Created by the I for the I

February 2013

Property rights represent the nub of the perennial dispute between the Left and the Right in economics, between socialists and capitalists, champions of the state and defenders of the market. For this reason, we need to go carefully on this matter.

For the most part, property rights are celebrated or criticised because they link ownership to the person. But in a picture of evolution in which humanity is gradually individuated (to use a term from Jung), history tells the story of the individuating I of the human being, every human being, as this element comes to the fore. This is a universal element, something we all have in common, a name that refers to every one of us but that no one can use to refer to another.

Property rights are a vehicle to link the I concretely to the earth, to the means of production. The trick is not to touch the earth too closely. Moreover, when the I, not the person, enjoys property rights it does not abuse the rights of others or think only of itself. Quite the opposite.

A nod to Goethe

If one assumes that history is driven by the evolution of consciousness in this way – itself an expression of the I of the human being emancipating itself from the gods – it is this that gives rise both to both democracy (so that the I can speak) and to capital economy (so that the I can serve). Democracy and capital economy (not capitalism!) are the very ground the I creates for itself. With a nod to Goethe, who said the eye is created by the light for the light, democracy and capital economy are created by the I for the I.

But if this goes awry, it is this also that results in the I becoming too linked to the material plane, a metaphor for becoming too self-concerned. Hence modern economics beginning with Adam Smith, who wrote at a point in history when through the Enlightenment the I indeed became connected too deeply with the earth.

If the I can express its concern for humanity as a whole properly, which relies on the understanding of property rights formulated here, then individualism will lessen in favour of altruism and we will again produce for needs and not in order merely to increase our investment. Image and event are in fact very simple. Market economics (more precisely the economics of self-interest) flows, as thought, as policy and as institution, from the I clutching the earth rather than kissing it, as it were. When it kisses the earth and does not get caught by it, then narrow egoism expands to include the entire human family. Then the substance of associative economics flows instead, and with equal ease as regards thought, policy and institution.

Responsible for the earth

Property rights come about as the I comes to earth so that it can be given a piece of earth to become responsible for. One should never forget that true freedom comes with responsibility. But for this, the I needs to have exclusive right of use (ownership) of ‘its’ assets in order to serve. We cannot both dig with the one spade. While I need to use it, it is 'mine'. That does not mean that it belongs to me absolutely, but it does mean that it has to be entrusted to me.

In a monetised economy this is what is behind capital or credit, access to which enables me to access the means of production I deem necessary for whatever it is I am going to do. Those on the Right believe property rights should not be touched because they have a deep, if ill-articulated sense for this – only they allow the I to touch the earth too closely, so the asset becomes linked to the personality rather than the individuality. Those on the Left, believing that assets should not belong to individuals, bemoan property rights. They would locate these in the state or in the community or in some other abstraction, such as the commons.

A means to serve

But if the I is behind property rights, it would never use 'its' assets other than as they are by their nature intended, as a means of serving others. Indeed, if one uses one’s own assets for oneself, this will not in the end even work in strict accounting terms, witness so many people thinking that equity is an asset when in fact it is a liability. All accounting is taught with the unintended untruth that Assets = Liabilities + Equity, as if Equity were not a liability. In fact, Assets = Liabilities = Debt + Equity, and it is only egoism that makes a liability look like an asset. Or, to put the matter more kindly, that takes the point of view of the one who has bought shares or bonds, not the point of view of the one who has issued them.

But we will never understand these things from outside. The whole thing comes clear only if one stands in one's I. Then we will not fight over whether property rights should exist or not, but we will see the next step in their evolution. Then, too, we will understand the importance of the circulation of capital, and that inheritance, for example, can be a red herring. What matters is that capital, the means of production, is in the hands of competent individuals. Then, too, we will set about building our understanding of economic life, as also the economic life itself, on using property rights to match everyone’s capacities to the means of production that those capacities imply, and vice versa.

But to deny property rights, or to make them sacrosanct as such, or to transfer then to the state – all these things deny the I the very medium of its economic existence. And so they deny the I itself or at least corrupt its true nature and purpose as regards economic life – to be a bridge for others to walk on.