Redigging Old Wells
JUNE 01, 1985 by JOHN K. WILLIAMS
The Reverend Doctor John K. Williams has been a teacher end currently does free-lance writing and lecturing from his base in North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
This article is from a seminar lecture at the Foundation for Economic Education.
Tucked away in the book of Genesis is the simple report of an incident referring to the Jewish patriarchs Abraham and his son Isaac. When residing in the arid wasteland that was Gerar, Abraham labored long to dig wells. Years after his father’s death, Isaac returned to Gerar. The Philistines, he discovered, had filled Abraham’s wells with earth and sealed them off. So Isaac, as the Biblical writer puts it, “dug again the wells . . . of Abraham his father . . . and gave them the names his father had given them•”
The story tells of a gain achieved, a loss suffered, and the recovery of what had been lost. This sequence of events is a commonplace of human history. Men and women again and yet again have faced two distinct tasks: on the one hand, new gains to be made; but on the other hand, old gains to be re-won. New wells to be dug, yes; but also old wells, filled over the passing of time with rubble, to be dug again. The former task may be more dramatic than the latter, but the importance of redigging wells first dug by our forefathers cannot be minimized. In a sense, Samuel Johnson made the point when, some two centuries ago, he said, “The number of new things we need to know is small compared with the number of old things we need to be reminded of.”
Reminding ourselves and others of old truths easily forgotten—redigging old wells dug long ago by our forefathers but filled up and sealed off by the Philistines of our age—is a task those of us committed to the cause of liberty cannot shirk. For the task, I submit, is urgent.
The first such well is the well of human rights.
The distinction between a “human right” and a “positive” or “contractual right,” should be clear. Unfortunately, however, it has not proved clear to some. In particular, I think of an influential British philosopher, Thomas Hill Green, who last century argued that the mere absence of an obligation to surrender some good or desist from some activity was vacuous. What mattered was the actual ownership of the good or successful execution of the activity. My “right” to climb a mountain is useless, according to Green, if I lack the equipment and skills necessary to execute a successful climb. Green’s claim is echoed by those who mock the notion of human rights by asking what use to an impoverished person is the “right” to enter an expensive restaurant and dine?
In this way, the notion of a human right was transformed. My right to own a wrist-watch signifies for many today not simply the obligation of other people not to force me to surrender a wrist-watch I have legally acquired, but to provide me with the wrist-watch. Immediately any notion of “equal rights” vanishes, for two sets of people have been specified: those entitled to receive certain goods and services, and those obligated to provide those goods and services. The assertion, for example, that the wealthy are obligated to provide goods and services specified by the alleged “rights” of the poor, cannot be referring to a “human right.” The alleged “right” rests not upon what all people have in common—their humanity—but upon what they do not have in common.
Privileges for Some—Obligations for Others
I submit that claimed “rights” generating positive privileges for some and positive obligations for others are but arbitrary claims given muscle and a measure of respectability by the State. Such “rights” have nothing whatsoever to do with what your forefathers meant by “unalienable rights.” Your forefathers were moved by the vision of a society without castes or classes or legally privileged elites of any kind. Those who today advocate and agitate for an exponentially increasing number of “positive rights” are necessarily demanding a society of caste and of class. The alleged “rights” of some to particular goods and services obligate others to provide those goods and services. The alleged right of a set of people described as the “poor” to, say, a minimum income obligates the wealthy to surrender what is theirs, namely some of their allegedly “excess” wealth, and in principle could well be appealed to as obligating the wealthy to create that “excess wealth.”
The result is disaster. Society collapses into a hostile contest between special interest groups jockeying for government-conferred privileges. The politics of principle reverts to the politics of patronage. De facto, benefits typically go to well-organized and concentrated groups who know what they have been given, and the costs are carried by dispersed and disorganized people who do not know what they are paying. A government performing the vital task of protecting the equal rights of all degenerates into a “hit man” enforcing the special privileges of some.
