Rousseau on Property and its Origins plus comment
Keith Vallier, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University posts on Bleeding Heart Libertarians (FreeMarkets and Social Justice) 30 July HERE
Keith Vallier writes: “I’ve been rereading Rousseau and I’ve run across a passage that articulates a concern that moved me away from traditional natural rights libertarianism. In the second discourse (second part), the Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, Rousseau engages in an extended description of how civil inequality arises from a state of natural liberty and equality. Along the way, someone took the crucial step of inventing property claims. But Rousseau thinks that these first claims are subject to a rather simple challenge:
[The rich] could very well say: “I am the one who built that wall; I have earned this land with my labor.” In response to them it could be said: “Who gave you the boundary lines? By what right do you claim to exact payment at our expense for labor we did not impose upon you? Are you aware that a multitude of your brothers perish or suffer from need of what you have in excess, and that you needed explicit and unanimous consent from the human race for you to help yourself to anything from the common subsistence that went beyond your own?” Bereft of valid reasons to justify himself and sufficient forces to defend himself; easily crushing a private individual, but himself crushed by troops of bandits; along against all and unable on account of mutual jealousies to unite with his equals against enemies united by the common hope of plunder, the rich, pressed by necessity, finally conceived the most thought-out project that ever entered the human mind. It was to use in his favor the very strength of those who attacked him, to turn his adversaries into his defenders, to instill in them other maxims, and to give them other institutions which were as favorable to him as natural right was unfavorable to him.”
I think Rousseau’s problem begins right here. Perhaps inspired by his own circumstances of sponging off rich women and he knew little about living as a poor person. In short, he jumped to the front of the queue of the deprived for a share of the earth’s produce, and then bit the perfumed hands of the ladies who fed him. However, ad hominem arguments rightly are disqualified among scholars. So lets look at the historical realities.
Rousseau’s rather “simple challenge” in his imaginary conversation between a poor man and a rich claimant of private property in land is ahistorical. The first men to claim ownership of open land did so millennia before property produced wealth. The earth was open and bands of humans passed by as seasons and sources of food (hunting of animals and gathering natural produce) allowed. If they stayed still they risked diminishing food sources leading to starvation; if they moved in the wrong direction, say north as the climate changed to a severe ice age or south as the climate changed to desertification, or any direction that led to violent clashes with other hostile human bands, any of which risked extinction. It is perhaps significant that after the last ice-age, some small bands in the Near East discovered elementary plant growing and herding of relatively docile animals. Some adapted to these new sources of protein by neighbourly imitation or from the newly acquired possibilities by physical migration over a few millennia from 10,000 years ago from parts of the Middle-East of Europe.
Given the comparatively small global human population in these early post-ice age millennia over the populated proportion of the globe – East Africa, South Africa, parts of Europe, parts of Asia, including India, south-East Asia, Australia, some Pacific Islands, and parts of North and South Americas – shepherding and farming were not yet the predominant economic basis of human societies they were to become. Most human populations were hunters and gatherers, used to wandering over large tracks of land, some remaining so until relatively recently (if they were not exterminated by invaders).
It follows when early shepherds fenced off domesticated animals they did so to prevent them wandering away or being devoured by predators, some of which might also be other humans. They also separated farmed fields to prevent domesticated and wild animals, and other humans eating their crops. Eventually in time, as they improved the food yields from their livestock and planting, their intake of richer nutrition had bodily affects on the health and longevity of participating human groups after the iced millennia and the long transition to the new climate conditions. (Here Jarred Diamond is in error on what caused deaths from malnutrition before the shepherding and farming revolution had completed its transition phases. Ages at death today are better than in the stone age; so is lower child mortality).
Rousseau’s imagines conversation between a “rich” property owner and a “poor” challenger who asks: “Who gave you the boundary lines? By what right do you claim to exact payment at our expense for labor we did not impose upon you?” I can imagine such a question being raised hypothetically long after property became a norm, but in the context of an almost empty open Earth, Rousseau’s imagination had crossed the bounds of probability. Anybody could make a similar fenced off land nearby or much further away; there certainly was plenty of it at the time.
