Problems of Anarchism


9.—On the Method of Investigation

To trace even briefly the main facts relating to the origin and development of the institution of private property as furnished by the modern science of ethnology would doubtless prove both instructive and valuable, and would assuredly leave little room from the evolutionist point of view for belief in any social reform claiming to undermine or supplant individual property. Such was my first intention, but the amount of space already taken up under the present head in what may seem rather discursive criticism, and the advisability of getting to the essential part of the work, have led me to omit this subject; and, as I have had occasion to refer from time to time to facts which might thus have been brought together and classified, I would suggest to the reader who is sufficiently interested that a study of one or more of the many works on early property institutions and their growth would supply many deficiencies in these articles, especially if the data thus obtained relate to existing races in which all the stages of development can with certainty be traced. The absence of an attempt to discuss the question of landed property will probably seem least excusable. Its magnitude, however, is sufficient to deter me from treating as a mere section of one division, and the fact that property in land has followed exactly the same order of development as other property, though from its nature more slowly, and has not yet among most nations reached the stage long since attained by other forms, together with my intention to deal with the subject of land later, are among the reasons I have for here skipping property in land. None of the foregoing principles or arguments are invalidated by at present overlooking their application to natural resources. What now remains to be done is to formulate the results of the inquiry.

The right of private property is a corollary of the law of equal freedom. Both arise out of the inherent necessities of conscious and intelligent existence. If property be justified on this principle, it must be limited so as to exclude the right when the principle is violated. Hence the monopoly of natural resources in such a way that others are debarred from using except by paying tribute, in rent, royalties, taxes, etc., is not in harmony with the law of property. The use of force, whether the power be legal, political, or otherwise, in defiance of the law, does not justify such property rights and privileges. Thus acquired property is robbery.

What was formulated then about property was an ideal law. Existing conditions do not fit it quite. Yet this method of investigation is not thereby less valuable; it is the only means of reaching scientific truth, and will be exemplified more fully in what is to follow, when other principles for our guidance in discovering the truth buried beneath economic discussions will be sought. Having a clear conception of the conditions and then formulating a law in harmony with them, the next work to do is to observe differences or discrepancies between the ideal and the actual; then the task is to find out the causes of disagreement, whether they are accidental and removable, or due to circumstances that permit no change. Let us exemplify the point. The conditions of freedom are agreed upon, not by mere empiricism, but in accordance with the knowledge and insight into life afforded by a scientific conception of evolution; this gives us the law of equal freedom. An intelligent understanding of it is enough to assure acquiescence in the principle. This in turn forms the basis for seeking a principle in property rights. We have the conditions, clear and understood, but ideal: the resultant property law is clear enough, but also ideal, for the most important circumstances are lacking to its realization. Yet as justice, itself an ideal, is our guide and aim, we desire the social environment most closely approaching to the realization of our law of property rights. Hence the need for understanding existing social conditions. As far as it relates to property, the problem we thus get to solve is the discovery and demonstration of the causes which prevent our law from being fulfilled. Here then lies the direction of at least one important part of the subject. It must be pursued in company with other subjects in the inquiry. A discussion of labor and capital, the laws of wages and of interest, land, and taxes is entailed.

The critical discussion that followed the demonstration of the true law of property aimed chiefly at showing that modern opponents of the existing property customs have utterly failed to establish any sound objection to the law. Their attack on private property has been proved to be really on incidentals, on abuses that do not arise out of property as we have defined it. At some length the main fallacies of their alternative schemes were pointed out, and their inability to solve the problems they raise, and we have also established some important points that are worth re-stating. First, the evolutional theory of the social organism cannot be used effectively to prove the impending downfall of private property; individualism as opposed to collectivism is supported by the theory, not, as Socialists allege, overthrown by it. Second, it has been abundantly proved that private property and enterprise have hitherto done more and continue to do more for the welfare of mankind than any form of collectivism. Third, at best the reforms attained by overriding the principle of private property are merely temporary palliatives, which will in the long run intensify the evils they set out to remove; while property under freedom offers more hope. Fourth, we have seen that the demand for collectivism and seeming opposition to private property arise, not from any proof of the efficacy of the former or defect of the latter, but from a failure to trace the real sources of the evil. This point will at more length be dealt with, and a determined effort made to bring out what are the lines of change most likely to result in real and permanent improvement of social conditions. Nevertheless, if we are to adhere to established truth and scientific principles, the treatment of the question will be chiefly negative; social reform is mere fantasy if it ignores vital economic principles and fails to allow for all the known factors, and economics, like other sciences, can recognize no data that are not the result of observation and classified experience. Hence there is little room for positive assertion about the effects of circumstances still enveloped in the mysteries of the future, and no more is safe to do than learn precisely the lines on which society has evolved and is now moving. Such methods of ideally formulating our knowledge, so that it applies over the widest possible field and embraces in a general way the largest range of phenomena, as have been attempted in treating first of liberty and then of property seem to me best to secure the above end. It may be observed that principles thus derived hold good throughout many and changing conditions, as the true principle of property remains as valid and as just under competitive capitalism as in undeveloped primitive society.

Wm. Bailie.

This article is part of a serial: Problems of Anarchism.