Yet the vision remains—the vision of men and women endowed by their Creator with a common humanity and thus enjoying equal human rights. With that vision goes a task: the task of redigging a well our forefathers dug and named the well of human rights.
The second well needing such redigging is explicitly named in the Virginia Bill of Rights. Among the “inherent rights” enjoyed by all are, “the representatives of the good people of Virginia” declared, “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”
It has today become fashionable to downplay the importance of private property rights. I refer not to Marxists and collectivist anarchists who attack the institution of private property as such, but to the mentality which displays itself in such slogans and bumper stickers as “Human Rights Before Property Rights” and “People Before Property.”
The first point I would make should not have to be made. Property rights are rights ascribed to people; they are not “rights” ascribed to inanimate objects. Doubtlessly, sooner or later groups of people will start agitating for the “rights” of porridge, plums, and protons—indeed I was enchanted to receive in my mail recently an appeal from some people mightily concerned about the “rights” of the Eucalyptus Gum Tree—but we can, I think, defer discussion of this particular manifestation of sheer lunacy. Property rights are human rights.
Property rights as such are inescapable. In any conceivable society, decisions have to be made as to how material goods are to be utilized—in one way rather than in another; for this purpose rather than for that purpose. Rules specifying who, legitimately, may make such decisions are describing “property rights.” Maybe a solitary dictator is the legitimized decision maker. Or maybe members of an aristocracy or a particular political party. The “who” does not affect the nature of the rules. The rules are specifying property rights, and such rules are inescapable.
My second point is less obvious. It draws upon an argument skillfully elaborated by Murray Rothbard. If “human rights” are to mean anything, they must be earthed and grounded in property rights. States Rothbard: “Not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former lose their absoluteness and clarity . . . when property rights are not used as the standard.”
The point is that human beings are material creatures living in a material, spatio-temporal world. They are not pure, unextended spirits. In the language of the author of Genesis chapter three, man—adam—is “of the earth”—adamah. Abstract “rights” unrelated to matter, space and time are utterly vacuous when ascribed to a being who, if he or she is to act at all, must act in a material, spatio-temporal world.
You visit, let us say, the country of Willania. You are informed that you enjoy, in Willania, a right to free speech—that is, you are not obligated to refrain from speaking freely. You are further informed, however, that you are obligated to desist from seeking to own, rent, borrow, or beg any space you may fill with sound waves. You are told, in other words, that while enjoying a right to free speech, you do not enjoy a right to own, rent, borrow or beg a hall or any other physical place where you may engage in such speech. You realize your alleged right to free speech is a joke. It means nothing whatsoever.
You learn, likewise, that in Willania there is a right to a free press. Individuals or sets of individuals do not, however, have the right to own, borrow, or beg paper, ink, printing devices of any kind, or any space where they may sell or give away tracts, pamphlets, newspapers, or whatever. Again you laugh, for the alleged “right” signifies nothing at all.
In my language, the word “right” must become “flesh.” The “rights” of material creatures must themselves relate to material realities. If they do not, they signify nothing at all.
Let me underscore that, just as my “right” to climb a mountain indicates merely that I am not obligated to desist from attempting to climb the mountain, rather than some guarantee that I shall succeed in that endeavor, so my “right” to property does not signify that I will succeed in acquiring property. My “right” to free speech does not obligate anyone to provide me with a place where I can speak or an audience to whom I can speak. The institution of private property certainly makes it more likely that an individual will succeed in acquiring, directly or indirectly, the material goods necessary to exercise a “right” than does a set of rules establishing, say, that members of a particular political party “own” and thus determine the use of scarce material resources.
It is unlikely that the politically determined controllers of resources would grant me access to the ink, paper, and printing equipment necessary to publish materials attacking a politically based system of property rights. If, however, the owners of printing presses in a society coordinated by a system of private property rights believe my tract or pamphlet will sell, or I can otherwise pay them for the use of their equipment, they will, in all probability, happily print a little tract or booklet attacking the institution of private property. Be that as it may, private property rights do not guarantee the realized ownership or temporary control of a material resource. They simply rule out an obligation to desist from attempting to acquire or temporarily enjoy the use of a material resource.
