A Little Common Sense About Private Property

August 30, 2020 Updated: September 7, 2020

Commentary

It’s the denouement of the silly season, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that the commentariat is abuzz with silliness.

I understand that competition for the title of the silliest entry is stiff. But I am inclined to give the palm to “In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action,” one of the most repellent effusions of malignant left-wing nonsense in recent memory.

I suspect that its publication is also one of the most cynical gestures in recent memory.

The book has been floating around in one form or another for a year or so in the tenebrous shadows where the bleatings of the lumpen intelligentsia circulate. But some enterprising genius at Hachette, recognizing that rebarbative anti-social political absurdity is enjoying a new fashionableness now decided to dust off the text and give it a new push.

The fact that the author, “Vicky” Osterweil, was born as Willie imparted an extra frisson of politically correct excitement to the book.

I wrote about this preposterous exercise in sweaty, adolescent neo-Marxist exhortation yesterday. I hesitated before doing so, frankly, because even to repeat Osterweil’s arguments (or, to be more accurate, contentions) is to grant them a legitimacy they don’t deserve.

In brief, Osterweil advocates violent looting—“the mass expropriation of property, mass shoplifting during a moment of upheaval or riot”—as a form of revolutionary emancipation. This declaration is one of those disarming moral thunderclaps that renders candid response nearly impossible.

To argue against it would be to treat it far more seriously than it deserves. One doesn’t, as Nietzsche said, refute a disease.

But Osterweil makes one assertion that I think is worth repeating as an admonition. It’s this: “The right to property is innately, structurally white supremacist.” Ergo, the author says, “support for white supremacy involves a commitment to property and the commodity form.”

This is really just the old Marxist pabulum dressed up in a Ku Klux Klan gown. These days, you cannot go wrong by claiming that something, anything, is evidence of “white supremacy,” beginning with Frosty the Snowman.

It has a twofold advantage. First, it effectively silences debate; most people won’t risk being tarred (if I may use the word) with the brush of white supremacism. Second, it imbues the speaker with a gratifying though minatory nimbus of unearned virtue.

Lust for Equality

For centuries, political philosophers of a non-Marxist inclination have understood that the lust for equality, which is the motor of the attack on private property, is the enemy of freedom.

That lust underwrote the tragedy of communist tyranny. The rise of political correctness has redistributed that animus over a new roster of issues: not the proletariat, but the environment; not the struggling masses, but “reproductive freedom,” gay rights, the third world, diversity training, and an end to racism and xenophobia.

“In Defense of Looting” is a specimen case of the genre. At first, it looks, in Marx’s famous mot, like history repeating itself as farce. But when we take on board what is happening in the streets of Portland, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington, and many other cities that are home to the activities of Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and similar enemies of law and order, we can see that it would be a rash man who made no provision for a reprise of tragedy.

Marxists always object that they are fired by benevolence. They want to help the poor, the environment, the downtrodden. They want to rid the world of racism and other oppressions.

This attitude of abstract benevolence is all but ubiquitous in modern Democratic societies. Although of relatively recent vintage, it has insinuated itself deeply into the tissues of the body politic.

In 1794, James Madison acidly observed that “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

How far we have come! The modern Welfare State has left Madison far behind. It represents the triumph of abstract benevolence. Its chief effects are to institutionalize dependence on the state, while also assuring the steady growth of the bureaucracy charged with managing government largess. Both help to explain why the Welfare State has proved so difficult to dismantle.

Is there an alternative? Yes, and it is—or at least it was—a well-known alternative: the philosophy of Thomas Malthus and his famous “Essay on Population,” first published in 1798.

The key passage is that “we are indebted for all the noblest exertions of human genius, for everything that distinguishes the civilized from the savage state,” to “the laws of property and marriage, and to the apparently narrow principle of self-interest which prompts each individual to exert himself in bettering his condition.”

As Malthus observes: “The substitution of benevolence, as the master-spring and moving principle of society, instead of self-love, appears, at first sight, to be a consummation devoutly to be wished. … But alas! That moment can never arrive.”

On the contrary, the exaltation of benevolence is a prescription for misery, for in suppressing self-interest one also suppresses the force through which mankind has achieved whatever moral and intellectual triumphs it can claim.

Private property is indeed an impediment to universal benevolence, but universal benevolence is no more than a phantom. Abolish private property and the result would be not the extinction but the enhancement of selfishness: “Were there no established administration of property, every man would be obliged to guard with force his little store. Selfishness would be triumphant. The subjects of contention would be perpetual.”

This is but common sense. But as the intemperate ravings of the trendy Osterweil remind us, common sense is a most uncommon virtue.

Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.