Property-Based Ethics

A while ago, when I was writing about Christian legal realism, I pointed out that one of the problems with the veneration of private property rights is that they play such an integral role in the liberal (classical liberal, not libruls) conception of the individual that they wind up forming the basis of most liberal ethics. The problem with this, I argued, is that property rights do not actually occupy a huge center of moral concern in Christianity, and therefore societies that do construe property rights as central will conflict with Christian views of the person and ownership.

At the time, some Christo-sphere person, I can’t remember who, made some kind of sneery remark about not being able to imagine what “property-based ethics” could even mean. And I didn’t follow up on it because I had a hard time thinking of something systematic; these things can express themselves in strange ways. But now we have an example on hand.

Since it was announced that Michael Brown’s murder will earn no response from the justice system, there have been protests/riots. In the course of those protests/riots, which, mind you — are enacting the response the justice system totally refused to — there has been property damage and looting. People are very upset about this property damage.

It’s time to hold protestors accountable, says the Daily Beast. Make those protestors pay for property damages, says Fox News. Why can’t you just protest like Martin Luther King Jr., all non-threatening and respectful of my property rights, wonders USA Today. In fact, many calls for protestors to pipe down and be nice have been filed under a bizarre comparison to MLK, whose robust democratic socialism seems to have been whitewashed from American memory. He was a bigger threat to your total proprietary dominion than many seem to think.

But dead men loot no stores. In that way, they’re exceedingly appealing subjects for a culture that bases itself in the primacy of ownership. This is why the foot-stamping that protestors should be more like ghosts, and why the fact that Michael Brown (and now Eric Garner) aren’t really a big concern compared to looting and destroying property. For states based in an ethic of ownership — wherein every ethical premise is phrased in terms of ownership (“I own my body”, “My body, my property”, “I own my life”, etc.) — establishing the security of ownership is key. Because the liberal mind (John Locke being a good example) imagines ownership to begin with one’s self-ownership which is then applied to other objects, the security of property ownership is conflated with the security of self-ownership. If your property isn’t secure, therefore, you are not secure in your own self-possession: the borders of your self become porous, others can get in, and you no longer feel like the isolated, atomistic, wholly autonomous subject for domination that the liberal imaginary suggests. How to secure such a tightly controlled system of private ownership?

Policing. And you shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the stories being adduced to parse Brown and Garner’s deaths have to do with proprietary infractions: the cigarillos Mike Brown stole are the impetus for his pursuit, and high taxes have been cited as the root of Garner’s killing. These narratives make the turns of events look coherent and necessary because they ground them in ownership and its vagaries, where police must intervene to regulate and secure, come what may. They foreclose the question of whether or not property is worth killing over: it isn’t relevant; this is just what police do.

The intense distress over looting and property destruction follow in this same vein. Sure, yes, people are being killed by police without any recourse or redress, but the real disorder arises when property comes into question. A system of ethics based in property ownership can survive if human life is not much respected (see: slavery, where human lives become property), but it is much harder to maintain when property itself is not taken very seriously. So the more immediate, visceral problem for people who benefit from the veneration of ownership really is the looting, the theft of cigarillos, the imposition of taxes, the burning of cars. They’re not mistaken about their interests.

But they are very severely mistaken about where property belongs in the matrix of human values. Property, rightly construed, can have a salutary social function. But this is only when ownership is premised upon the prior meeting of everyone’s needs. It is also only feasible when property itself, as an institution, is viewed as a means to justice and a tool for serving humankind. These formulations are typical of the Patristics, from Ambrose to Augustine to Chrysostom. They live on in Christian discourses which aim to reestablish property as an institution with a social function, rather than view ownership as a virtue in and of itself, equal to the other goods in the world — such as human life. Unless we can slice back through so many layers of proprietary philosophy and readings of the person, we’re stuck with the police regimes that prop up vicious but fragile systems of property-based ethics.