Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and Definitions, XVII: The Hobbesian Paradigm

With the consolidation of economic and thus political power beginning in England in the 15th century, new ideas of sovereignty and property began to spread. State absolutism became the "right" view on political sovereignty. At the same time, and as exemplified by the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, concentrated ownership became the "right" view on political economy.

The idea that capital ownership must be concentrated if society is to advance economically is due to the limited understanding of money and credit combined with the belief that the only way to finance new capital formation is to cut consumption and accumulate money savings. This presumably necessitates a small wealthy elite that can afford to cut consumption in the required amounts. The only question is whether a private or a public elite is to control the economy, and thus the political order.

The belief that new capital could not be financed without first cutting consumption, combined with the new ideas about the natural law that arose during the 15th century (i.e., the shift from the "Intellect" (reason) to the "Will" (faith) as the basis of the natural law) led to a change in the understanding of private property as a natural right. The belief that capital cannot be financed without restricting consumption led inevitably to the conclusion that, since only a wealthy elite presumably has the capacity to finance new capital, only that same wealthy elite should own capital. This, in turn, led to the belief that the propertyless masses do not have the natural capacity or right to own capital . . . and must be protected by the State.

Consequently, as Heinrich Rommen pointed out, "In ownership lies the guaranty not only of security of the material conditions of existence, but also of the specifically human perfection, greater personal freedom. To state the matter negatively, whoever has no property all too easily becomes property, a mere means in the hands of one who possesses a superabundance of property." (Rommen, The Natural Law, op. cit., 208.)

Within the Hobbesian framework, "natural rights" become no longer universally applicable, that is, absolute or inherent in every human being. In this framework, whether a particular individual or group has a natural right becomes a matter of political expedience or prudence. It does not matter whether the elite making the determination is public or private, that is, whether the elite is capitalist or socialist. The great mass of people remains propertyless. The quarrel between capitalism and socialism is not whether private property is to be abolished. As Karl Marx pointed out in The Communist Manifesto, the question is moot for most people. As far as those in power are concerned, the real issue is whether the elite that controls property is nominally private or public.

Thus, the ancient concept of the right to be an owner as absolute in every person (although, admittedly, not all human beings were always and everywhere considered "persons"), together with the limited exercise of property within the common good — generally construed as freedom to do whatever one wishes with what is owned as long as others are not thereby harmed — had, by the 16th century, been substantially transformed. Outside of a relatively small group of Thomist natural law adherents, the understanding of property was now that the right to be an owner was limited to a privileged elite, while that elite had absolute exercise of its property.

The 17th and 18th century English State, in general, supported this interpretation, only disagreeing as to whether a private elite or public elite should control the means of production. (A different situation prevailed in the American colonies, which, by and large, adhered closer to the English ideal, as opposed to the English practice of constitutional law.) Limited liability was only conferred on corporations as a special grant from the Crown, while after the "South Sea Bubble" of the early 18th century, the Law of Partnerships severely restricted incorporation. While the corporation is custom-made to spread out ownership, the assumption that rights come only from the State, combined with the virtual dogma of past savings as the only way in which new capital formation can be financed made the corporation into the most effective tool possible for concentrating ownership of the means of production, and thus power.


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