Opinion; The Independentarian

The Prehistory of Private Property

Enzo & Karl at the PPA+ Conference, Amsterdam 2019

My latest book project (coauthored by the anthropologist, Grant S. McCall) is called The Prehistory of Private Property. It book tells two parallel histories. It tells the story of how modern property theory became dependent on three misconceptions about the origin of the property rights system and the difference between societies with common and privatized resources, and how those misconceptions continue to have a negative effect on contemporary political thought and beliefs about our shared responsibility. The second story traces the origin and development of the private property system through history and prehistory to debunk those misconceptions.

The three claims at the center of this book are: 1. The normative principles of appropriation and voluntary transfer applied in the world we live in can only support a capitalist system with strong private property rights. 2. Capitalism is more consistent with negative freedom than any other conceivable economic system. 3. Inequality is natural and inevitable, or egalitarianism is unsustainable without a significant loss in freedom.

The book devotes a great deal of space to show how these misconceptions are embedded in many influential theories in political philosophy, because political philosophers are often unclear about the extent to which their theories rely on empirical claims. The clarity problem is nearly as important as the dubious nature of the claims. Obscurity and ambiguity help shield these claims from scrutiny.

Underlying this specific theoretical agenda is the more general goal of raising the level of discussion of empirical issues in political philosophy. Ambiguous allusions to empirical claims should be unacceptable in any academic literature. Philosophers have the responsibility to be clear about what empirical claims they rely on and about the level of support they can offer for those claims. Their critics should not let them get away with the sloppy use of ambiguous allusions to empirical claims.

Once the need for each claim is clearly established, the book subjects each claim to rigorous empirical investigation using the best evidence available from anthropology, and then discusses the implications of those findings for contemporary theory. Some of the book’s central findings follow.

  1. The normative principles of appropriation and transfer much more easily support common or collective claims to property. Private property rights systems tend not to develop without state aggression against small-scale societies with better claims of a connection to “original appropriation” than people establishing individualist private property rights.
  2. The hunter-gatherer band economy is more consistent with negative freedom than any other form of socio-political organization known to anthropology. If freedom is an overriding value, everyone must become a nomadic hunter-gatherer. This finding implies both that the justification of any other system must rely at least partially on some other value such as opportunity and that aid to the disadvantaged is not necessarily freedom-reducing: it often counteracts freedom-reducing aspects of private property.
  3. Inequality is not natural nor inevitable nor in conflict with freedom. Contemporary egalitarian theory can benefit from the experience of small-scale societies that successfully maintain very high levels of political, social, and economic equality.

The book is not directly about Basic Income, but it will connect to the idea in the final chapter. We will argue that the mass of humanity lead lives of manufactured desperation. People are not naturally in a struggle to “find work” to ensure they have food, shelter, and clothing. They are artificially put in this situation by a stratified property rights system that is not necessary for human social organization and that most societies (from the earliest hunter-gatherers to more recent peasant farming systems) did not find it necessary to manufacture such desperation. Basic Income is one way to compensate people for the imposition of a stratified property system and to relieve them of desperation that has come with it.

We have full drafts of 8 of the books ten chapters, and we are positing them online at this link as they reach presentable form. We hope to have a full draft we can send to our publisher (Edinburgh University Press) within a few weeks or months.

Enzo grills Karl at the PPA+ conference, Amsterdam, 2019

Enzo grills Karl at the PPA+ conference, Amsterdam, 2019

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist has written 951 articles.

Karl Widerquist is an Associate Professor of political philosophy at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University, specializing in distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. Much of his work involves Universal Basic Income (UBI). He is a co-founder of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG). He served as co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) for 7 years, and now serves as vice-chair. He was the Editor of the USBIG NewsFlash for 15 years and of the BIEN NewsFlash for 4 years. He is a cofounder of BIEN’s news website, Basic Income News, the main source of just-the-facts reporting on UBI worldwide. He is a cofounder and editor of the journal Basic Income Studies, the only academic journal devoted to research on UBI. Widerquist has published several books and many articles on UBI both in academic journals and in the popular media. He has appeared on or been quoted by many major media outlets, such as NPR’s On Point, NPR’s Marketplace, PRI’s the World, CNBC, Al-Jazeera, 538, Vice, Dissent, the New York Times, Forbes, the Financial Times, and the Atlantic Monthly, which called him “a leader of the worldwide basic income movement.” Widerquist holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). He has published seven books, including Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press 2017, coauthored by Grant S. McCall) and Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He has published more than a twenty scholarly articles and book chapters. Most Karl Widerquist’s writing is available on his “Selected Works” website (works.bepress.com/widerquist/). More information about him is available on his BIEN profile and on Wikipedia. He writes the blog "the Indepentarian" for Basic Income News.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.

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