Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Propertied Class is Way Bigger than you Think

In The Guardian (July 19, 2017), George Monbiot describes the impact of James McGill Buchanan, who has helped orchestrate a program to enable the political supremacy of the wealthy. Monbiot describes the roots of Buchanan's philosophy:
Buchanan was strongly influenced by both the neoliberalism of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, and the property supremacism of John C Calhoun, who argued in the first half of the 19th century that freedom consists of the absolute right to use your property (including your slaves) however you may wish; any institution that impinges on this right is an agent of oppression, exploiting men of property on behalf of the undeserving masses.
James Buchanan brought these influences together to create what he called public choice theory. He argued that a society could not be considered free unless every citizen has the right to veto its decisions. What he meant by this was that no one should be taxed against their will. But the rich were being exploited by people who use their votes to demand money that others have earned, through involuntary taxes to support public spending and welfare. Allowing workers to form trade unions and imposing graduated income taxes were forms of “differential or discriminatory legislation” against the owners of capital.
Any clash between “freedom” (allowing the rich to do as they wish) and democracy should be resolved in favour of freedom. 
But these ideas aren't simply likely to appeal to the wealthy. They have appeal for anyone who owns property. In fact, they are more likely to appeal to people with little property, because any impact on their property rights is more keenly felt than would be the case for a large property owner. Tell Ted Turner he can't do something on his land and he'll just go somewhere else. Tell a farmer or small rancher the same thing and it may cripple his operations. The answer to the question, "what could ordinary homeowners possibly have in common with the 1% is simple; they both own property. So just how many people in the U.S. own property?

There's a word for these people: "bourgeoisie." Used nowadays in a manner roughly synonymous with "middle class," but the original French sense of including the middle and upper classes is actually more accurate because property owners tend to have values and interests in common. In those days the middle and upper classes were far smaller than the lower class. The bourgeoisie are held in deep contempt by Marxists, who see them as hogging all the resources and means of production, and by intellectuals, who see them as having tastes that are, well, bourgeois. (Or "philistine," a term that reveals the user's historical ignorance, since the Philistines were actually a lot more culturally advanced than the Israelites.) In Russia, many of them were kulaks, affluent peasants who were often summarily imprisoned or executed by the Bolsheviks. Because you can't become affluent if everyone is being oppressed, can you? Causes bad cognitive dissonance.

Understanding the notion of "bourgeoisie" goes a very long way toward answering the pesky question why so many less affluent voters "vote against their best interests." To many of them, preserving their property rights are their "best interests." Once people own property, however modest, they stop identifying with the proletariat and identify with other property owners. In fact, their allegiance is likely to be all the stronger simply because their foothold in the propertied class is so precarious.

So why don't they unite against the "real" enemy, the wealthy who pay skimpy wages? Because the wealthy are not direct threats. The actions of the wealthy might cause them to lose their property, but indirectly. A factory might close, jobs might be eliminated, but only rarely do the wealthy confiscate property directly. All the direct attacks on property rights come from the government. If a business takes a piece of property to expand a factory, the taking will be done by the government, not by the business. If a law is passed that undercuts property rights, it will be the government that does it. All the most direct threats to bourgeois property rights come from the government, frequently in the name of "social justice."

How Big is America's Propertied Class?

It is extremely difficult to find out just how many properties exist in the United States. In addition to individually owned properties, there are jointly owned properties, and corporate properties. The closest thing to an answer is the Census Bureau's tally of 75 million homeowners. Homes exclude factories, shopping malls, apartment buildings, warehouses, and restaurants. On the other hand, it is probably safe to assume that people who own those properties, or major interests in them, also own their own homes. Farms and ranches are likely to include homesteads as well. So people who own large properties are likely to be homeowners as well, and of course many people own homes but no other properties. For the purposes of estimating how many people identify with propertied interests, Archie Bunker's tiny lot in Queens counts just as much as Ted Turner, who owns 2 million acres, So that figure of 75 million is probably a decent first approximation.

The problem with low wages is that they amount to taking the only economic means of production an individual owns - his time - and failing to pay enough in return to buy the necessities of life. But there is a similar problem with liberal policies. These amount to seizing control of the only wealth that many people have - their property. Liberal restrictions on property rights limit the ability of property owners to use their property to maximum advantage, shunt the risks and costs of social policies (for example, providing handicapped access) onto property owners, endanger the future ability of property owners to get the best return on the sale of their property, and effectively, through property taxes, charge people rent for their own property. So when we ask why so many people "vote against their best interests," that question concentrates on issues like wages and benefits, but neglects attacks on their property. Fundamentally, it's an elitist question because it assumes that people don't know their own best interests.

An urban or suburban homeowner faces things like zoning restrictions, neighbor problems, and possible sanctions for not renting rooms equitably, but the real impact on property rights shows up in those sparsely populated flyover states that show up as bright red on electoral maps. Property owners may be a mile or more apart, but can find themselves in deep legal trouble if they build over a slushy patch of ground ("wetland") or disturb an endangered animal or plant. Their ability to control pests or harvest timber is limited. Not surprisingly, there is strong sympathy in many of these areas for a strong interpretation of the Fifth Amendment's requirement that the Government compensate property owners for property "taken" for public use.

If you tell Ted Turner he can't do something on a part of his land, he might just shrug and go someplace else. If he does decide to push back, he'll farm the task out to his attorneys and pay the bills out of petty cash. If you make the same demand on a small farmer or rancher, the impact on his property rights is far greater and his financial ability to fight back is far less. Opponents of a strong "takings" interpretation point out that such an interpretation was never held by the courts. That may be true, but it misses the point that, had any of today's restrictions on property rights been enacted and challenged in the 19th century, they'd have been thrown out of court without a second glance as violations of state sovereignty.

To the small suburban or urban property owner, one danger stands out above all others: crime. All  the Marxist fever dreams of uniting the marginalized under one grand proletarian red banner crash headlong into the simple fact that many of the most direct threats to property security for small property owners come from sociopathic individuals. As long as liberals insist on defending criminals as "oppressed" or "disadvantaged," they will be class enemies of property owners, and it won't matter how appealing their platform of health care or family leave is.

Well then, who will speak for criminals? How about nobody?


George Monbiot; A despot in disguise: one man’s mission to rip up democracy, The Guardian (July 19, 2017).