Monday, March 16, 2009

American Indians & Property

At Volokh, Ilya Somin's post discusses a myth I used to believe back in the day: that Native Americans had no concept of property. He talks about how this well fit with a Left-environmentalist narrative of Indians living in perfect harmony with nature. I seriously wonder whether Rousseau is the source of this myth. Rousseau is the father of the modern Enlightenment critique of property and he held the Indians to be "noble savages" living in some kind of romantic idealized state.

Timothy Sandefur, if I remember right, pointed out in his book on property rights, property is "natural" in the sense that virtually all cultures recognize some form of property ownership (i.e., this is "mine"). Christopher Hitchens mentioned something similar in his article that refuted the notion that the Ten Commandments are the basis of American Civil law. Yes, thou shalt not steal or kill have parallels in the civil law. However, as Hitchens notes:

There has never yet been any society, Confucian or Buddhist or Islamic, where the legal codes did not frown upon murder and theft. These offenses were certainly crimes in the Pharaonic Egypt from which the children of Israel had, if the story is to be believed, just escaped.

There is nothing uniquely biblical about "property rights" or Locke's idea of an "inalienable right to property." Though Plato, Rousseau and Marx who represent the Western philosophical tradition of collectivism or critique of property rights fundamentally misunderstood human nature; and that's why Marx's project failed.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, this is side-splitting once you read the core article:

First of all, a complete fisking of :

Chief Seattle, a nineteenth-century Native American leader, is often quoted as saying, All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of earth.

Those who invoke these words are usually attempting to convey the impression that Native Americans were guided by a unique environmental ethic. Yet the words in the oft-quoted speech are not actually those of Chief Seattle. And the message of the speech does not ring true, either. For Native Americans, traditions and customs—including property rights—were more important in encouraging careful use of resources than was an environmental ethic, however important that ethic may have been.

It turns out that the words supposedly spoken by Chief Seattle were written by Ted Perry, a scriptwriter. In a movie about pollution, he paraphrased a translation of the speech that had been made by William Arrowsmith (a professor of classics). Perry’s version added a lot. Perry, not Chief Seattle, wrote that every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. (Perry, by the way, has tried unsuccessfully to get the truth out.)

The speech reflects what many environmentalists want to hear, not what Chief Seattle said. The romantic image evoked by the speech obscures the fact that, while there were exceptions that led to the tragedy of the commons, generally American Indians understood the importance of incentives. Property rights, supplemented by customs and traditions where appropriate, often produced the incentives that were needed to husband resources in what was frequently a hostile environment. "

The rest misses an essential point---the essential point: Although the Native Americans held farmland or fishing/hunting grounds as private property, they were held by families/clans, not by individuals. Neither was such land just another commodity that had a price and a value, and could be sold for---dare I say it---money!

See, England had the same sort of system, that land was held by the "haves," despite whatever was going on in the economy, "money" if you will. "Primogeniture" gave the land to the first-born son; the other siblings had to go scratch.

Once "capitalism" made real estate a commodity the same as any other commodity---and therefore convertible into money---there was a liberation of the individual from the "clan" system, after the nuclear family, the most basic human organizational unit.

Yes, the article points out that the human always had his or her "personal" property, clothes, shoes, beads, whatever, but completely misses the point.

[Moreover, see Locke on the Labor Theory of Value. It didn't make the cut in the Founding's principles, but is interesting nonetheless.]

Jonathan Rowe said...


This is very helpful. I'd like to turn it into a frontpage post on all three of my blogs.

But, as you might guess, here is my take: Yes, "general" ideas of property are universal. The notion of property we have is modern/Lockean. The Indians didn't have it, feudal England didn't have it, and neither did the Bible. Because you know, folks like OFT will argue, Locke's theory of property comes from the Bible.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Glad you liked it, JR. That's about all I've come up with on my own, as it's not an area of interest or expertise. Aquinas has some Adam Smith-type stuff on property, more utilitarian than conceptual.

Here's a smidgen of Jesus, Augustine and Aquinas on private property.

What we see here is that private property is a creation of man, and upheld by the state. Property has no essential significance.

It's interesting that Locke's "life, liberty and property" was mutated into "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." According to Augustine, the proper use of property is not for its own sake, but "when used as a means toward [man's] enjoyment of God," which of course to Augustine, would be synonymous with true happiness.

So if Locke's view of property is unbiblical, it might be possible to say that the D of I's correction of Locke is indeed consistent with Christian thought. We do see the Constitution allows for the taking of private property for the public good [if just compensation is made], also consistent with Christian thought [see link].