The Origins of Property: A Parable with Morals

The Parable

Once upon a time there was a primitive tribe that hunted and gathered in a verdant forest in a temperate clime.  

Rouseau I call them a “tribe” but that name may mislead if it suggests some rigorous form of  social organization.  In fact, the group was about as un-organized as it is possible for people to be.  There were among them no elders, chiefs, shamans or any other kind of leader with authority over his fellows. With one exception– which we will soon discuss — there were no laws, rules or taboos that were obeyed or enforced among them and no judges or police to enforce them.


This lack of norms was reflected in their language which (luckily for our narrative purposes) was much like modern English but which lacked any moral or legal vocabulary.  The natives never spoke of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘legal’ or ‘law’.  They had no words for ‘promise’, or ‘contract’ and none for ‘property’ or ‘ownership’.

Even so, as I just averred, there was one rule that the natives generally acknowledged and mostly conformed to. They called it “The Rule”.

The Rule: No Bullying!

By ‘bullying’ the natives seem to have meant, roughly, hurting other people or using force or the threat of force to compel others to do what they would otherwise not do. But not every use of force or infliction of harm was regarded as bullying. 

It was, for example, not considered bullying to use force or its threat to defend oneself or someone else against a bully. The Rule permitted self-defense and “other defense” and this had important consequences for all of tribal life.

To understand these upshots it is necessary to understand that the tribe’s aversion to bullying did not mean that they were averse to violence or the use of force. These were hard men and women in a hard time. They hunted for food with primitive tools and competed for game with lions and bears. Many among them prided themselves on their martial skills and relished a good brawl.  They would set to with enthusiasm given any excuse and, under The Rule, defending against bullying was an excuse.  

That meant that any native attempting to push some weaker tribesman around might find the tables quickly turned as many defenders rushed to intervene and — happily unrestrained by the The Rule— teach the would-be bully a brutal lesson.

Yet The Rule had application even here.  The natives recognized that things could go too far: that using too much force– more force than was required to stop the bully– could itself turn into bullying.  If they judged that self-defense was turning into a retaliatory beating, other natives would turn their efforts to protecting the would be bully.  Bullying, even of bullies, was not tolerated.  

Henri_Rousseau_-_Exotic_LandscapeSuch bullies as there were amongst the tribe were, of course, aware of these dangers and so would be careful to pick victims too weak to fight back and catch them when there were alone.  But when the other members of the tribe heard about such an incident they would track the bully down and force him to make it up to the victim.  So, for example, if the bully had snatched an apple from the victims hand he might be forced find him another. If the victim were injured, the bully might be forced to hunt and gather for him until the victim recovered.  This use of force– to compel compensation– was not regarded as bullying and was also exempt from the The Rule.

Sometimes too, if the tribesmen thought the bully was likely to repeat his infraction they might administer a modest beating and threaten him with more, “to teach him a lesson”, as they would say.  And these acts and threats of violence were not regarded as bullying either so long as they were proportionate to their avowed purpose– to prevent further bullying.   

In this way The Rule was self-enforcing: Those who did not obey it were likely to suffer at the hands of those who did. This enforcement depended entirely on the tribesmen’s general willingness to intervene on behalf of the bullied and such intervention was purely voluntary.  The rule was not understood to require anyone to defend anyone else –or even to defend oneself– against bullying. In any case, there was no mechanism for enforcing such a requirement. To attempt to force anyone to fight bullies, everyone acknowledged, would itself be bullying.

The willingness of the tribesmen to come to the defense of their fellows must therefore be counted a kind of altruism; albeit a self-consciously reciprocal altruism. “If I defend my neighbor today, he may defend me tomorrow”,  the natives often said.  And just because enforcing The Rule was voluntary, anyone with a reputation as a coward might find himself with few defenders when a bully appeared.  Then too, it was common practice for rescued victims to show gratitude to their defenders by doing them services and favors.  These acts of gratitude were not thought of as payments due or as morally required — as I said, the natives did not speak the language of contract, debt or  moral obligation– but as simply prudent since, as they would say, “you never know when the next bully will come round”.

Now I said that the native’s language possessed no words for “property” or “ownership”.  Of course one can have a thing and not have a word for it but the natives certainly did not enjoy the kind of enduring ownership of things that we associate with these words.   

In the morning most of men and women of the tribe would go off to forage for food.  When they returned to the general campsite in the evenings each would look anew for a place to set a fire and bed down, and every night this was a matter of first-come, first-served.  It did not matter if a tribesmen had been the first to discover a particular cozy spot or if that native had (as philosophers say) “mixed his labor” with that campsite by clearing trees or erecting a lean-to.  It didn’t matter if that particular native had slept in that particular spot, whenever he could, for season after season.  On any evening he might return and find someone else was already sleeping there and there would be nothing to be done about it.  He could not forcibly evict the interloper because that would be regarded as bullying and the other Tribesman would use it as an excuse to “teach him a lesson”.

As it was with land so it was with things.   The natives knew how to knap stone tools and scrape hides for clothing.   But if any other native found a tool or fur sitting unattended she could simply walk off with it and there was nothing the artisan could do to reclaim the fruits of his labor.  He could not use force or even its threat, because that would be regarded as bullying.  

It was the same with the food.  A hardworking native might scramble all day to collect a few nuts and berries but the moment he set them down others who had done nothing all day but lounge by the fire might scoop them up and eat them all.   And there would be nothing the hard working native could do about it. No bullying!  

RouseuObserving all this, anthropologists might say that this was one of those communities which lacked even the “”concept of Property”.  But then anthropologists say many foolish things.   It was true that any item any tribesman left unattended could be taken by any other no matter what its history or provenance.  But it was also true that once a native had taken something into his possession The Rule protected his possession of it against any who would try to take it away.  

If the fiercest fighter in the village happened to leave his favorite spear unattended for a moment, the weakest tribesman might pick it up and use it as his own.  If the fighter tried to snatch it back his behavior would be regarded as bullying and would invite a beating from his fellows. A beating which would likely end with his being forced to return the spear and perhaps other compensation.   

Likewise, while who-slept-where was a matter of first-come, first-served, once a native had encamped on a particular spot no one would dare to try to forcefully displace her. Thanks to the Rule she was safe, “safe as houses” as they say.  

So a native might be said to own the clothes on his back, the ax in her belt or the apple in his hand for as long as he or she held on to them.  Any native was the sole proprietor of any land where she lay down at night– until she got up the next morning. Anything that you could only be deprived of by being somehow pushed around was your property by dint of the Rule’s protections against being pushed around.   

What each native owned was limited to what he physically possessed at any given time and while this kind of ownership is obviously limited it was sufficient to sustain a robust economy with distinct economic roles.   Thus: Every morning while some natives would go off to hunt and gather, others would stay behind to make tools, scrape hides or just squat on the choicest camping spots. Come evening, trading would ensue.  Fruit, nuts, and game would be traded for tools and clothes and choice campsites close to the fire.

These transactions were tricky because the natives had no institutions of promising or contracting. As I said the native language did not even include words for “promise” or “debt”.  If you handed over your piece of fruit in the expectation that the other guy would give you a nut, and he didn’t, there was nothing that you could do and no one to complain to.  Any attempt to forcefully get your fruit back would be treated as bullying and others might forcefully restrain you.  No blame or penalty was associated with frustrating others expectations in this way.  

This made trading complicated, but not impossible. Typical exchanges among the natives would involve either perfectly synchronized handings-over or complicated dances in which the parties would set down their goods at some distance away then slowly circle round till they had traded places and possessions.  

If you wanted a squatter to yield you a choice camp site, you might place a tempting tidbit just out of his reach, so he would have to vacate his ground to retrieve it.  If you misjudged your timing and he or someone else got to the site before you, you were out of luck. No bullying!

Cumbersome though it was, the system worked. The artisans and squatters were fed and hunters and gatherers were equipped, clothed and usually slept where they might wish. The property thus traded was property because of The Rule. And thanks to The Rule the trades were always voluntary and usually accomplished to the satisfaction of all parties involved. No one was bullied into giving up their property.

But again I fear I am making the natives sound too pacific, an impression I may correct by pointing out one more wrinkle in the natives understanding of The Rule : It was not counted as bullying to use violence against someone who had given you permission to do so.

Why, you might ask, would anyone give their permission to be hurt? Well one reason (we will soon find others) was simply recreation: It provided a way for the stronger tribesmen to exercise their violent impulses without bullying.

Art6Typically, these permissions to mutual harm would be exchanged reciprocally in an ancient ceremony.  It would begin when one tribesman saw another he thought a worthy opponent.  He would catch his eye and ask the ritual question,  “Who are you looking at?” By which was meant, “Do I have permission to do you as much violence as I possibly can?” If the other tribesman were disinclined to fight he would say, “Can’t we all just get along?”, and slink away.  But if he was up for it he would give the customary reply, “You want a piece of me”? By which was meant “I herewith grant you said permission provided you will grant me leave to beat you senseless”.  To which the expected retort was “Bring it! ” ; meaning “I do herewith grant you said permission!”  

At this point the witnesses– and there was always an audience — would signal to the combatants that they recognized that reciprocal permissions had been exchanged by loudly chanting “Get it on! Get it on!”, by which they conveyed to one and all that, until the permissions were rescinded, they would not regard anything one combatant might do to the other as bullying.  

