All Property is Theft
I suppose that it’s because I have finals that I can’t stop finding excuses to blog, but a whole slew of thoughts just occurred to me while discussing the above quote with my Dad. I can’t help but jot them down. I picked up on that meme from an old roommate of mine, Aristide Sechandice. It was a long time ago, but I think he told me that it was Francois Rabelais who said it. The main point that set off a lot of other ideas during the conversation with my Dad was the history of property up to the current debate on intellectual property and why that phrase is an oxymoron. In so far as the statement “All property is theft” is concerned, I have no problem with it. Property was here long before we were. Animals clearly have territorial instincts and will fight to maintain an area of resources. We inherited that compulsion. However, we also developed technologies that allowed us to manitain much larger areas of resources than would otherwise have been naturally possible. This is, in fact, one of the major points of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. To the extent that our ownership of large amounts of property is really based on the artificial use of technology, I don’t consider property rights to be on the same fundamental level of God given rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You can maintain all of those rights without property. More importantly, you can enforce your right to property but it’s not God given.
The first forms of government and rule began essentially with sharecropping. Farmers did not own the land but rather farmed on it for some landlord who maintained control through force. This was extended into what Alvin Toffler would call the second wave of civilization in which the property owned was extended by the capital necessary to engage in manufacturing. Here again, the laborers did not own the capital and while they did not pay “tithes” Karl Marx argued rather well that the difference between wages and the capital owner’s profits were pretty much tithes.
So here we are in the throes of the third wave of civilization, what has alternately been called the information age or communication age or the computer age and one of the day’s most significant debates is whether ideas can be considered property. To some extent the copyright debate was never really about that. It was about your ability to reproduce someone else’s framing of an idea. The idea was free. I could write about the idea and as long as you didn’t use exactly my words you could write about the idea too.
Gradually the debate is shifting, however, towards the concept of actual intellectual property–that the idea belongs to someone. The mere introduction of the phrase “intellectual property” into the common lexicon has illustrated the true change in the debate. The patenting of software is an important example of this. The debate in the media about music and movie distribution is another facet of the debate.
Frankly it’s something that really grinds me about CEO pay in the United States. If you listen to a lot of these financial barons (note the similarity in the terminology with regard to a baron with a fife and a financial baron with resources) they seem to think that they have a right to the enormous wealth they’ve gained. I don’t mean they argue that they’ve earned it. They argue that they have a right to it. As I’ve already stated, all property is theft. They have no right to it and the belief that they do helps them to completely igonore the fact that they built their company on the backs of laborers. (This, incidentally is one of the only reasons I’ve ever had to like Microsoft. But in general, the tech sector really has turned over more profits to employees.)
It’s also interesting to note that there is a rising creative class in the US. In Richard Flordia’s book The Rising Creative Class he talks about a large number of Americans that are beginning to make their living off of their ideas. From the jacket: “The author estimates that this group has 38 million members, constitutes more than 30 percent of the U.S. workforce, and profoundly influences work and lifestyle issues.” So if there is a new class of workers coming up in society, wouldn’t it make sense that a new property debate would emerge?
The truth is, throughout history, the owners of property have held sway and control over those who did not and the current debate about intellectual property is crucial because it will ultimately determine who has control over the domain of your mind. None of us should underestimate the desires of some to attain that level of control. We have territorial instincts that are balanced only by our ability to maintain resources for survival. Remove limitations on that balance through the use of technology and some humans will exemplify the maximum of their instinctive greed (and greed and greed).