Property as a Standard
Consider Rothbard’s second claim: not only are “human rights” vacuous when unrelated to “property rights,” but the former “lose their absoluteness and clarity” when “property rights are not used as the standard.”
To take an obvious case, consider my claimed “right” to smoke cigarettes. If unrelated to property, this “right” is notoriously vague, and I am forever engaging in attempts to resolve clashes between my “right” to smoke, and non-smokers’ “rights” to smoke-free air. If, however, I remind myself that smoking is a physical activity, and that I must, if I am to smoke, smoke in some place, alleged clashes of “rights” are resolved. I own an apartment, let us say. It is for me to determine how that space is used. I smoke in that apartment. My mother, owning her own home, determines how that space is used, and finding cigarette smoke unpleasant, she has decided that no one may smoke in her home. There is no problem—save, perhaps, my decision as to whether I shall visit my mother and, if I do, my problem of sitting in the living room and attempting to be civil while craving for a cigarette.
There are problems with communally owned property, but the problems are unrelated to the allegedly conflicting “rights” of smokers and non-smokers. The problems are aim-ply related to the difficulty in specifying decision-making procedures, acceptable to all parties, applicable to communally owned and controlled spaces.
So with a “right” to free speech. Tie that “right” to where the physical activity of speaking is exercised, and alleged conflicts of “rights” are resolved.
To reiterate: property rights are human rights, hence to speak of human rights taking priority over property rights is folly. Property rights are inescapable, some rules determining who legitimately may decide how material resources are to be utilized being inevitable in any society. A society embracing human rights, as earlier defined, must, if these human rights are to mean anything, ground them in property rights. In the absence of private property rights, individual human rights are utterly vacuous.
The Well of Private Property
Simply, having dug the well of human rights, our forefathers inexorably were led to dig the well of private property.
One can also, I submit, defend the institution of private property on pragmatic grounds. Historically speaking, the lot of the vast majority of human beings has been destitution. Life for the masses has, at nearly all times and in nearly all places, been nasty, brutish, and short. The historical oddity crying out for explanation is plenty, not paucity; wealth, not poverty.
Now an improved material standard of living for all members of a society rests upon sustained economic growth. That means, simply, that a society’s output of goods and services must increase more rapidly than does its population.
Sustained economic growth first became a reality in sixteenth-century England and the Netherlands. Why? The population of these nations did not decrease; it increased. These nations did not live by plundering other nations. No remarkable technological innovation can be cited as the cause of this sustained economic growth. Nor can one point to the practice of voluntary exchange as the key, for this practice as such is ubiquitous, being, it would seem, “natural” to human beings of all times and at all places.
What was common to, and uniquely characteristic of, sixteenth-century England and the Netherlands was a peculiar system of property rights. And that system constitutes the key to sustained economic growth.
Imagine that you are a farmer. Your farming methods are precisely the same as those of your fellow farmers and your farming ancestors. One year, however, you make a change in your methods, perhaps by accident. That change results in an increased crop.
Given collective ownership of the land and its fruits, that increased crop is shared among many. The improvement in the situation of each recipient is small, so small that it may not even be noticed.
The Incentive to Change
Suppose, however, that you own the land and its fruits. You discover that you have more food for yourself and your family, and an increased surplus you can directly or indirectly exchange for other goods and services. Your situation has improved dramatically. You thus both discover that your changed methods of farming lead to increased crops, and are encouraged to do what human beings are loathe to do—namely, permanently change the entrenched habits of years. Your neighbors, incidentally, are also slightly better off, more food being available for them to buy. Let us call the additional food your neighbors can purchase the “social rate of return” on your innovation, and your own improved standard of living the “private rate of return” on your innovation. As your private rate of return is close to the social rate of return you have every chance of discovering a desirable innovation in farming methods, and every incentive to adopt that change. The key to this discovery—facilitating, incentive—providing process is the system of precisely defined and efficiently enforced property rights we call private property.
