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Property Is People

Underlying attacks on private property is a hatred for the people whose labor made that property possible.
September 8, 2020
Property Is People
A section of the Uptown neighborhood remains in ruins after last week's rioting, on September 1, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. President Trump came to tour sections of the town burned down from rioting over a police officer's shooting of local resident Jacob Blake, and to thank the police. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

When rioters began looting and burning businesses in cities across the country, their apologists assured us that this was “just property,” that it could not compare to the need to defend human lives, and anyway, it would all be covered by insurance.

That argument was put forward in an instantly notorious NPR interview with Vicky Osterweil, who has written a whole book in defense of looting as a form of political protest. Osterweil glibly asserts that looting is “basically nonviolent.”

“Most stores are insured; it’s just hurting insurance companies on some level. It’s just money. It’s just property. It’s not actually hurting any people.”

That line about insurance is proof that Osterweil and other apologists have never run a business and have absolutely no clue how any of this works. In the world’s least surprising news, it turns out that insurance will only cover a fraction of the rebuilding costs:

Though Gov. Tim Walz has estimated that total losses will exceed $500 million, insurance companies have informed the Minnesota Department of Commerce that they will be covering a maximum of $240 million in riot-related damage. In the 5-mile stretch of Minneapolis that sustained the heaviest destruction, uninsured losses among local small-business owners are at least $200 million, according to the Lake Street Council. …

In some cases, owners let their policies lapse when COVID-19 struck and the state ordered them to close, erasing the source of income they needed to pay their premiums. Others bought bare-bones coverage because that was all they could afford. Insurance agents said it typically costs 25% to 50% more to buy enough coverage to pay the actual cost of rebuilding vs. policies that cover a property’s current value. Older buildings are usually worth far less than they cost to replace.

A bigger problem is availability. Insurers often won’t cover older structures because they have not been updated with new roofs, plumbing, or electrical systems.

In all likelihood, many of these businesses will not be rebuilt, and their neighborhoods will be blighted for decades to come, just as they were after the race riots in 1968.

But the real problem is not mere ignorance of how the economy works. It’s the underlying differentiation between property and human life that is false and arbitrary.

Property is people. Property is both the product of an individual’s labor and the means of sustaining his life.

Osterweil and other leftist ideologues might try to talk themselves into the abstract fantasy that “without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free,” but everyone else knows this is nonsense. Nothing is “free”; everything has a cost, because everything requires human time and effort to make. A television is not just a television. It is something that was produced through human labor, planning, and effort, and it was purchased by trading the product of your own effort.

All the things that we have just seen stolen, broken, or burned in these riots—clothing, televisions, food, mattresses, automobiles, shop windows, and whole buildings—all of them are not mere things. They are the embodiment of hours, days, years, decades of someone’s life.

This is in fact the basic theory behind modern property rights, as articulated by John Locke, the English philosopher who provided the political ideas at the foundation of American government. Locke argued that the one thing we all indisputably own is our own bodies, and therefore our own labor. The things we find pre-existing in nature, land and raw materials, are owned by no-one—until we “mingle our labor” with them—by, say, plowing a field to plant a crop, or cutting down the tree to make a log cabin, or digging up ore to make iron.

“The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property,” Locke wrote. To deny the right of property, in effect, is to deny a man’s ownership of his own body. Property is people in the most literal sense. The first property everyone owns is their own mind and body, and that is the basis of all other property rights.

Property is also a means of sustaining life. This is a truth that might seem abstract to the academic and intellectual class, but it is clear for workers and shop owners: a truck, a set of tools, a stock of goods in a store room, the inventory on one’s shelves—these are not “just things.” They are the means for making more things, the means for putting a roof over your head and food on the table.

Stable and assured access to physical property is a necessity of life.

The most extreme demonstrations of this can be found when the looting of property is committed on the kind of vast scale that only a state can impose. Consider the Holodomor, the terror-famine imposed on Ukraine by the Soviet government in the 1930s as part of its push to collectivize agriculture. The famine was not due primarily to a decrease in agricultural production but to an all-out assault on the farmers’ property rights. Ukrainian farmers starved while surrounded by acres of grain, because their crops were requisitioned by the state and seized by vicious enforcers to fill impossible quotas. Stalin literally made it a crime to eat one’s own crops.

The reality of a world without property is a world in which, far from enjoying abundance for free, no one can count on a place to sleep or a morsel of food to put in their mouths, without fear of having it seized by the state or sacked by looters.

But no one actually envisions, in good faith, a world without property. The notion is primarily a plaything of the educated upper-middle-class—those who don’t live off of physical property, but also those who are used to taking such property and its safety for granted. Hence the unintentional levity of a robust copyright notice in the front of Osterweil’s book warning the reader that “The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property.” I guess “It’s only property” actually means, “It’s only someone else’s property.”

That’s why it feels ridiculous to explain any of this, because it requires you to talk to people like they are five years old. If the cat knocks one of my kids’ LEGO creations off the table and breaks it apart, they will complain loudly about how much time and effort they spent building it. That connection between property and life is something we all know and rely on implicitly all the time.

You can go to college and get a degree that helps you unlearn these obvious truths by throwing around Marxist catch-phrases that have been discredited everywhere else. But the idea makes so little sense that we are entitled to suspect this is a mere cover for a deeper motive. A rioter looting a store isn’t thinking grand thoughts about social reform. He is drunk with the sense of power that comes from grabbing something that isn’t his—and pushing down anyone who gets in his way. Similarly, the intellectual who spins excuses for that looter is more concerned with the thrill of his own pretended moral superiority over the “bourgeois” enemy and has no plan for any alleged ideal society in which everything is magically free.

Behind looting, and the defense of looting, is always lurking an element of hatred. This also has been laid bare by the actual reality of looting. In Kenosha, an elderly man trying to ward off looters with a fire extinguisher got bashed in the head and hospitalized with a shattered jaw. In Minneapolis, an immigrant restaurant owner described vandals who found nothing to steal and instead threw a rock at the family photo hanging on the wall.

Property is people, and looting is act of hatred. That’s one thing we should learn very thoroughly from the last few months.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.