L. S. Bevington, “The Whereabouts of Property Ethics” (1895)

THE WHEREABOUTS OF PROPERTY ETHICS

By L. S. BEVINGTON.

In Mr. Seymour’s useful rejoinder (see April No.) to my recent survey of his position, he charges me with “sophistry.” Which may pass: readers will judge.

The present article concludes my share in this particular controversy, and before saying farewell to my courteous opponent, it may be well to draw our mutual readers’ attention to the valuable verbal concessions we free communists have obtained from him. The preliminary questions have been answered precisely in the fashion that was to be foreseen. They were awkward questions, to ask Property what its identical use is, if not to force your own way with, is much like asking Government how it would get on if Property didn’t hire its services. No answer is possible, in either case, which when honestly analysed does not “give away” the property position, so inimical to the progress of men, and of Man.

The original questions put to Mr. Seymour as an Individualist were these: “What is an ‘own’ labor-product? What is ‘appropriation’? What is a ‘right’? I prefaced the controversy by challenging Mr. Seymour to trot out a man who should have “conceived or carried out all by himself the production of a commodity;” and who, further, should be bound to that commodity, when produced, otherwise than by his “need or fitness to be its consumer or user.”

And I challenged him to show that any extra bond (beyond this of need and fitness) between a man and a product, should be “other or more than a legal, conventional, and removable concession on part of other people.”

In Liberty of Oct. ’94, Mr. Seymour gives the desired reply as to the “individual producer.” He admits that the term cannot be taken literally, since he means by it “each contributor” to the joint product of infinitely many individuals, each of whom shall have paid his way as a worker; buying his tools, and, by expenditure of personal energy, acquiring—what? The natural fruits of such conduct?—increased aptness as worker and purchaser?—increased usefulness as producer and resources? No; it is something perfectly irrelevant to his identity which Mr. Seymour conceives him to have acquired; namely, a “right of appropriation”—of withholding, for individual purposes (which may or may not be anti-social purposes), that which society has enabled him to produce. In my view such a man appears simply as an active and efficient citizen whom it is to everyone’s advantage to leave well-supplied and free. But he is not thus shown to be an independent producer, and there can be no object in insisting on calling him an individual producer, apart from the difficulty of finding a theoretical pretext for perpetuating the property craze. His activity suggests to the open mind no natural reason for regarding him as exclusive custodian of surplus opportunity (or means of domination) as lodged in the excess of his product over his individual power of consumption, and as based on a purely conventional system of trade-privilege.

Having thus helped to confirm our disbelief in the “individual producer,” Mr. Seymour, at last (in April’s Liberty), gives his answer as to the meaning of the other two terms, “ownership” and “right.” My words in September were these: “Right to appropriate means law-protected ability to withhold at will, or it means nothing.” I also said that the supposed right to exclusive custody (even of a labor product on which a man has worked) depends on a “legal, conventional, and removable concession on part of other people.” Compare now Mr. Seymour’s definition (in April). “What I mean by to “own,” is to “appropriate,” to one’s exclusive custody.” You see what immeasurable leagues this carries us forward in our comprehension of these two mystic terms! We now know that to “own” is to “appropriate,” and to “appropriate” is to “own.” Abracadabra, in short, is—Abracadabra! But since we were in question, not of a synonym, but of a meaning for either term, and meaning moreover that should ethically light up exclusive custody, this reply might make us cry if it didn’t make us laugh. And then, as to his elucidation of a “right,” Mr. Seymour’s brilliant and conclusive rejoinder is as follow: “A right in this economic connection is the individual limitation (in the reciprocal relation between all men) to such appropriation; such limitation being set by an equality of opportunity between all men.” A right to appropriation then is a limitation to appropriation. Hm! We had hitherto imagined that, ethically speaking, limitation came in where “right” left off; and vice versa.

Passing this by, however, as perhaps a mere piece of careless diction, we may be glad at Mr. S.’s honest admission as to the purely conventional basis of property “rights.” He thus throws up the sponge, admitting that “it is conventional;” adding “but so is [Individualist] Anarchism;” (insofar as the latter, to avoid egoism, must include contract.)

Truly, to portion out admittedly conventional rights b a pre-established dogma as to equal opportunity is a task which may well be expected to tax the ingenuity of that “free Government” to which Mr. Seymour elsewhere pins his prospective faith and allegiance; * a government to be somehow “supported entirely” by “criminals,” and to favour the reign of the individual property producer. But we don’t see where the Anarchism comes in in so fanciful a scheme. We Communists may emphatically deny that Anarchism is conventional. Real Anarchism—that is, Natural Order freely establishing itself, and from moment to moment freely re-adjusting itself in social life—must, in our view, be as unconventional as the play of the vital forces in nature at large. And after all, Mr. Seymour’s definitions bring us no whit nearer to the individual’s right to limit (or be limited—which is it?) with regard to access to redundant human products. The limitation-right is to be “set” by an equality of opportunity between all men. Another myth. Opportunity has its subjective as well as its external conditions; and in the particular case of property-getting, it is ever the less social citizen, the man or woman most backward in the development of anti-barbaric compunctions, whose subjective checks are small, and whose opportunity as a competitive scrambler. Nature knows nothing of equality. She works out all her problems and reaches all her best efforts by rule of thumb. Every organism that prospers does so by means of the constant and free equilibration of such initial disparities as disturb its vital powers of resistance. Human society is, in a sense, subject to like conditions with organized life. Herbert Spencer calls life “a moving equilibrium.” Sound economy and sound ethic consist, I think, at our present pass, in the making good of unequal social opportunities on the part of social units, all alike interested in the healthy coherence of the community on which they depend. In basing our social methods on the arbitrary and false assumptions (1) that equal opportunities can spontaneously exist in a ready-made social medium to which the degree of individual adaptation is never twice alike, (2) that all honest men have equal opportunity of keeping or utilizing for self even such chances as they are born with (and this in a society in which a “conventional” property system biases initiative all along the line) we confuse the issue both economically and ethically; insanely piling up opportunities in one direction while thinning them out in all direction. Mr. S. waxes irritable over my “deplorable ignorance” of the [purely commercial] law of value, and my supposed “justification of a general scramble.” (!) As to the general scramble, it is going on hideously enough at present, and there is not a civilized adult alive who is not in some way maimed or marred by the exigencies of the scuffle. It will continue so, with ever less and less room for scruple, so long as competition for property remains the keynote of industry, and until free communism, by doing away with all pretext for scrambling, shall give men time to draw a full breath, come to their senses, and catch sight of one another’s human faces. And as to that “deplorable ignorance” concerning market-values. What if it be as deliberate as it is deplorable? implying a matured contempt for respectable current pretenses by which the business theorist tries to sever the artificial exchange-value from real use-value, by imposing the dogma that value is somehow honestly separable from needs, which are as Mr. Seymour admits “as variable as they are indefinite.”