Thus reassured that their fight would not be interrupted, battle would commence. At any point in what followed either party could rescind his permission by saying the ritual word “Uncle”.  To attack a man after he had said “Uncle!” was regarded as bullying, and hence subject to violent interference from members of the audience.  This, of course, is one of the reasons the fighters would take care to make sure there was an audience and, if possible, one in which both fighters had allies.  Another reason was to protect a fighter from a poor loser’s later denying that he had given permission and denouncing the winner as a bully.

In this quaint fashion the tribe survived for many years. Though, as economists might have predicted, it did not prosper or progress as much as it might have.  No native craftsman would labor very long over a spear that anyone might walk off with as soon as he or she set it down.  And no one bothered to hunt or gather for more food than they could immediately eat or barter away.  So the natives’ tools remained primitive and their stores of food so small that a hard winter or drought could lead to general famine.  Life was short, but, thanks to The Rule, not as nasty or as brutish as it might have been.

Then one day disaster struck…

Feeling_Grizzly-1600x1200A huge, ravenous bear appeared amongst the tribesmen. Most fled the monstrous beast, leaving the slow of foot– the old and young– to be eaten.  Many were killed. Many were mauled.  

But there was one among the tribe, one hero, a hunter by the name of “Wilt”, who did not flee.  He stood and fought the bear and finally, though suffering many wounds, killed the beast with his makeshift spear.

Of course, the community was grateful to brave Wilt.  They gathered fruits and nuts to fete him and sang his praises round the fire.

But Wilt was not impressed.  His wounds were grievous and he had never needed others to gather food for him. In any case, he could not carry all these gifts on his back and as soon as he laid anything down anyone might walk away with it.  

Wilt was not a happy camper. He made it clear to the other natives that the next time a vicious beast came round he would not be so quick to come to the rescue.  “After all”, Wilt asked, “What’s in it for Wilt?”

This caused great consternation in the tribe. Thanks to The Rule, they generally protected themselves against each other, but fighting bears was no fun. And while many doubted that Wilt would ever recover sufficiently to take on another bear, everyone noticed that the young, strong men who might were paying close attention to Wilt’s fate.

No fools, the tribesmen realized that they had to incentivize this kind of heroism. But the strong men were the least in need of help from others and it’s hard to reward someone when  all you have to give is, literally, what you have in hand; and when they can only keep what they can carry.  And how can you convey a promise to reward future heroism when you have no word for ‘promise’?

One evening as they discussed their problem around the fire, one clever tribesman– we’ll call him ‘Bob’– had an inspiration.  Bob reminded everyone that there was an especially nice camping spot down by the river that Wilt was known to favor.  Whenever Wilt came home from hunting he would barter with whatever squatter had taken it for a chance to sleep there. Any day he could not strike a deal, Wilt would be very sad. “Therefore, to show my gratitude to Wilt”, Bob announced, ” I say to you and everyone here assembled that from this day forward, should I ever attempt to occupy that camp site I herewith give Wilt and each and every one of you my permission to do me as much violence as might be needed to drive me off. And because I give permission this violence to me will not be bullying. Wilt and any of you may treat my stepping on that land as if I were stepping on Wilt’s toes.  And if I should do anything to despoil that spot or take anything from it you may force me to make compensation as if I had snatched food from Wilt’s hands or torn the clothes from his back. I grant you all this permission.”

Bob’s declaration caused much murmuring round the fire.  Wilt was pleased but observed that it would not do him much good unless the other tribesmen — particularly the habitual squatters– granted the same sort of general permissions.  That prompted some other tribesmen to immediately rise and echo Bob’s declaration. “I herewith grant everyone here permission to harm me if I step on that land and the other stuff Bob said”, said the first. “I too grant said permissions to one and all vis a vis said land” said the second.  “I too, grant Wilt that land”, abbreviated the third.  

But not everyone was prepared to go along so easily.  The campsite the villagers were already starting to call “Wilt’s land” was an especially choice spot.  Some of the habitual squatters complained that if Wilt was the only one who could use it there would not be, as they put it, “enough and as good” left to be slept on or traded for.   

Bob replied that, of course, no one could force anyone to “grant Wilt the land” (as he put it) since that would be bullying, but anyone who did not might wonder who would help them the next time a bear appeared.

Rousseau2This moved some listeners but there will still holdouts amongst the squatters.  Squatters spent their days in idleness and while all were lazy, not all were dull.  The clever ones among them would pass the languid hours by bickering among themselves about abstract topics and indulging fanciful speculations and in these recreations became much adept.  They styled themselves “The Philosophers”.  

The philosophers recognized that if they did not give the others the same permissions Bob had offered, they might soon find themselves a minority of the tribe, and a weak and unpopular minority at that. They needed to stem the tide in favor of “The Grant” without appearing ungenerous to Wilt. So they resorted to one of their favorite tactics–  posing befuddling questions that made what had at first seemed simple appear dauntingly complex.