Admittedly, one might attempt to devise alternative systems of property rights which display some of the features of private property rights. A recent volume of essays by mainland Chinese economists addresses the elaboration and implementation of some such system. The authors at tempt to tie the income of workers to their productive output, and castigate egalitarianism as an evil which “protects the backward, obstructs the advanced, frustrates the enthusiastic, lowers working efficiency, and is, in general, a hindrance to the realization of socialist modernization.” The catch is, however, that an army of bureaucrats and other state officials come between the acting individual and the “information-plus-incentives” automatically provided by a system of private property rights.
The discovery and rapid adoption of changes in behavior which improve the material situation of human beings are facilitated by the system of private property rights we call “private property.” The system is not “perfect,” whatever that may mean in this context, but it is the least inadequate discovery—facilitating, incentive—providing system the human species has yet evolved. A concern for the material well-being of flesh and blood men, women, and children, inexorably leads to advocacy of the institution of private property.
I have called this defense of private property pragmatic. Yet it is not, as I have just hinted, without a moral dimension. To embrace a collectivist system of property rights and thereby jeopardize sustained economic growth, inevitably misallocate scarce resources, and almost necessarily perpetuate destitution, hardly merits moral acclaim. Indeed, intellectuals in general and church leaders in particular who bewail the continued existence of poverty absolutely defined, and who state that they yearn for a world in which the hungry are fed, the naked clothed, and the destitute housed, yet who ceaselessly undermine the very system which, to date, has best done what they claim to value most, are, surely, moral imbeciles.
Conservation of Resources
One could develop the case further. We are told, for example, that private ownership jeopardizes the conservation of scarce resources. Yet consider. Here is a farmer who owns his land. He is anxious that his land should provide a living for himself and his chosen successors tomorrow as well as today. Is he likely to adopt methods of farming which produce large profits today, but reduce his land to a desert-like waste? Or is the political controller, anxious to please the short-term wants of a fickle electorate or a demanding Party, the person more likely to exchange tomorrow’s productivity for today’s killing?
Notice, incidentally, that our private owner’s motivation to use his resources with an eye to the future is tied to his ability to dispose of what is his as he chooses. Knowing his children and his children’s children will inherit his farm, he is even loathe to cut down the beautiful oak tree his own great-grandfather planted, and motivated to seek out some way to retain that tree without substantially reducing his productive output. Those who cry out for the conservation of scarce resources and the preservation of what is of sentimental value, should, I suggest, be in the front ranks of those attacking the iniquitous tax we call “death duties.”
But enough. Our forefathers perceived the crucial importance of private property. The well they dug cries out for redigging.
I refer finally to an old well usually named Individualism. Other names have been given it, and what already has been said about our forefathers’ understanding of human rights and property rights indicates much of what I, at any rate, mean by the word. Frankly, I choose to use the term “Individualism” simply because the term, at least in church circles, is so frequently used derog- atively. I read, for example, in a parish church bulletin that “capitalism is utterly incompatible with Christian values. In fact it is incompatible with any civilized system of values. At its heart lies individualism, and individualism is the opposite of community.”
Let me indicate what individualism is not. First, it is not a denial of the claim that human beings are social animals. Clearly, the life of the human mind and the joy of the human heart are largely the gifts of fellowship, friendship, and intimacy. In the absence of language, thought, so necessary for a fully human existence would be but rudimentary, and language is an essentially social phenomenon. Indeed, it is necessarily a social phenomenon, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein so powerfully argued. Evidence exists for asserting that an infant deprived of “tender, loving care” is deprived of something utterly vital. The hunger of the human spirit for communion with selves beyond it is a real and almost insatiable hunger. The Individualist in no way denies that the achievement of an authentically human existence, in both the cognitive and affective domains, is a cooperative enterprise, not a solitary endeavor.