There is no other real measure of value than need. Think right home to the core of the matter and you will have to discover that cost is only need differently written. Only that really costs me anything which I cannot produce, or part with, without deduction from my own personal resources or liberties, and which I therefore need either to keep intact or to replace as fast as I lose it, under pain of being to that extend disabled. I make myself needy, else why “pay” me for the benefit my work affords you? Why have the theory lurking in your mind that it is fair to pay me? And how should my work be of any value or benefit to you if you do not need it? Let us never forget that the property ideal distinctly discourages hearty cooperation on part of all who value freedom more than power, and renders unnaturally rare the direct voluntary application of aptitudes to their social ends. Note also that at our existing stage of material advance, individual innocuousness is a far safer test of the “right” to live, than is individual productivity. The avaricious producer is a more noxious creature than the non-aggressive loafer, cripple, simpleton, or other social infant.

Meanwhile, needs are, to use Mr. Seymour’s own words, “as variable as they are indefinite.” (Liberty, April.) And this statement brings us to the real crux of the question. What is the soundest scientific basis for the ethico-economic system of the future? “No ethico-economic system,” says Mr. Seymour, “could be founded on human needs,” because the needs are variable. Will some individualist tell us in what ethic or economics consist? and why they exist in the absence of human needs? What is economy per se, if not a method of fulfilling human needs? Apart from needs, why bother about supplies and distribution? What is ethic per se, if not a theory as to the due conduct-relations between the individual and his fellows as concerning the needs of each? Apart from their needs, why bother about men’s relations as citizens? What are needs but incomplete life-and-liberty supplies? What is economy if not the best means of completing the supplies by means of human action? What is ethic if not the principle by which motive and character may most easily yield such action as shall keep unsupplied need of every kind at a minimum, with least violence done to the life chances of any? Divorce ethics and economics from human needs as capable of fulfillment by human action, and what basis, in the name of common-sense, will Mr. Seymour pretend to unearth for either? “O absurdity! is there any length,” etc., etc.? (Liberty, April.)

I have headed this article as above, because the discussion seems to have changed its axis since it began, and to have become a question as to the relative fitness and survivability of two opposed human propensities or tendencies, one or the other of which has to be taken as the present touchstone of economic and ethical progress. Mr. Seymour, in common with Individualists at large (whether they style themselves Anarchists or not) believes that the ethic of the future, continuing to recognize the legitimacy of private property (of course with a labor title) will increasingly discountenance whatever impulse to communism now exists; and that general and particular welfare will be increasingly subserved by leaving men’s chances of access to food and all else, more and more at the mercy of free competition among those able to compete, i.e., more and more at the disposal of those individuals whose aptitudes and tastes are of the commercial kind. My belief is that the withholding of finished products for purposes of individual trading, means roundabout and incomplete economy, as well as miserable morality. It cannot but tend to hitch and retard distribution, to aggravate the initial disadvantage of citizens whose small powers need special facilities to bring them up to efficiency, to starve out incipient new aptitudes of any kind that has not yet reached market value, and, by the perpetuation of the militancy involved in any system based on property, to perpetuate human suffering. And whatever perpetuates human suffering has the disastrous effect of making life painful for the sympathetic, of making the comfort, of which all are in quest, depend in the foremost individuals on the searing of the social sensibilities; and so, (as Herbert Spencer has repeatedly pointed out) is checked the free development of that altru-egoism in individuals, on whose maturity and free exercise the ultimate triumph of man over misery, and the ushering in of a thoroughly harmonious social state, will depend.

Property or exclusive custody of personal superfluity is monopoly so far as it goes, though in an incipient form. As an institution it must follow the general law of its own evolution, and there will emerge from it monopoly in the glaringly anti-social form which even Individualists deplore, as surely as a chick will result from a well incubated egg. Leave property, and it must maintain its conventional existence and claims by force, masked as law. Leave law, and in the interests of the law machine, property must be privileged. Leave privilege, and the path to monopoly of markets must in the natural course of competition be traversed. Altering the title to property will never—can never—alter the laws of its evolution. This is truth. It is also poetry? If so, let us willingly accept Mr. Seymour’s impatient suggestion, and “stick to poetry;” finding courage to leave market-values (as also the economics and ethics which shall have no foundation in human needs) “severely alone.” Amen.


* See Mr. Seymour’s leaflet “The Two Anarchisms.”


L. S. Bevington, “The Whereabouts of Property Ethics,’” Liberty (London) 2 no. 18 (June, 1895): 141-143.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2575 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.