When I first read in a Soviet history book of Proudhon’s famous dictum that property is theft, I thought there had been a mistake in the typesetting. Obviously, the author had meant to say that property was not theft, but the proofreader goofed, making an interesting and valid observation into a gross and vulgar absurdity. With the passing of years, however, I realized that there had been no mistake, and that the gross and vulgar absurdity may well have been the first in a series of utterances that heralded the advent of the 20th century and typified its thinking.
Property may be theft, but it is less theft than a great many other things—clouds, birdsong, or a woman’s beauty, to say nothing of taxation without representation, armed robbery, or extortion with menaces. Among the salient characteristics of 20th-century thinking were the rationalization of paradox and the domestication of metaphor, with the final result that, where previously the Sabines had been kidnapped or raped by bearded Romans, now women were being kidnapped or raped by aliens from outer space, the war in Vietnam, the military-industrial complex, and by all the other lemurs that an imagination enfeebled by television was capable of engendering. Housewifely fantasy outstripped ancient myth, and was neither conscious nor ashamed of such intellectual deportment.
“Evidence is whatever convinces,” said Cicero. Fair enough, but his maxim presupposes the existence of a judicial proceeding. The notions that property is theft, or that the military-industrial complex is guilty of rape, by contrast, were never meant to withstand examination by a tribunal, preferably a jury made up of the peers of the accused—in this case, property owners or arms manufacturers. They were directed at an audience of individuals who were, behaviorally if not vocationally, thieves, and who regarded the notions at issue as a useful excuse and an attractive opportunity. In one country, Russia, this small minority was even able to seize power and wield it with some geopolitical success to the present day.
The new trick of making one’s case to an interested audience, rather than before a disinterested tribunal—such as the nation—became possible once the body politic of democracy began to lose its constitutional moorings, breaking up into a multitude of distinct interest groups. These were now supposed to balance each other out, preventing one or several from dominating the rest. Yet an interest group of thieves, or of spongers, or of conspirators, is likely to be more aggressive in the prosecution of its interest than a group of milkmaids, lepidopterists, and perhaps even businessmen, including those who sell or manufacture munitions. Laziness is a unifying principle among men that is at least as compelling in its effects as greed, with which, incidentally, it effortlessly combines. I say this as a lazy man, one who happens to be too lazy to apply for the social benefits to which, thanks to a century of mooching on the part of the relatively less lazy majority of his fellow men, he is in all likelihood entitled.
The trick is not indigenous to the subject matter of economics and politics. Earlier I mentioned a woman’s beauty as the closer synonym of theft than property, and now I return to that image. I would argue that when a manufacturer of, say, lipstick, targets the gullible with promises of Miltonic paradise or, on the contrary, of Baudelairean hell—Rouge d’Enfer was the name of the world’s first tube-encased lipstick, rather tactlessly put on the market by Guerlain just as World War I was ending—he performs essentially the same trick as that of Proudhon or Marx.
In the past, like name, estate, rank, title, and all the other entitlements and hereditaments whose sum made the individual what he was, beauty was an inalienable quality of his or her identity, forming an immutable part of the diverse and complex hierarchies of which social life was wrought. A woman could be ugly and known to be ugly, but good and known to be good—or else clever, or rich, or nobly born, or enviably fertile. Today, a democracy that has lost its moorings suggests to the individual that, on the contrary, none of his or her inherent qualities—in the present case, beauty—is immutable or subjacent to a hierarchy of other values, some of which in reality may well prove to be of far greater moment in that individual’s pursuit of happiness. Every human attribute, in the unambiguously interested view of one interest group or another, is freestanding, mutable, and capable of improvement. A woman’s beauty may be redacted by Dr. Frank Ryan, for instance, intelligence by education, particularly at the colleges of the Ivy League, wealth or poverty by Lehman Brothers, manners by Hollywood, and lowly birth by Capitol Hill.
If beauty, intelligence, or goodness are not in God’s gift, and hence open to whatever alleged melioration an interest group within society deems profitable, is it any wonder that the notion of property—in truth, if hairs are to be split, perhaps the less innate of an individual’s hereditaments—has lost its inalienable and inviolable connotations? Is it surprising that the proverbial silver spoon got stuck in the throat of a civilization bent on denying the undeniable in the interest of a myriad interest groups competing for audience share? Is it really inexplicable that taxation without representation—once the rallying cry of a nation—is today but a damp squib in a whole warehouse of similarly damaged petards?
Let me restate my case. Once in the world there existed the concept of inalienable properties, or features, such as the length of a nose, the color of eyes, an hereditary title, or a hunting estate in the Black Forest. Or the concept of property in general, upon the immutability of which political economists—Adam Smith, for instance—relied in their writings as they came up with novel ways of rationalizing it. Then Marx came along and explained that all economic property was but a figment of class imagination, that the mirage could be wished away in a blinking of an eye, that just as feudal landlords’ idea of property has been supplanted by the mill owners’ or the bankers’, so, too, will this more progressive idea vanish with them once progress has razed their satanic mills and banks to the ground.
And now some people turn round and say no to progress. They protest that a woman is beautiful by virtue of what they imagine to be her innate properties, like the fashionable tint of lipstick she uses, and her immutable features, like the smell of peroxide in her hair, without once stopping to reflect that progress is another name for inexorable, escalating, eventually totalitarian alienation. Indeed, that the woman in question exists in their imagination as tenuously as private property existed in the world pictured by Marx.
I tell such people that they are playing at Lego. They are playing at it just like the feudal landowners and the commercial bankers of yesteryear, picking some building blocks of reality to breathe life into and rejecting others as being off-limits, taboo, and against nature. In the end, they will end up like their predecessors, swept away by the rising tide of totalitarian consciousness, which is quite immune to all manner of scruple and will crush a child underfoot as easily as it crushes the child’s toy.
God’s world was not made in parts, for man to pick and choose. The notion of private property is but a tiny fragment of that intricate hierarchy of Creation, which the greedy villains and irresponsible babblers from Marx to Marcuse finally managed to set on its ear in the 20th century.