Private Property, Personality, and Humanity

by Don Boudreaux on March 2, 2007

in Property Rights

This article by Maureen Martin, published recently at Tech Central Station, gives an example of the dangerous naivete that allegedly intelligent people often are guilty of.  Some elementary-school "teachers" in Seattle are attempting to instruct their students on the selfishness and injustice of private property.  Here’s an excerpt:

[T]he students had been building an elaborate "Legotown," but it
was accidentally demolished. The teachers decided its destruction was
an opportunity to explore "the inequities of private ownership."
According to the teachers, "Our intention was to promote a contrasting
set of values: collectivity, collaboration, resource-sharing, and full democratic participation."

The children were allegedly incorporating into Legotown "their
assumptions about ownership and the social power it conveys." These
assumptions "mirrored those of a class-based, capitalist society — a
society that we teachers believe to be unjust and oppressive."

They claimed as their role shaping the children’s "social and
political understandings of ownership and economic equity … from a
perspective of social justice."

[HT: Candace Smith]

Reading about these "teachers" called to mind this passage from Richard Pipes’s marvelous 1999 book Property and Freedom:

Bruno Bettelheim learned to his surprise that while it was possible, over time, to inculcate in kibbutz children indifference to private belongings, this exacted a heavy price.  Israelis brought up in such a Spartan environment showed exceptional group loyalty and grew up to become excellent soldiers, but they experienced great difficulty making an emotional commitment to any one individual, whether by forming a friendship or falling in love:

Emotion shared with only one other person is a sign of selfishness no less than other private possessions.  Nowhere more than in the kibbutz did I realize the degree to which private property, in the deep layers of the mind, relates to private emotion.  If one is absent, the other tends to be absent as well.

Kibbutz youths admitted to being inhibited about writing poetry or painting, because such activities were considered "selfish" and brought the opprobrium of the group.

[From page 75 of Pipes's book; the Bettelheim quotation is from Bruno Bettelheim's The Children of the Dream (1969), page 261.]

So what’s the take-away?  Brainwashing people into feeling shame about their private possessions risks causing them also to feel shame about personal achievement and personal relationships.  Such persons become, in a very real way, inhuman.  They become fine soldiers but lousy individuals.

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Chris O'Leary March 2, 2007 at 10:30 am

Yesterday I heard of a study that was done by some Australian researchers of the treatment of collective tea spoons. They found that people did not treat this collective property with the same respect that they did private property.

Here's the link…

"The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute"

Jim McAlister March 2, 2007 at 10:39 am

What is so abysmally sad about the "lesson" the teacher drew from the children's project is the lack of realization that the advent of capitalism corresponded with the rise of democracy – both were explicitly NOT class-based; everyone was equal in rights before the law –no one was privileged because of force or accident of birth. The “social power” of property ownership is a spectacularly exceptional achievement in human history, born (I believe)out of the mind of God Himself as enshrined in the social genius of the Ten Commandments. The sad, familiar story of most of human history is that of an elite few enjoying relative plenty at the expense of the many for no other reason than that they possess power, in the form of naked force or the acquiescence of ingrained habit, to do so. Under the ideals of democratic capitalism, the "many" enforce among themselves rules that simultaneously allow the freedom to achieve and the protection of that achievement. But not its enshrinement. The story of democratic capitalism is the story of nearly incredible progress, predicated on the products of personal giftings and personal character on offer to others, at values not determined by the offeror by the offeree. What is empirically true is that the apple-cart of “class” is continuously upset in the topsy-turvy world of the marketplace. An achiever class does, in fact, exist, but its membership is totally fluid. Many simply don’t aspire to join it – it is generally an arduous project to develop the talents, even God-given ones, and make the sacrifices that are normally the tickets for entry. But those that don’t aspire or can’t aspire to the “top of the heap” are the beneficiaries through the expanding need for workers in enterprises that never existed previously, the relatively higher wages available to those who can be ever more productive through the use of ever more sophisticated tools of the trade, and the rising standard of living due to the expanded availability at ever lower prices of goods and services that were once the luxuries only the rich could afford. It is an almost pitiable thing to see how relatively poor even the master class is in most tyrannies – a point that Adam Smith was making in the Wealth of Nations. Capitalism IS social power – and Amen to it.

Randy March 2, 2007 at 10:58 am

What bothers me is not so much that the teachers are experimenting, as that they don't even realize that they are experimenting. They are true believers. That is what we have turned our children over to.

happyjuggler0 March 2, 2007 at 11:32 am

Yet another reason for universal education vouchers. It is simply apalling that everyone except the rich pretty much is forced to send their kids to be brainwashed almost at random.

Bill March 2, 2007 at 12:10 pm

"…reason for universal education vouchers…"

Negative. That occurred at a private school. I ardently support school choice as a matter of human rights, but supporters have to realize that under choice there will hundreds, or more likely, thousands of schools dedicated to Communism, anti-Americanism, militant Islam, etc. Whatever you think of the public education now, I submit that it actually hinders things like this much more than you think. That article describes a scenario that would be common under any sort of genuine choice program. Not at the schools you support, but allowing school choice doesn’t change political / economic persuasions.

Sam Grove March 2, 2007 at 12:33 pm

Limiting individual potential to a lower common denominator.

M. Hodak March 2, 2007 at 1:45 pm

My kids since the age of 3 have been in private schools, every one of which has had a strong collectivist bent. Recently, I asked one of their history teachers why their curriculum was so Marxist. He answered that his department felt that the kids already get capitalist indoctrination from their "rich" families and "deserve a differing perspective." After my jaw dropped, I said, "You're talking about Manhattan families, where the most common bumper sticker is 'Impeach Bush'?" Yeah, he replied, as if I had somehow proved his point.

Aside from the layers of offense one might take from this attitude (we are not exactly a chauffer-driven family), I eventually saw the irony that this teacher may have been right. At a recent dinner, my kids were debating whether or not they would have a competitive advantage against their peers who were basically inundated by the message that competition is bad. I guess kids figure this stuff out.

John W. Payne March 2, 2007 at 2:58 pm

And that's why Sparta isn't remembered for art, poetry, or drama, but for war and war only.

Lowcountryjoe March 3, 2007 at 1:10 pm

If I were a member of this school board in Seattke I'd immediately propose a change to equalize the compensation of every district employee no matter what postion they hold. Included in that proposal would be that the bulk of compensation would be provided through loaned housing, vehicles and clothing while providing standardized food and medical care to the district's individual workers and their immediate families. And, best of all, the proposal would cap the spending (and therefore the taxation of the public) at its previous level. Explaining, of course, that it is an experiment.

Sam Grove March 3, 2007 at 5:41 pm

I suggest that thwarting the individual development of individuals inhibits brain development.

Josh March 4, 2007 at 11:22 am

Yes, private property is evil. That's why all these teachers decided to work at a private school.

The year was 2007, and the legos were finally equal…

Lowcountryjoe March 4, 2007 at 1:02 pm

Admittedly, I did not click the link to read this story until seeing your post, Josh. That is amazing! I am in total disbelief. I just assumed that these were public school teachers. Wow! Just, "Wow!"

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