One of my liberal friends posted this meme today. This quotation can be interpreted in a variety of ways; it could be read to mean that men would not have much to say if they couldn’t speak of themselves, or that men would experience an inner quietude if they abdicated their selfish concerns. It could be a comment on the value of generosity, or it could be a call to abolish private property and force renunciation. I have a sinking suspicion that my friend posted it to mean the latter. I feel that this is an unfortunate and uninformed sentiment, and I will take it as an opportunity to write briefly on the philosopher, property and the heart of man.
Some may find Anaxagoras’ quotation attractive because they admire the wisdom of the ancients. For anyone interested in ancient writings on property, I recommend reading this paper on Aristotle. Aristotle is, in my opinion, slightly more perceptive about the relationship between property and conscience. In contrast to Anaxagoras, Aristotle argues:
“The evils in the existing forms of government, such as lawsuits about contracts and convictions for perjury and flatteries of the wealthy, are denounced as arising because property is not common. But these evils arise because of human wickedness and not because property is not common; for quarrels are observed to arise even among those who own common property and share it, and to a much greater degree. The Politics, Book II (1263 b 15)
Anaxagoras is correct to say that men would be “exceedingly quiet” if there was no “mine” and “thine,” but probably not because men would be sated. Productive life consists almost entirely of deciding what belongs to whom. As Murray N. Rothbard argues, communal property is the state of nature, and the state of nature is a state of poverty:
“The way of production for primitive man was “hunting-and-gathering”: the hunting of wild animals and the gathering of fruits, berries, nuts, and wild seeds and vegetables. Primitive man worked passively within his environment instead of acting to transform it; hence he just lived off the land without attempting to remold it. As a result, the land was unproductive, and only a relatively few tribesmen could exist at a bare subsistence level. It was only with the development of agriculture, the farming of the soil, and the transformation of the land through farming that productivity and living standards could take giant leaps forward. And it was only with agriculture that civilization could begin. But to permit the development of agriculture there had to be private property rights, first in the fields and crops, and then in the land itself.” For a New Liberty, p314
We have only achieved the productive powers of modern industry because of the productive incentives of private property. Most of the world’s booming population is sustained by the productive power afforded by private enterprise. Liberal historian Micheal Karzin documents in his book American Dreamers the inability of socialist communes in America to sustain themselves in significant numbers for more than a few years. Facts such as these compel people like myself to argue that private property is the cornerstone of civilization. For anyone who desires the full argument in favor of private property, I recommend this book.
Despite these arguments, why do philosophical fragments that endorse communist philosophy appeal to academics? Ludwig von Mises offers some insight:
“The errors of the philosophers are due to their complete ignorance of economics, and very often to their shockingly insufficient knowledge of history. In the eyes of the philosopher the treatment of philosophical issues is a sublime and noble vocation which must not be put upon the low level of other gainful employments. The professor resents the fact that he derives an income from philosophizing; he is offended by the thought that he earns money like the artisan and the farm hand. Monetary matters are mean things, and the philosopher investigating the eminent problems of truth and absolute eternal values should not soil his mind by paying attention to them. No line of any contemporary philosopher discloses the least familiarity with even the most elementary problems of economics.”
Ludwig von Mises – Human Action, “The Epistemological Problems of Human Action” p33