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Volume 28, Number 1, Fall, 2009

Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

By Butler Shaffer

Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, AL, 2009 323 pp

Reviewed by Jerry Jewett

Professor Shaffer teaches at Southwestern University School of Law, in Los Angeles, and also writes, all from the libertarian perspective. He challenges students and readers to consider well the costs the State imposes, versus the dubious results it produces. One hopes law professors are well educated in the humanities and not pure technicians. When the professor has read works as far afield as those of Alfred Korzybski and Oswald Spengler, plus solid mainstream fare, one may believe his knowledge has breadth as well as depth.

Shaffer published Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival in 1985. There, he outlined and explored the relationship between organizations that have become institutions, and the diverging interests, and conflict, between such institutions and their members. Hence the name, as Shaffer revealed that dominating institutions, the State foremost, engineer social disorder at one hand, in order to step in with the other hand to impose coerced order. The libertarian theme is prominent.

His latest offering, Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System, provides the most comprehensive, and perhaps startling, analysis and findings of his academic writing career. As a sidelight, we might note that A.E. Van Vogt also read Count Korzybski’s works, using some of the non-Aristotelian propositions to build up his super-hero in The World of Null-A and sequels, to the apparent amusement of Korzybski, whose hopes and claims for General Semantics never reached the level to which Van Vogt fictionally drove them. Robert Heinlein also played with General Semantics concepts in early work, though not to such an extent.

Professor Shaffer nods to Korzybski in Boundaries of Order. The non-Aristotelian orientation is the differentiating central theme of Korzybski’s formulations, while Shaffer’s incorporation of the dynamics of chaos theory and insights such as the holographic model of society are his distinguishers. Analysis of relations between Korzybski’s questions and Shaffer’s answers awaits further development in my forthcoming Liberty, Tyranny and Chaos. But more interesting here is that he may answer questions Korzybski raised. Korzybski had novel views of society, property, law and economics, as readers will recall. “It is the counsel of wisdom to discover the laws of nature, including the laws of human nature, and then to live in accordance with them.” Manhood of Humanity. Time-binding was considered foremost in the laws of human nature, per the Count. Time-binding included an inherent universal claim to the bound-up energies of past generations for distribution among people in general, including future generations. One catches a hint of Proudhon in the Count’s sympathies, though not in his Bibliography.

Korzybski said, “It will be seen that to live righteously, to live ethically, is to live in accordance with the laws of human nature; and when it is clearly seen that man is a natural being, a part of nature literally, then it will be seen that the laws of human natureĀ­—the only possible rules for ethical conduct —are no more supernatural and no more man-made than is the law of gravitation, for example, or any other natural law.” Id., (page 14).

Had Korzybski’s proposals been widely understood and accepted, very substantial changes (with possibly counter-intuitive results) would have followed in the legal and economic systems of any society that adopted his General Semantics principles. His legacy has been far less than he hoped, with his challenge to adopt the non-Aristotelian point of view largely ignored, his sense of Time-Binding very dimly understood—even where known—and only a few remaining devotees carrying on in his name.

But his challenge to subsequent thinkers to formulate some method of social organization that eliminates brutality and conflict to the encouragement of peace and harmony was non-trivial, nor has it been fully answered to date. Ayn Rand did well with Atlas Shrugged, showing a fictional libertarian sub-society and inspiring many discontented individuals to consider a world where liberty meant something. Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal explored the theoretical underpinnings of such a society, marking a further advance in the direction of more liberty and personal responsibility. Yet for all the thought she provoked and inspiration she left, perhaps Alan Greenspan is the most obvious legacy of Rand; if so, what a sad commentary that is.

However, Professor Shaffer takes a likewise novel look at the social and human condition, coming to substantially different conclusions than Korzybski or Rand did in pursuit of similar aims. What makes Shaffer’s analysis effective is his penetration to the root of things, taking the radical approach, to issues of social order. Where many proponents of social change postulate the beneficent influence of some enlightened State, or an academy of enlightened advisors to a State, to lead society to a promised land, Shaffer harbors no such delusions.

Instead, he notes that we may be in the turn of an epoch, with the incipient collapse of the top-down, command-and-control, pyramidal hierarchies spawned through history, where dispersed horizontal networks are coming into being and asserting influence as alternate centers of social power, knowledge, and opportunity. Unlike Korzybski’s insistence upon epistemological changes in the general mind set as the key to peaceful and positive social changes to benefit all mankind, Shaffer sees the problem as very narrowly focused, though very widespread in effect. In short, derogation of the notion and utility of private property leads as if by design to endless conflict and strife, by means of which conflicts the State seeks aggrandizement, though it is the chief villain of the piece.