Indeed, I read something like the challenge in Scotland a few years ago when a correspondent to a newspaper described his calling on an aged Lady Somebody, who owned a large estate in the Highlands and who responded to such a challenge to her property rights by exclaiming that “her ancestors had fought for this land”, to which the younger challenger replied: “OK. Then I shall fight you for the land right now!” [Rousseau's offer to the rich aristocratic ladies he lived with was quite different to our Scottish writer to the newspaper about his offer to violently fight the aged rich Landowner for her land, was a different proposition; he offered them his love for his luxurious sojourns in their properties!]
From the act of establishing shepherding and, farming, necessarily property in land was established, albeit possibly in various forms owned by single families, or local bands, which over millennia led to skirmishes, pitched battles, and tribal conflicts over mutual claims to water resources and animal herds. Tribes may have combined into landowning regimes and fought wars of defence and offence (the Hebrew Bible is full of them) and today nationalism is endemic across the globe. It certainly was in Rousseau’s time.
While I am a moderate libertarian, I try to keep my sense of historical perspective.
I think I shall leave it there for now.
Comment on the comment below the text:
I am not clear exactly what has upset “Grouchoben” nor, who or what he/she purports to be, besides aggrieved. I opened with describing some of Rousseau’s behaviour, of which he was frank about in his autobiographical “Confessions”. My remarks were directed at the contrast between his behaviour and his writings that earned him a modern reputation as a “friend of the poor and downtrodden” and what became called the “Noble savage” in contrast to the ignoble rich”. That is a fair comment on my part, but to be clear I qualified them by stating: “However, ad hominem arguments rightly are disqualified among scholars. So lets look at the historical realities.”
The pre-historical reality was that band and tribal loyalties were collectivist and egalitarian. Population densities were extremely low and remained so over much of the earth, in large parts of the Earth until fairly recently.
Something changed in other small parts of the earth from 10-8 thousand years ago when farming appeared. Before then hunting and gathering was the norm. Inter-band rivalry was mainly violent where bands lived or migrated in close proximity. The nature of shepherding and farming required more peaceful circumstances and the invention of territorial property as well as resource property (our sheep, our farms), from which boundaries became band defined versus non-band access. This shifted violence up a gear and weapons to match.
Where outcomes were mutually destructive, bands relapsed to gathering and hunting, or disappeared.
It is impossible to know when on how property was established and remained. It is believed to be on the present Syrian border. In some way some bands established their property rights and successfully maintained them. Claims to generational succession by prominent leaders emerged. Within those band claims by families, some persisted by circumstance and leaders emerged. Egalitarianism declined, as successful leaders asserted their authority and their band members were fed and provided for compared to weaker bands and smaller families, either aged or too young.
Rousseau saw agriculture in 18th century France 8,000 years later when much of Europe had experienced the evolution of feudal power in several kingdoms born out of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. He had no knowledge of the evolution of France and other countries over those 8,000 plus years. He wrote of equality from an idealistic perspective, not from anything he experienced or read about in the very few unreliable accounts available, some notably from Jesuits who travelled in North America.
He was a brilliant and fluid writer living broadly by his wits on the generousity of a few rich and personable titled women. Fine; nothing wrong with that, but it is not social science, and inescapably was long before anthropology became the rich resource it is today.
I find Rousseau’s contribution unhelpful. Asking who gave the rich landlord - much later development by several millennia – the “right” to his property, the only answer is by violence. It is our scholarly responsibility to understand history, not to laugh or weep about it in the 21st century. Whatever happened, happened and we are where we are.
We know of at least one set of people who remains where the long chain of their forbears was 10,000 years ago, like ours were. They have survived in their pristine environment in the upper reached of the Amazon, until recently successfully hiding from contact with their neighbours.
If Grouchoben wishes to “enjoy” their freedoms he can try to persuade others to join him/her in emulating or joining them. I believe he will be disappointed in the former and they certainly will in the latter with the diseases and disruptions he will cause them. As for Rousseau, he never left the pampered life style he enjoyed; he was a literary friend of the poor, but was always careful to avoid becoming one of them.I neither hate nor am I biased against Rousseau. As for “self satisfaction”, the suggestion is preposterous. What was it that “Grouchoben” claimed to be against “ad hom and historical whatifery”?