Property Rights are Imaginary
For the first part of 2013, Canada has been in the grips of an existential crisis. The Idle No More movement saw Native Canadians voice their anger and frustration over centuries of abuse and oppression. Protests arose across Canada. Many cities saw blockades. On an island in the middle of the Ottawa River, within sight of the Parliament Buildings, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence launched a hunger strike. It is to the credit of the Idle No More movement that it cannot be distilled down to one issue. The current problems and historical injustices facing Native Canadians are complex and will not be easily solved, if they are ever solved.
Outstanding land claims, as well as reneged-upon agreements, are a key element of the protests. As Idle No More’s manifesto reads, in part:
We contend that: The Treaties are nation to nation agreements between The Crown and First Nations who are sovereign nations. The Treaties are agreements that cannot be altered or broken by one side of the two Nations. The spirit and intent of the Treaty agreements meant that First Nations peoples would share the land, but retain their inherent rights to lands and resources. Instead, First Nations have experienced a history of colonization which has resulted in outstanding land claims, lack of resources and unequal funding for services such as education and housing.
In practical terms, this is absolutely correct; however, this stance errs just as so many other political philosophies err. Property rights – inherent rights to lands – are illusions. They are artificial constructs that are neither inherent nor self-evident.
There is a movement afoot in Canada to weave property rights into our constitutional fabric. It is an earnest and worthwhile endeavour. Property rights offer personal and economic security. They protect us not only from the intrusions of our fellow citizens, but also the whims of governments. Both the United States and Canada have seen governments use the power of eminent domain to rob citizens of their property. My hometown of Ottawa saw the destruction of an entire neighbourhood. Lebretton Flats was razed because having a poor community so close to Parliament was undesirable.
Despite the usefulness of property rights, these are not inherent rights. Freedom of expression, belief, religion, association – these are inherent rights that, without reasonably justifiable grounds, no government should tread upon. These rights spring forth from the individual. Their existence is not dependent on government or other external forces (though their protection may be). Property rights differ. Property rights can only exist by one of three methods:
- By mutual consent – if all people who are living within close proximity agree to a set of rules regarding property and land use, a property rights regime has been established;
- By third-party arbiter – our societies have established governments that establish rules and enforcement in terms of property rights. The governments rule by consent of the people… or, failing that, by force; or,
- By force or barriers – building impenetrable walls or stockpiling weapons will keep all trespassers at bay.
In scenarios 1 and 2, property rights regimes are consensual, but they are constructed by the people – and should anyone break ranks, we are left with the same situation we have in scenario 3. Property rights only continue to exist – only hold any legitimacy – with the threat of harm.
The fetishization of property rights is an ugly aspect of North American politics. “Ownership” of property is based on archaic legal structures that are thrust upon every citizen without that person’s explicit or implicit consent. I must “respect” your property rights lest I be jailed or shot. The governed “consent” to this legal regime only because they have little choice but to function within the system. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a horrid oppression. It is a necessary evil that helps keep society functioning.
Unfortunately, we have been putting property rights on such a pedestal that they begin superseding all else. In Canada, there is popular support for the “right” to shoot recklessly in the air to scare off trespassers. In the United States, we see a culture in which people execute burglars, just in case.
Nationalism – the macro version of property rights – is uglier still. Centuries ago, people created boundary lines, some of which make no sense, and we continue to use these cartographical crayon scratchings to determine the fates of every person on earth. We prohibit movement between nations. We prohibit the flow of wealth between nations. We shoot people who don’t conform. We have decided what bits of land different groups of people are entitled to walk upon, and we will do everything in our power maintain the status quo.
There is a lie that is constantly perpetuated in North American pop culture. It is the idea that soldiers, dying in far off lands that never attacked our nations, are defending Canadian and American citizens. They’re defending our freedom, we’re told. It is, most evidently, false. Battles in Kandahar do not make Kelowna safer, so the question is: Why does this lie continue? The lie lives on because our nations feel that only our lives are worth dying for. They should not be dying for Afghanistan. They should only be dying for strangers who share their same vaguely general location of birth.
Our ownership of land – collective or individual – makes us dehumanize others.
But it is all bogus. All of the markings on maps; borders between nations, provinces, states and neighbours; partitioning off of an earth that none of us own or could ever claim to own, it is all a mirage. It’s a coping mechanism, but it serves a very limited purpose. These boundaries are in place to ensure that we can each carve out a bit of security for ourselves. It is illegitimate to use these imaginary lines to keep others from achieving the same level of security. We have no inherent right to the land that we occupy. It is an earth that we share and policy must reflect that, lest we become post-colonial oppressors.
Sharing the earth is not some hippy ideal. It is not a naive extension of lessons we learned in kindergarten. It is, simply, reality. We are all here. We all have the same beginning. None of us are so inherently more privileged than others that we deserve access to the wealth derived from the land and the power to deny others that wealth. We can acknowledge the tremendous value or property rights, while also understanding they are a necessary evil. Sadly, the more we value property, the greater the evil becomes.