Friday, 18 February 2011

A thought on the state and ownership....

It’s time to come over all philosophical again – driven, on this occasion, to explain the issues around the interchangeable use of the word “public”, “state” and “government”. And to explore why, when something is “publicly-owned” it doesn’t mean ‘owned by the public’ but rather ‘owned by the state’.

Firstly, however, we need to recall that the idea of ‘government’ – being the administration of the state’s interests – goes back a long way and that, for most of that time the state’s interests have been the interests of a narrow elite rather than the entire people. Indeed, some would argue that this still applies, that ‘government’, ‘elite’ and ‘state’ are de facto interchangeable terms.

The earliest governments serve what Finer (after Weber) described as the ‘oikos economy’ – drawing on the Greek idea of the household:

  • It is not just any household: it is ‘the authoritarian household – of a prince, manorial lord, or patrician’.
  • Its dominant motive is not capitalist acquisition but the lord’s organized want-satisfaction, satisfied in kind. And this remains so if, in order to secure otherwise available goods, it has market-oriented enterprises attached to it
  • In its pure state, however, it is completely autarkic.

The purpose of business, of trade and commerce is not – in the manner of Adam Smith – to allow the satisfaction of individual self-interest but rather to satisfy the interests of the ‘household’ (as manifest in the interests of the household’s governors or rulers). Under such a system the individual has rights only in so far as these are granted to him – and these rights can be removed arbitrarily should the governors deem that to be in their interests.

Thus – from its earliest days – government was illiberal. Freedom was constrained by the needs of the oikos as defined by its government. The typical Sumerian, Egyptian or even Athenian was not ‘free’ but was indentured to the polity – to the state’s ‘household’. And the purpose of the state in most places today remains the same – it is uninterested in market-oriented enterprise except that such enterprise is an effect means of securing revenues allowing the state to fulfil its desires.

Which brings us to the matter of ownership and the discussion as to whether the term ‘state-owned’ equates to us (which I take to mean ‘the people collectively’) owning. Back in Sumer or Memphis we knew where we were – everything belonged to the ‘god-emperor’. We didn’t own anything except in the de minimus manner of owning a pot or a spoon.

Today it is more difficult – we do own things but only as individuals. The law and custom does not recognise collective ownership unless that ownership is defined – the Co-op is ‘mutually-owned’ in that there is a long list of members who ‘own’ the organisation. However, those individuals cannot dispose of their ownership – a Co-op membership has no market value since I cannot sell you that membership. It is not ownership but a narrowly-defined right to a ‘say’.

State-ownership – when defined in these terms – is even more nebulous. The Co-op’s members can, in theory elect to dispose of all or part of the business. In the case of state-ownership this is not the case. We – the property’s collective owners – have no power to dispose of the property through collective action. No mechanism exists for decisions about the property to be made by ‘us’, the property’s collective ‘owners’. If the mutual ownership in the case of the Co-op is diluted, in the case of ‘state-ownership’ is almost homeopathic in its dilution.

So you can see why I find the idea that something – land, buildings, forest – belongs to ‘us’ when it is state-owned difficult to accept. Yes, we have a degree of say over the government through electing representatives. But I’m not sure that this gives ‘us’ control – a prerequisite of property rights. Control of the property rests either with those employed to manage – the foresters, land agents or caretakers – or with those we elect as our representatives.  In truth this gets to the heart of differences between believers in individual liberty and Fabian social democrats.

The social democrat ideal is encapsulated in Mussolini’s statement:

“Everything within the state, nothing without the state”

There is nothing – no activity we undertake that should fall outside the remit of government action. It that respect, the state and ‘the people’ are inseparable so that which is owned by the state is de jure owned by the people. Even if those people have no say over the use or disposal of that which they ‘own’!

For the believer in liberty, the state is bounded. Limited in its ownership and scope to those things we have asked of it. Once that function is no longer required, the state’s ownership ceases. The only things ‘within the state’ are things we have placed in its orbit – all else is without the state, which is to say free. Moreover, the idea that ‘state-ownership’ and ‘public-ownership’ are in any way comparable is a fiction sustained only by those whose interests are served by Mussolini’s viewpoint.

The state may no longer be the King but that marginal release from oppression did not transform the state into the people. The state remains an instrument of control rather than liberty, of suppression rather than release and of elite rather than of the people. And state-ownership for the sake of state-ownership serves all of us badly.


No comments: