All Commentary
Saturday, February 1, 1986

Government, The State, and Private Property

Kenneth McDonald is a free-lance writer and editor living in Toronto.

“The positive testimony of history,” wrote Albert Jay Nock in Our Enemy, The State, “is that the State invariably had its origin in conquest and confiscation.”

From earliest times, roving bands of warriors raided settlements, expropriated the coveted possessions, and slaughtered or dispersed the owners. Before long, the technique was modified. It was more profitable to reduce the vanquished to dependence and use them as a workforce. The conquerors established the State, with themselves as aristocracies.

Western man’s attempts to limit the State’s power brought representative Government. Its purpose was to secure unalienable rights, a very different concept from that of the State, which admitted no rights other than those it chose to grant.

Between those two concepts, the struggle is endless. The State shows no sign of withering away. Today’s aristocracies exercise power in subtler ways. By influencing the political process they subordinate Government to the State.

Here we draw a distinction between sectional interests, whose endeavors to swing things their way are, however discriminatory in effect, a legitimate part of representative Government, and the social engineers whose aim is to reshape society. Their instrument is the State.

Let us call them planners. They and their adherents share a characteristic that is both human and paradoxical: the sin of pride. The paradox consists in the fact that the planners are highly educated and articulate, yet so rooted in their convictions as to be blinded to the humanity that destines them to err.

No doubt acceptance of one’s failings is an ingredient of maturity. It inspires astonishment that any combination of people could be so credulous as to think that other people—the planners—who are every bit as fallible as they, could spend their money and otherwise arrange their affairs to better purpose than they could on their own.

Unfortunately, the failings that breed maturity in others leave the planners untouched. If people do not behave the way they are supposed to, the plans may have to be modified here and there but the principle still stands: the economic forces of society are amenable to planning that is directed by people like themselves.

Failure to question the principle stems from its adherents’ failure to relate their individual fallibility to what they prescribe for others. Society is seen not as an assortment of individuals but as a coherent mass. Perfectible man will be molded by the pressures of a benevolent State. Missing from this endeavor is a recognition that people are different.

The Right To Property

At the root of all this is the matter of private property, and the right of individuals to own it. It is from invasion of that right that the State draws its power. As more and more of the right, ,and of the property, are transferred to the State, so does the power increase.

The conquest and confiscation in which the State originated are still in evidence. The planners may not regard themselves as conquerors but the way they have implanted their theories, and the way those theories have been communicated by education and the media, bear all the attributes of conquest. Rather than coveting possessions, the planners covet power. As the State’s power expands, so does theirs.

Opposing that power is a different kind that comes from independence. Private and personal, it comes from the testing and practice of certain values. They rest upon the simple foundations of working hard and saving. Together they make possible the accumulation of capital and the security of a competence, neither of which could be achieved without the private ownership of property.

The independence that flows from these values confers not only independence from the State and its supplements but also freedom to criticize them. The planners’ ideas, which look to the impersonal State for authority, are contested by other ideas that bear the authority of personal experience.

That is where the struggle is joined: between citizens who strive for the freedom they cherish, and other citizens who would whittle it down.

For all its faults, representative Government is on the side of freedom. The State is not. The ground the two struggle over is symbolized by the right to own property; the one charged with securing it, the other intent on taking it away.