One philosopher– who we’ll call “Feinberg”– rose and addressed the group.  “I too, of course, am grateful to Wilt for killing the awful bear and I too believe he deserves a special reward.  But I think we should all be careful about giving permissions for others to use violence against us, particularly when we have no mechanisms to rescind those permissions.  Surely it would gain Wilt nothing if anyone can wander at will over “Wilt’s Land” just by shouting, ‘Uncle’ as he does so?”

Bob agreed that would be absurd, he said he was giving permission to have as much force as might be needed to evict him from Wilt’s land. “No matter what.”

“No matter what!”,  Feinberg exclaimed.  “What if Wilt invited his good friend Bob over to his campsite to share a meal?  Would the rest of us then have permission to forcibly throw Bob off “Wilt’s land” no matter what Wilt wanted?”

“No! No!” Bob protested. “Obviously I give general permission to forcibly throw me off the land, only if Wilt wants me thrown off.”  

“And is Wilt’s consent the only condition?” Feinberg countered.

“Yes um… maybe.” Bob stammered, for he sensed a trap was being laid.

“Because imagine this”, Feinberg said, springing the trap. “Suppose that your young daughter was bitten by a snake, and the only way to reach the river and cleanse the wound was across “Wilt’s land”?  If Wilt or one of his strongman friends should stop you then and keep you from saving your child do you really say that that would not be bullying?  Is that what you give them permission to do?”

Wilt protested that he would never behave so churlishly but Feinberg dismissed him.  “It’s only a hypothetical?”. Which silenced Wilt who, though brave, was not clever and did not know what ‘hypothetical’ might mean.

But Bob was clever and thought he could beat the philosopher at this game, “The case is not relevant because the child would be harmed and it might be that the child had not given permission.”

“Very well,” replied Feinberg, in his element now, “Suppose that it were your life at risk. Suppose that a time of famine comes upon us and many die. Suppose that the last food to eat happens to be on Wilt’s land.  Suppose he hoards a pile of food– more than he needs– in plain view right in the middle of “his” land.  Do you say that then, when your life hangs in the balance that it would not be bullying for Wilt to force you to starve to death rather than go on “his” land? Is that the kind of behavior to which you give permission?”

Bob was uncertain. “No.  Obviously there must be limits, if the need is desperate enough…”  

“And who is to decide if the need is desperate?”   Feinberg asked.  “And what are the consequences of acting on those needs?  Suppose that you were freezing to death and Wilt had left a pile of furs in the middle of “his land”.  You have said that to take something from “Wilt’s land” would be like taking it from Wilt’s back. Does that mean we should regard your desperate behavior as bullying poor Wilt?  Are you saying that we could force you to compensate Wilt for taking this fur as The Rule allows? And who should decide what compensation is appropriate?”

By this time the listening tribesmen were getting restless. The hour was getting late and the philosopher’s questions confused and annoyed them.  Some members of the audience were beginning to drift away; some had fallen asleep.  “Typical philosopher’s prattle” some complained.

Rousseausleepinggypsy“No.” Bob said, “We must take this seriously. Remember that what is at stake here is who will defend us when the next bear comes round.  We have to sort this out, and I can see now that I was not clear enough in my declaration.  I propose that we all sleep on the matter.  Tomorrow night let us gather by the fire again and say precisely what permissions we will give to Wilt in these different circumstances and consider whatever other hypotheticals the philosophers can concoct.  Then we will hammer out a version we can all endorse”.   

This brought murmurs of agreement and the tribesmen went off to find places to sleep.   Ironically, when Wilt arrived at “Wilt’s land” he found it already occupied by a philosopher who had not taken the pledge.  Wilt dragged himself off grumpily to the only available resting place– a bed of stones– where his fitful sleep was roiled with nightmarish dreams of philosophical bears.

The next night, the tribe met again.  Bob came with a draft of a new declaration, one that dealt with what force might be used in the hypotheticals that Feinberg had proposed and stipulated who should, in the event of disputes, arbitrate what was and was not bullying.  There was a long and difficult discussion but in the end there was a formulation that most of the tribesmen found reasonable and the rest thought it imprudent to reject.

So at the end of the second night the tribesmen stood as one and recited in unison the agreed to text:

“In recognition of his valiant service I , (Your name here) , herewith give Wilt and everyone else here present, permission to use whatever force may be required to prevent me from stepping on this land if and only if….”

That second night Wilt went to the camp site he had so long cherished.  He carefully drew a line in the sand around its borders and erected a little sign on a post just inside the line.  Then he lay down and slept a deep, contented sleep.  

The sign said, “Keep out! Private Property”.  

And so it was.


The morals…