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Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System

  • Boundaries of Order by Butler Shaffer
May 26, 2009

Tags Philosophy and MethodologyPolitical TheoryPrivate Property

Every once in a while, a treatise on libertarian philosophy appears that presages a new way of thinking about politics and economics. Mises's Liberalism, Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty, and Hoppe's Democracy: The God That Failed come to mind.

Boundaries of Order by Butler Shaffer is in that tradition, scholarly yet passionate, providing a completely fresh look at a marvelous intellectual apparatus by a mature intellectual who has been writing on law, economics, and history for four decades. It is the treatise on liberty and property for the digital age, one written in the Rothbardian/Hayekian tradition with a consistently anti-state message but with a unique perspective on how the great struggle between state and society is playing itself out in our times.

Its added value is a vision of the completely free society that is idealistic, practical, and thoroughly optimistic. In a throughly-composed work that builds up from foundations all the way through to an inspiring conclusion, he presents a vivid portrait of how human cooperation within a framework of liberty and private property yields results that produce human betterment in every conceivable way. Just as powerfully, however, he shows that right now, even amidst an epoch of despotic state control, we owe all that we love in the course of our daily lives to the institution of liberty.

What's striking is how this is not a book that merely bemoans a bygone era. In fact, Shaffer's view is that the state itself represents a bygone era, ruling with dated ideas over a world that no longer exists. Reality is at once hyper-localized and hyper-internationalized with the two ends of the spectrum connected through digital communication and infinitely complex forms of ownership that never stop yielding unpredictable change.

The nation-state as we know it is constructed to deal with static institutions that are largely mythical, that are not part of our daily lives, and to that extent the state has become an artificial structure governing an artificial reality but with very tangible costs.

What Shaffer argues is that we are living in a world of glorious upheaval, managed in an orderly way by virtue of individual volition and property ownership. The state is not part of this path of progress and only works to impede it temporarily and at terrible cost. Meanwhile, the political is ever less relevant for people in the course of their daily lives. It does not help us accomplish the ends we seek to achieve. In this way, he strengthens the case against the state, and intensifies it in our times: the sheer complexity of the social order stands to utterly defy any attempts to control it.

The life of a society is found in the relations between its individuals and their property-based associations. But property always has a social end, he argues. Our lives are bound up with each other within the division of labor, while our individual interests are unavoidably intertwined. If we are to live as free individuals, we must cooperate with others in voluntary association.

He further discusses the albatross of collectivism and its grave consequences, but he understands the collective in a different way. He views it as a pyramidal model that is forced to fit on a diffuse and changing social order; it relies most fundamentally on violence but cannot achieve any socially useful end. The analysis applies not only to socialism but to all models of top-down management, even that which relies on the myth of limited government.

The state, in contrast, is always working to strangle this life. If a society is to change and thrive, it cannot and will not tolerate the state. The state has no creative purpose, only a destructive one. The great accomplishment of Shaffer here is to crystallize existing knowledge about how society works in real life and to cut through the propaganda on the state to show how the state everywhere operates as an enemy of society.

The book is at once deeply radical and penetratingly optimistic about the future. He helps us to imagine that the withering away of the state will not bring cataclysm but simply more of what we love and what we find useful and less of what we do not love and what we do not find useful. One comes away from this work with an intense awareness of the great dividing line—too often made invisible by disinformation—that separates power relations from social relations.

Here are some excerpts:

Men and women are discovering in informal and voluntary forms of association, more effective means of bringing about social changes than those that rely on sluggish, corrupt, and coercive political machinations. While members of the political establishment chastise, as 'apathetic,' those who withdraw from state-centered undertakings, the reality is that increasing numbers of men and women are redirecting their energies, with an enhanced enthusiasm, to pursuits over which they have greater personal control. This redistribution of authority is both liberating and empowering, a continuing process that is generating interest—in exponential terms – in less formal systems of social behavior.

Many people are increasingly identifying themselves with and organizing their lives around various abstractions that transcend nation-state boundaries. Religion, ethnicity, culture, lifestyles, race—even membership in urban gangs—are some of the categories by which people identify themselves other than by nationality. The Internet is helping to dissolve political boundaries in favor of economic, philosophical, entertainment, political, lifestyle, and other criteria by which individuals create cyber-communities with like-minded persons throughout the world. “Societies” are beginning to be thought of less and less in purely geographical terms, and are increasingly being defined in terms of shared subdivisions of interests that do not necessarily correlate with place. Effective decision-making is becoming more personal, with authority moving outward, away from erstwhile centers of power.

As social beings, it is natural for us to freely associate with one another for our mutual benefit. The institutional forms that have contributed so much to the disorder in the world are those that have elevated their organizational purposes above the interests of individuals or informal groups. In so doing, they have become institutions, the most prominent of which is the state, with its coercive bureaucratic agencies, followed by large business corporations that align themselves more with state power than with the unstructured marketplace.

The political establishment no longer enjoys the confidence that earlier generations placed in its hands. Its response has been to increase police powers and surveillance; expand penitentiaries and prison sentences; build more weapons of mass destruction; and create new lists of enemies against whom to conduct endless wars. The state has become destructive of the foundations of life, particularly of the social systems and practices that sustain life. Were its attributes found within an individual, it would be aptly described as a psychopathic serial killer! But its destructiveness can no longer be tolerated by a life system intent on survival.

The question that has always confronted mankind is whether society will be conducted by peaceful or violent means. Our conditioned thinking, however, has kept us from examining the implications of these alternative forms of behavior. The distinction between such practices rests on whether trespasses will or will not be allowed to occur. It is not that property trespasses can produce violence; they are violence, whatever the degree of force that is used. The property principle—in restricting the range of one’s actions to the boundaries of what one owns— precludes the use of violence. As long as we choose to deny the necessity of this principle, we should cease getting upset over the political and private acts of violence that are the unavoidable consequences of failing to respect the inviolability of the lives of our neighbors.


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References

Mises Institute: 2009