E.g., Shaffer says, “The central question in any social system, therefore, comes down to the property inquiry: how are decisions to be made in the world, and who will make them?” Who, indeed, Individual or State, decides what is a bit of property, and how it is to be used?

“The pyramid, with its top-down, command-and-control system of centralized authority, has been the dominant organizational model in Western society since at least the time of Plato.” Moreover, Shaffer believes States and other rooted institutions recognize the menace decentralization poses to their dominance. “Because the authority of pyramidal systems is inseparable from their control over the lives and property of people, the threat of decentralist tendencies for institutional power cannot be overstated.” Could decentralization make the pyramid fall apart? What happens if the pyramid falls apart? Is it possible that institutional power senses any threat at all? How seriously might institutional power be taking the threat of decentralist tendencies?

California Representative Jane Harmon offered a domestic terrorism and extremist prevention bill, to oppose change by typical Federal means of enshrining and subsidizing the status quo, encouraging traditional Federal practices of preemption, propaganda and coercive intervention. Shaffer suggests that such as this is not coincidental but in keeping with the changes in the wind, for he says, “The need to moderate or even prevent change engenders conflict with individuals seeking to promote their interests through means incompatible with those of institutions. It is at this point that institutions, particularly the state, create enforceable rules and machinery that pit the forces of restraint and permanency against autonomous and innovative processes. These practices necessarily interfere with the efforts of individuals to resist entropic forces. As such restraints metastasize throughout the society, they call into question the very survival of civilization itself.”

Korzybski blazed new trails (most of which have since ‘grown over’) and coined new usages. He never used the phrase “paradigm shift” in the two principal books, but showed a keen interest in new formulations, and appeared to hope for a comprehensive, improved “doctrinal function,” which would foment the development of new and better social doctrines. Shaffer shows full awareness of the need for a paradigm shift, proposed in plain terms.

Regarding institutionalism, Shaffer says its “essential premise is that the self-interests of some are to have priority over the interests of others, and that restrictions upon the activities of the latter may be justified by the presumed superiority of purpose of the former.” Orwell meant this in Animal Farm when he said some animals are more equal than others. “For the sake of our living well—perhaps of our living at all—humanity is in need of a major paradigm shift regarding the nature of order in society.” And private property stands as the most elemental root of order in society, a point he argues and supports in good detail though the book.

“If our relationships are based upon mutual respect for our individuality and the inviolability of our respective boundaries, there will be no contradiction between individual and social interests.” And “Respect for the inviolability of private property is the defining characteristic of a free market system.” Contempt for the inviolability of private property is the defining characteristic of a statist system, of course. Also, “Should we continue to delude ourselves that outside forces are responsible for our inner collapse, and that more powerful mechanisms of state coercion are all that is needed to correct our course, our civilization will most likely continue toward its entropic fate.” The forces and horrors of totalitarianism that Hannah Arendt so carefully documented remain in the wings, waiting for the opportunity to overwhelm us.

“Life functions in a material context: if they are to survive, organisms must occupy space and consume resources to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. This is not a normative proposition—a matter of ideological faith—but a statement of indisputable fact. [A scientific natural law, Korzybski would have said, had he thought this way about this issue.] From the simplest to the most complex life forms—be they animal or vegetable—every living thing is engaged in a continuous process of possessing and absorbing some portion of its physical environment.” This is the key characteristic which Korzybski missed but Shaffer catches.

Korzybski’s time-binding led him to a collectivist turn of mind, repudiating the “animal ethics” of private ownership, yet Korzybski himself insisted that nature’s ways be the model for natural laws. Perhaps these internal inconsistencies explain his sub-optimal legacy.

Shaffer asks, “Are we individuals entitled to pursue our own ends through the control of our own resources, or are we but the means to the ends of others, to be exploited and disposed of as befits their purposes?” Most of us would rather have a sense of autonomy than see ourselves as a little cog in a big machine operated by someone else, one hopes. Recognizing the right of private property amounts to respecting the inviolability of the individual. Boundary, claim, and control are key terms to the discussion and understanding of the property concept, and Shaffer explains them aptly through the following chapters: Introduction, The Eroding Structure, Foundations of Order, Boundary: What Can Be Owned, Claim: The Will to Own, Control as Ownership, Private Property and Social Order, Property and the Environment, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Property and the State, and Conclusion.

