The troubles of youth have long been a staple of popular fiction. In 19th-century fiction, wellborn young men borrowed against their future inheritance in order to pay for the wine, women, and song that red-blooded young men have always pursued. In the mid-20th century, readers were titillated by tales of urban ethnic kids—Irish, Jewish, black—whose feelings of anomie led them into a life of senseless violence and amoral hedonism. The 1960’s gave us the confused, squirrelly teens, who did not know how to become men—dorky kids such as Holden Caulfield or the manifestly homosexual Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. The “confused teen” has remained the primary role for adolescent males—on or off drugs and with or without criminal records—but, compared with today’s instant-messaging kids, Sal Mineo was a paragon of machismo.
I think of my own happy childhood so long ago in the 1950’s—the endless days, stretching one into another, we spent in the woods or fishing or playing unorganized baseball: We boycotted Little League and all its pomps because it was too much like school, where self-important grown-ups tried to act as parents without accepting any of the responsibility. I realize, now, that my childhood in the wilds of Wisconsin and my adolescence in South Carolina were not typical experiences, but even suburban kids in those days had some longing for independence. When they arrived at college, their heads addled with the poisons of government schooling, they were ready to make trouble and sing silly songs about a revolution that few of them, fortunately, had the nerve to undertake. Still, they had their dreams. Today’s kids, so far from being rebels, are complete conformists, with or without a cause.
I first began noticing the drift into dependency during the Reagan years, when college students, eager to be on the winning team, flocked to the Young Republicans and to conservative organizations on campus. This was widely interpreted as a manifestation of rebellious youth turning against leftist faculty, and perhaps there was, in some cases, an element of rebelliousness; but most of the conservative students I met or taught were doomed to grow into dittoheads—a term that is used in all sincerity to mean “Don’t worry: I checked my brain at the door.” I remember my astonishment, in the 1980’s, meeting college students who were already talking about which corporations offered the best retirement plans. At that age, I did not imagine I would live to see 25—and the way I was living more than justified such skepticism. Girls and Greek poetry were my principal inspirations, and Greek still brings pleasure. When a young male is thinking about retirement at the age of 20, he has already given up all hope of ever becoming a man.
I cannot help thinking that the pathetic dependency of conformist American youth has something to do with the fact that the United States is as much a socialist state as, say, Sweden or Great Britain. Yes, it is true that some semblance of the free market survives in third-hand strip malls occupied by lawn-mower-repair businesses and ethnic family restaurants. But everyone knows that the real economic action, even on Main Street USA, is in the corporate chains whose lobbyists in the state and national capitals ensure most-favored status for Wal-Mart and Wendy’s, at the expense of Bob’s Hardware and Mom’s Diner.
“We are all socialists now,” as Sir William Harcourt observed over a century ago, and nothing has so contributed to the socialist mentality of modern life as the disappearance of private property, not only as reality but even as an ideal. American mobility, combined with the frenetic hallucination that “ending is better than mending,” has detached Americans, in particular, from local roots. These days, a home is not the place in which your father was born or your grandfather died; homes are sold by the dozens by realtors who are ever eager to help you move up. If a “home” is nothing more than an investment, it is hard to blame the politicians for thinking they could turn your house and lot into a more socially productive investment by selling it to developers.
The socialist approach to private property was summed up in Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s repeated declaration, “La propriété, c’est le vol!” (“Property is theft!”) The formula was bold enough to elicit praise from Karl Marx, who ordinarily saw merit in mankind only when he was looking into a mirror. However, as Proudhon himself declares in the first chapter of What is Property? (1840), he was no revolutionary firebrand. In today’s terms, he would probably be described as a libertarian—that is, someone who emphasized individual liberty at the expense of the social and moral preconditions that make liberty possible. Proudhon, naively taking it as given that equality is the prerequisite for justice, thought it self-evident that any system of property that produced inequalities could not be just. Like many another earnest crackpot, he believed that he had rediscovered one of Christ’s central moral truths that had been obscured by thousands of years of Christianity.