Second, the Individualist does not deny his material dependence upon other people. He does not, unless he is an extremely foolish Individualist, pretend that he is a “self-made man” or “self- sufficient.” He both can, and is wise to, make his own the assertion of Michael Oakeshott that “the greater part of what we have is not a burden to be carried or an incubus to be thrown off, but an inheritance to be enjoyed.”
Exercise in Interdependence
Indeed, the free market so lauded by the Individualist is an exercise in interdependence. Before typing this lecture, I purchased a new ribbon for my typewriter. I ambled into my friendly local stationery store, and exchanged what I would earn for approximately half-an-hour’s tutoring in Greek Philosophy for a new ribbon. The generosity of the exchange is stunning. Just consider that ribbon. Consider the skills involved in locating, mining, and refining the metals making up the spool, the skills involved in weaving the ribbon wound around the spool and synthesizing the “ink” impregnating the ribbon, the skills in manufacturing the completed object, the skills in making the plastic box and printing the paper label informing intending buyers of the box’s contents, the skills in ensuring that my local stationer had on his shelves the appropriate ribbon for a very aged “Royal Typewriter.” Literally hundreds of thousands of skills are coordinated through the sheer miracle that is the free market. Interdependence is the very name of the game.
Amusingly, if Individualism signifies a desire for complete self-sufficiency, Marx and Lenin are advocates of Individualism! Both lament the so-called “alienation” deriving from the division of labor. Their Utopia is an imprecisely described state of affairs where individuals able to do everything for themselves magically emerge. Marx sings of the day when I will be able “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.” Lenin agrees, claiming that with the abolition “of the division of labor among people” a new humanity “of people able to do everything” will be created.
As an unrepentant Individualist, I regard this postulated self-sufficiency as neither a possible nor a particularly enchanting prospect. Frankly, I enjoy being part of the complex web of human interrelatedness that is the free market.
Collectivism in Contrast
If we would understand Individualism, it is useful to look at its contrast, namely, collectivism. An appropriate, albeit not the only possible, starting point is the thought of Jean Jacques Rousseau.
According to Rousseau, a society is coordinated and unified by what he calls the “general will.” This will is distinct from the will of any individual or set of individuals. It is neither the “majority will” nor what one might call a “consensus will.” Somehow, over and above the individual wills of the members of a community, there actually exists this additional will, a will the wisdom and beneficence of which exceeds the wisdom and beneficence of any individual or set of individuals.
Since there is but one general will, there is but one supreme “good” and one over-riding “goal” towards which a community must strive. Individuals and voluntary associations positing other “goods” and other “goals” are thus anathema. Indeed, the Jacobins and Girondins rightly appealed to Rousseau when, during the reign of terror, they outlawed all voluntary associations.
Rulers, by a process Rousseau does not care to elaborate, are somehow sensitive to the dictates of the general will, encoding these in particular laws. Since the ultimate source of these laws is the wise and beneficent general will, it is unthinkable that anyone might challenge these laws. The good citizen is the citizen who actually identifies his own will and the general will. There can be no tension between an individual’s real “will” and the general will; if such a tension is allegedly experienced, an individual is in error as to what he or she truly “wills.”
Rousseau displays his full colors when writing on schooling. The State, he insists, must control all schooling, and thereby ensure “that children are imbued with . . . the maxims of the general will and [learn] to respect them above all else.” The entire objective of schooling is to create citizens who, as Rousseau puts it, “wish only what the community wishes.”
Rousseau on Education
Rousseau’s best-known volume on education is frequently misinterpreted on this matter—indeed, Rousseau is sometimes cited as a defender of a permissive, child-centered approach to schooling. After all, in Emile, the titular hero—a child named Emile—is supposedly freed from the constraints of an adult’s will. Emile will learn all he needs to know by freely exploring nature and her necessities. In this way one who is “born free” will remain free, unfettered by the artificial constraints of society. His only constraints will be those imposed by nature.