One of Korzybski’s early admirers was mathematical philosopher Cassius J. Kaiser, whose 1922 lecture on Korzybski’s Concept of Man nests as an appendix to Manhood of Humanity. Kaiser said, “What is to be the ethics of humanity’s manhood?...It will be a natural ethics...a scientific ethics having the understandability, the authority, and the sanction of natural law, for it will be the embodiment, the living expression, of the laws,—natural laws...; human freedom will be freedom to live in accord with those laws and righteousness will be the quality of a life that does not contravene them.” Manhood, (page 321). But what if private property is the fundamental natural right, and its inviolability the primary natural law? There’s fertile ground to sow the seeds of yet more libertarian fiction, creating the scenarios showing transition from the status quo to the alternate future of full privatization, with all that implies.

Both Kaiser and Korzybski made more of time-binding than it could support. Shaffer looks instead to the private property concept as the key to peace and plenty, order and harmony, and brings many arguments to support the contention. Those who would agree in principle “but for the environment” do well to focus on Chapter 8, Property and the Environment, for a reminder that private owners care for and preserve their property, while communal owners exploit ruthlessly. Some evidence establishes that environmental spoliation in the former Soviet Union reached some kind of record level for consistent, enduring abuse of soils and waters.

Shaffer reminds us that, “Contrary to our high school civics class understanding, political processes do not consist of principled or rational inquiries into the kinds of profound philosophical questions that stirred the minds of Socrates, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, or John Stuart Mill. ...recourse to politics as a means of determining the ‘rights’ of parties, is always a resort to legalized violence.” The State claims the monopoly on the legitimate uses of violence, behaving as any monopolist would. As for those who say, ‘If it’s the law, it must be just’ [that is, supporters of legal positivism], “Those who are inclined to celebrate the virtues of legal positivism should recall that the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were carried out pursuant to legally defined criteria and mandates.” What can we expect where we cede to institutions all the power they demand over us?

“Do we regard one another’s lives as having a fundamental sanctity, a respect essential to any decent and peaceful society, or do we look upon each other, mechanistically and materially, as only so much protoplasm to be exploited for our purposes?”

Shaffer draws from many sources: philosophy, jurisprudence, economics, philosophy of science, history, political science, and also chaos theory, which he finds quite relevant to current social conditions. As society exists in a state of turbulence, either a more stable natural order will emerge, or a more coercive order will arise in the desperate and futile attempt to roll back the clock and maintain that failing status quo. The social system of private property has the advantage of being a natural order. The value of recognizing this lies in the reduction or elimination of conflict, as people have only the responsibility of what they do with their own property in their own lives. No one need be a tyrant nor a slave in such a society.

Korzybski accepted the State, per se. He acknowledged that Germany had built up a terrific, unified State. His quibble was that its aim had been too low: it should have aimed to advance the welfare of the World, rather than merely the German State. Shaffer is well aware that the State operates from less philanthropic premises. “Were its attributes found within an individual, it [the state] would be aptly described as a psychopathic serial killer! But its destructiveness can no longer be tolerated by a life system intent on survival.” But still, “[I]t is time for us to acknowledge that the state has reached a terminal condition.”

Much is published on natural law, natural order, and the state of nature. Anthony de Jasay tells us, in his penetrating volume, The State (1985, Basil Blackwell, London) that “the sole necessary feature of the state of nature, ... is that in it the participants do not surrender their sovereignty. No one has obtained a monopoly of the use of force; all keep their arms. But this condition need not be inconsistent with any given stage of civilization, backward or advanced.” The fully private property scenario Shaffer puts forward would permit a very high level of natural law and natural order to be realized, a fulfilled state of nature, we may say. Given how he has reached his conclusions, one might argue that this information is available to us via natural revelation, in the most secular sense of the meaning of revelation, of course.

What is liberty? “‘Liberty’ is life pursuing what it wants to pursue, through its self-directed energy.” Those who love liberty, those who hope that liberty will vanquish totalitarianism, those who seek a peaceful, flourishing social order, would do well to read Boundaries of Order. Those who remember Albert J. Nock fondly will appreciate the flyleaf inscription: “To the Remnant.”

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