlook the fact that the state is hardly the only power actually tyrannizing the people of the world. Insofar as it regulates and determines nearly every aspect of our collective lives—in concert with the enforcement powers of the state—the so-called business community is just as tyrannical. Yet while the very real dangers posed by the state are often exaggerated to the point of absurdity by conservatives (e.g., fear of fictitious death panels, and fear of environmentalism, among other things), the regular, concrete harms and dangers posed by businesses tend to be overlooked entirely. A telling instance of this stilted view is visible in the unequal attention paid to the recent Boston Marathon and West, Texas explosions.
It is not simply the case that conservatives' efforts to protect national security (which for all intents and purposes means little more than the securitization of the profits and privileges of the rich) tend to entail sacrificing (privatizing) every vestige of "social security" - i.e., the well-being of everyone else; insofar as social security in its broad sense involves protecting the res publica, "social security" presents a positive obstacle to conservatives' privatizing agenda.
Though conservatives such as Mark R. Levin portray the expansion of the administrative state inaugurated in the early 20th century, and culminating in the New Deal and the Great Society, as the birth of a great tyrannical state, the facts are not so simplistic.
Though both progressives and conservatives recognize that the present arrangement of society does not come close to satisfying people's actual human needs, their respective faith in the so-called free market (that is, their respective fantasy worlds) prevent them from engaging in meaningful political-economic change. For their part, progressives tend to insist that things will eventually work out if we keep progressing into the future—that is, that the market, in spite of all of the evidence, will rectify things if we keep marching forward out of the political-economic storm.
To protect the res publica (the general welfare, the commons) we must not only recognize that its natural aspects, such as water and the natural environment, must be protected; we must also recognize that its cultural aspects—including our educational systems, our libraries, our public utilities, public hospitals, and other resources—must be preserved and expanded as well. In order to preserve and restore the res publica, those resources we rely upon for our collective well-being, like healthcare and vital natural resources, must be removed and protected from the degrading world of commerce entirely. Contrary to those who insist that liberty is inseparable from the right to acquire property, we must recognize that what is necessary for our collective well-being should not be for sale at all. And insofar as society owes a duty of care to its people—a duty to protect people from known harms—it is in breach of this duty to the extent that it fails to remove the res publica from the harmful effects of capital, and fails to restore the cultural and natural wealth of the world—the res publica—to the people of the world.