Such a reading of Emile overlooks, however, the fact that the pupil has a tutor. The tutor’s task it is to ensure that Emile’s encounter with nature is systematically fraudulent, for he must so arrange matters that nature will “teach” his charge precisely what he, the tutor, wishes it to teach. “[T]here is,” writes Rousseau with a complacency bordering upon cynicism, “no subjection more perfect than that which retains the appearance of liberty.” “No doubt,” he adds, “[the pupil] must not do anything but what he wants to do, but he ought not want to do anything but what you want him to do; he ought not to take a single step that you have not foreseen.”
Why, one might ask, the pretense? Why the elaborate charade? Why is the tutor never openly to show his hand? The answer is simple: what must at all costs be avoided is a clash between the will of the tutor, and the will of little Emile. Compliance with the tutor’s will must be perceived by Emile as the exercise of his own will. Thus he is conditioned to perceive compliance with his community’s general will as the exercise of his own, “true” will.
Hegel and Marx
Rousseau’s influence was considerable. When debates about compulsory, state-controlled schooling re-surfaced in your country during the 1830s, the philosopher most cited by advocates of such schooling was Jean Jacques Rousseau. More significantly, the transition from Rousseau’s belief in this mysterious “general will” to Hegel’s belief that the state was the earthly manifestation of the Absolute or God, was an easy transition. The indebtedness of Marx to Hegel is well known, but the advocates of Fascist and Nazi totalitarianism were no less indebted.
What has been outlined is the essence of collectivism. The individual will, the individual person and his or her own ideas, values, hopes, and dreams, mean nothing. What matters is the whole of which the individual is a part and which transcends any individual or any set of individuals. The collective—the community-the people—society—the State: that is reality. The individual is ultimately a fiction.
To this Individualism says “No.” If ten people are on an island, there are ten individual wills and the relationships between them. There is no eleventh will, a “general will” distinct from and other than the individual wills, and the way those ten wills interact. There is not some “thing” called society distinct from ten individuals, their skills, and their relationships. Should one in dividual seize power and start exacting tribute from his nine neighbors, what exists is nine bullied victims, one bullying ruler, and a set of relationships marked by coercion. No mysterious new entity called “the State” has come into being. To delude oneself into believing that terms such as “society,” “community,” and “state” signify real entities distinct from human beings, their skills, and their relationships is to fall for what the philosopher A. N. Whitehead calls, “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”
It is the individual who thinks.
Certainly, individual minds can interact and stimulate one another, but thought itself demands a particular thinker. It is the individual who initiates purposive action from within. Again, individuals can decide to join forces and, as we say, “act collectively,” but that “collectively acting unit” is not other than or distinct from individual human beings, enjoying particular relationships, individually initiating purposive behavior. It is the individual who perceives, each from his or her own unique spatio-temporal location. It is the individual who dreams, hopes, cares, values, chooses, and loves. Lose sight of the individual in some collective or aggregate or class, and one is in danger of losing contact with reality. So affirms Individualism.
Social scientists are particularly prone to start reifying—that is, turning into existing things—collective terms. I know no better works elaborating this claim than Ludwig von Mises’ Theory and History and Friedrich A. Hayek’s Individualism and Economic Order.
Thought through, Individualism inexorably leads to advocacy of the free market in the free society. It leads us to affirm, as did our forefathers, that no human being is a chattel to be enslaved, debased, or dictated to by another. It leads us to challenge all dominations and all tyrannies, all bigotries and all privileged classes, all institutions and all social practices, that deny the sacredness of the human spirit.
And it leads us to call deep thanks for those who, many centuries ago, dug a well in the desert of collectivism and privilege, and dug it deep, and called it a name signifying what the word “Individualism” denotes. That well the Philistines have sought to fill and to close. It is for us to start redigging it.
Three wells. Human rights. Private property. Individualism. The damage done by the Philistines is not difficult to see. Nor, however, is our task. How best to go about it each one of us must determine for himself or for herself. In the meantime, we can find strength in the knowledge that there are those whose devotion to liberty we can rely on. I refer, of course to ourselves.