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.

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