As a libertarian anarchist, Proudhon accepts the liberal premise that the rule of man over man is fundamentally unjust. From there, it is no great difficulty to show that private-property rights are the source of this injustice. However, crackpots—or, if we wish to be polite, “idealists”—have their uses. Most political theorists, no matter how utopian, believe themselves sober pragmatists who have to make compromises with an ugly reality that divides the world not into left and right but between unscrupulous liberals and unbelieving conservatives. Crackpots and idealists may be almost always wrong, but when they are right (if only by accident), they do not instinctively flinch from the truth. Proudhon’s remarks on the injustice of taxation, for example, have the ring of a truth played on a cracked set of chimes.
Why, he asks, should the rich receive greater protection than the poor? (Why, he might have added, do politicians in a democracy enjoy the protection of tax-supported bodyguards?) On the other hand, why should some people pay at higher rates than others?
The State, through the proportional tax, becomes the chief of robbers; the State sets the example of systematic pillage: the State should be brought to the bar of justice at the head of those hideous brigands, that execrable mob which it now kills from motives of professional jealousy.
Liberty and equality, so he believed, are natural rights, being indispensable to human existence, but property cannot be a natural right, because it exists outside society and was invented, as natural-rights philosophers agree, when men found the communism of primitive society inconvenient. There is thus no absolute property right that is independent of the needs of society, and what society needs is for land to be worked and made productive. It is labor that makes property valuable, not a piece of paper or a legal fiction. Unused land is not an authentic form of property, and income derived from rents and money-lending is illegitimate.
Despite Proudhon’s radical rhetoric, he was not really an enemy of property rights as they are understood today. There is even something decent and patriotic in his sense of the common good of the French. He broke both with Marxist socialists on the question of property and with Bakunin as well as Marx on the question of violent revolution. For Marx and Engels, private property—along with political power and patriarchy—were the inventions of oppressors, and no reform was possible. Eventually, all of these had to be destroyed. For Proudhon, possession, so long as it is understood to be contingent on society (and, thus, the state), can fulfill a useful, even indispensable function. What he rejected was any notion of prescription—that is, of property rights stretching back into the mists of “time immemorial.”
For nearly a century, the temporary successes of communist revolutions gave some color to the socialist belief that Marx had got the better of Proudhon. But while Marx was little better than a pettifogging liar building a movement (and never forget that all movements are based fundamentally on lies), Proudhon loved France and saw further than a deracinated intellectual such as Marx could ever see. Marx’s denial of property could never form a society of men, especially since those men had to be leftist hacks who seek comfort through conformity, chanting slogans as Young Communists or Young Republicans, and joining parties, when they are adults, in the expectation of a steady job and a solid pension. Milovan Djilas, more ambitious than most communists, was disgusted by the bourgeois moneygrubbing of his fellow party members, and he delivered the eulogy, some 50 years ago, on the Marxists’ claim to destroy property: Communists eliminate, Djilas wrote from experience, all forms of property but their own.
As the Western “democratic” form of socialism continues to triumph over Marxism, it seems clear that it was Proudhon who was the prophet. Today in America, prescriptive rights mean next to nothing, so long as greedy and corrupt local politicians can think of a way of selling your property to a developer who will promote economic “development.”
Few Americans have actually inherited their property from distant ancestors, and our possession is triply contingent on the state. I have already mentioned the right of every level of American government to take property in the public interest. This power is inalienable, according to current legal opinion, because eminent domain is the last vestige of sovereignty retained by the 50 states, which may not and, in fact, cannot legislate such power away. (Someone should explain this legal fact of life to the lawyers drafting legislation to restrict eminent domain, though I have the sneaking suspicion that most of them already know the truth.) Anyone who expects justice or even mercy from politicians, whether in state legislatures or the U.S. Congress, cannot have studied the beast. Not intelligent enough to be a lion or kind enough to be a shark, the true politician is, at best, an amoeba, seeking constantly to grow in substance while poisoning the host that he infests. To surrender any power, including the power to steal, would be to contradict his entire raison d’etre.
