Thanksgiving & Private Property



On Thanksgiving, libertarians like to tell the lesser-known story of the early Pilgrims, their initial communism, their early famine, and their physical salvation through the institution of private property. It’s not the version we were taught in elementary school (government- or private school), nor on television, nor in children’s books, but you can read about it here, here, and here.

A year or so ago, a left-leaning anarchist lady — a lawyer if I recall properly — came across BlackCrayon.com and wrote to disagree with my philosophical individualism. My reply became one of the essays at BlackCrayon. I quote only this excerpt:

I look to the American Indians, who couldn’t understand the idea of “ownership” of the land.

I think you need to do more research on Indians and property. I think all us 30-somethings grew up hearing this claim, but I don’t think it turns out to be true. I’m crossing over briefly into economics here, but before doing the research, I would guess that the Indians treated land that was relatively abundant as unowned (as we still treat most of the ocean) and that they would treat any resources they perceived with more relative scarcity — including certain types of land — as private property (the way we treat much of the beach). Having made that prediction, I then did some very quick, very rudimentary research, and found indications that that prediction is correct. Different tribes had different amounts of private property, very much connected with their relative perceptions of abundance and scarcity of various resources. I’m not denying that many Indian tribes were collectivist. I simply don’t know. But I am denying that they couldn’t understand the idea of “ownership” of land.

(By the way, the first European settlers did not have private property. Their farms were communal and they almost starved to death. When the governor declared (or perhaps recognized) the settlers’ rights to private property, and the product of their labor, the famines vanished. I don’t know how this compares with the experience of the Indians nearby and on similar land, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that individuals claimed the right to the product of their labor.)

But I’ve drifted over into economics, and I want to focus on ethics. From an ethical/philosophical perspective I would judge the Indians the same way I judge anyone: who was acknowledged to have rights? To what extent was aggression tolerated or condoned? Were peaceful individuals left in peace?

Individualist libertarianism is that very position: that peaceful individuals should be left in peace.

Philosophical collectivism is the basis for claims that peaceful individuals might have obligations that they never agreed to, obligations that legitimize the initiation of force against those individuals. Collectivism is the claim that the rights of those peaceful individuals are secondary to the “rights” of “society”.

You can read the rest of the exchange here.

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