The abuse of eminent domain is only a minor symptom of a much deeper malaise. Our rights of possession are contingent on the power of government at every level to tax property and, if taxes are not paid within a specified period of time, to confiscate it and sell it to the highest bidder. For most of us, this power does not represent an imminent danger, but it is symbolic of our dependency on government.
When property owners do fall behind in their tax payments, they may be trapped by one of the punitive amnesty programs recently enacted in many states. Illinois, so often the pioneer in immoral and unconstitutional legislation, led the way with an unfair and unconstitutional act in 2003, which puts 200-percent interest on penalties for delinquents who do not sign up. Owners who do sign up are required to waive their right to any possible refund.
Even seemingly benign government programs may encourage dependency. In the bad old days before the New Deal, most American families lived either in homes they owned outright or in houses they rented. The mortgage, as it existed then, was typically a short-term loan on property owned by the borrower. In some cases, the borrower had to pay a balloon payment at the end; in others, he paid only the interest and was trapped by debt. In 1932, the New Deal Congress established the Federal Home Loan Bank System, which provided government support for financial institutions that offered amortized loans to home buyers.
On the face of it, a system of home mortgages, which converts rootless workers into solid citizens, seems like one of the few good things the New Deal accomplished, but it has had less benign effects. In the old days, owning a home was an almost metaphysical condition. Men who actually owned their houses did not think about trading them up—any more than they would have thought of trading up their wives or children. They were rooted in one place from which no one could dislodge them. If they did not have enough money to purchase a house, they waited and saved. Many, of course, never saved enough money even to dream of owning their own place, but, then, how were they worse off than home “owners” today, who pay ten years on house after house that they never really own?
I still own nothing outright here,
is not ours, in hock to the am-
of banks, insurance, federal offic-
es . . .
And, to cap it all, many current mortgages have all the disadvantages of the pre-New Deal system. Upwardly mobile corporate slaves are buying “homes” with little or no money down in the expectation that the real-estate market will continue to bubble without bursting. When the market turns against them, they lose everything.
Whatever they may earn, working stiffs who depend for their very existence on government agencies and corporations larger than most nation-states are a far cry from the confident and assured citizens of the old America. The old Americans were men and women few government lackeys wished to provoke. Today, we seem to live at the behest of powerful and impersonal forces. At best, we are their loyal (and timid) retainers.
Is this result—the weakening of our character—intentional? I do not know, but the motives of politicians are always suspect. The most successful lie put forth by neoconservatives is the so-called law of unintended consequences, which would have us believe that the architects of centralized state education, the New Deal, and the Great Society did not realize that the consequence of taking control of schooling might be to transfer authority from families and communities to state and federal bureaucracies, and they never imagined that, in paying people to do nothing, they would not only discourage the necessary habits of work and thrift but undermine the self-reliance and initiative that supposedly characterized the true American. This same political class, we are called upon to believe, had absolutely no idea that the 1965 Immigration Act would dramatically alter the ethnic composition of the United States or that flooding the Horn of Africa with weapons would lead to war. Credat Apella iudaeus!
Socialism marches on, and, in its progress, it attracts more and more dedicated capitalists and free-enterprise capitalists to the cause. Planned obsolescence in appliances is good, argues one libertarian con man, because we should always be buying the new and improved model. The same argument applies to houses, wives, families, and communities. We are all caught up in Progress Fever, like the Gold Fever that sent so many foolish men to die, far away from all they loved, in California or Montana.
Economic liberty and free enterprise can be maintained only by a certain kind of human character that is created and nourished under certain specific social and cultural conditions. A farmer who farms his own land and defends it with his gun, who supervises the schooling of his children and sits on his church’s vestry, is a far cry from a deracinated consumer who switches houses every five years and pays other people to protect him. The consumer may make and spend far more money, but he does not have a clue as to the meaning of the term economic liberty, and, when times are hard, he will cry like a stuck pig for government to reach out its ever-extending arms to save him from the consequences of his cowardice and greed.