*** RYAN TATE: Shocking secrets--revealed! ***
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Recent San Francisco Business Times stories

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Recent personal essays

Private property (Oct. 8)

On Being a Cowboy (Mar. 24)



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Private property

By Ryan Tate

Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Property and freedom are inseparably connected.
--Russell Kirk

It may seem odd that the subject of private property, broached in a book documenting the history of conservative thought in America, set me off thinking today about the end of two friends' relationship, about my own job and about the 2003 California recall election. But it occurred to me as I was reading about right-conservative thinkers like Kirk, his idol Richard Weaver and the critic Edmund Burke that property is perhaps the single most important underlying intellectual trunk line in the aged but still vibrant network of American political thought. More important, I am increasingly convinced it is an absolutely critical dimension in relations between people generally, including in private affairs.

Contemporary American left-liberalism tends to look upon notions of private property with suspicion. Unlike in the 1930s and again in the 1960s, long-accepted forms of private property, such as homes and crops, are not considered up for debate. But at the fuzzy boundaries of private property, such as intellectual property disputes involving online file sharing or on whether to control prices on new drugs or even salary contracts and stock profits, it is elements of the left who are arguing the interests of the masses over those of the individual.

These subjects are still being hashed out. But the left in recent decades has clearly succeeded in banishing the idea of private property from personal affairs. Repugnant and hypocritical applications of property notions in slavery, paternalism toward blacks, paternalism toward women and other deprivations of liberty inside and outside the home made this seem quite prudent -- to America, to the right, and not the least of all to me.

But the idea of private property has unparalleled, irreplaceable utility behind closed doors. Locking it out was no more wise than locking out discussion of carnal pleasure or of money or of sacrifice. That is, while there is no clear answer on what its exact role should be, it is an element that cannot be ignored. The mistakes of the past tended to involve equating ownership of land with dynamics between people, when such a metaphor is untenable and unrealistic.

We have learned to say that wives are not the property of husbands, and in that spirit we might say the reverse is true as well. We say no one may own anyone else, and in so saying we mean no one may compel anyone else to act against their will, except for the state and except in cases of self defense and legal breeches.

But this is simply not true. Wives may own husbands and husbands may own wives. And for that matter, friends may own friends, employers may own workers, and speakers may own their audiences.

When we say marriage is not a property arrangement, we make the mistake of assuming property arrangements are fixed in time, unexpiring. But all property must be surrendered eventually. Even the possessions we cling to most tightly are released upon our own death, albeit to people of our own choosing. More important, different pieces of property are surrendered on different timetables.

This is a principle successful businessmen, who I interview on a daily basis, understand better than other human beings. They grasp the centrality of this concept in life so well that they become comfortable manipulating it as a player might maneuver himself inside the rules of a game. They get to own this money for ten years so that they might lease this land for fifty years, and there's some other money due in five years they hope to convert, through intelligence and hard work, into a hotel or mall or apartment complex or restaurant on the land, to extract property from customers on a monthly or daily or hourly basis at such a rate the businessman himself can pay everything back in three and use the property for his own benefit, perhaps until he dies or perhaps only until it looks like the market for hotels/malls/apartment complexes/restaurants has peaked. If  he fails, the consequences for the most part involve simply surrendering the pieces of property earlier than planned.

Then I, business reporter, call and ask to own his attention, energy and, for most practical purposes, self for about 15 minutes to an hour. In other words, I ask to interview him, to set the agenda for discussion, to demand information, to take what I glean and use it not for their purposes but my own, to sell it to other people to enrich myself. If they find this process distasteful they can arrange a different sort of property exchange with our advertising department and see to it their own chosen words appear in their own chosen form in their very own pulp real estate in the newspaper.

A romantic relationship can involve similar forms of ownership. Turning yourself over to someone else sounds, on the face of it, less than appealing. But for a few minutes? This is a different story. We do so all the time. Psychologists like to talk about romantic love as a temporary collapse of ego boundaries, and this collapse rarely feels more complete than during sex. Even the most plain "vanilla" form of sex involves an emotional surrender, a dissolution of self, and an effective giving, in a very proprietary sense, of one's self, of one's body and consciousness, to another. This can be a balanced trade or not, and we can perceive it to be a balanced trade or not, and we can want it to be a balanced trade or not.

There are less intense forms of property transfer as well, which are also short-term in nature. How often will a spouse, lover or friend make a "sacrifice" -- think about the significance of that word -- for the sake of another person, agreeing to see a movie they might not otherwise watch, performing a chore they might not otherwise feel obliged to do but for the relationship and desires of the other?  Time, attention, money, suggestions, information are all forms of property, different from real estate or patents or copyrights not in a fundamental way but only in the particulars of the legal codes and societal norms.

Of course, legal codes and societal norms are enormously helpful in greatly reducing ambiguity and thus smoothing relations and interactions. There are no property rules for the personal realm, there are not even many property guidelines. We don't even know when we're talking about property, or how to talk with comfort and nuance about ownership between and within people.

But it is still crucial for decision making. At my last job, my employer owned too much. They didn't just own rights to my time and to set my agenda, they owned the process of developing stories. I mean, they didn't even lend it to me. Every story I wrote originated inside an editor's head. And not even my own editor -- I often followed stories essentially owned by other publications, who broke the news first. So I could only borrow on behalf of my editors work owned by other journalists, essentially. I had no beat -- a form of temporary holding of property in the form of a network of sources and a general topic area -- so I had to beg for information rather than trading or asking.

I quit and moved to my new job not primarily because they pay and benefits were better but because I got more ownership. Sure, the editors and publisher still own the publication and have ultimate long-term ownership over my time, stories and generally everything I do at work or in the name of the paper. But I get a great deal of ownership for shorter periods over elements of my job, like story development. At least 90 percent of my stories come not from my editors but from my own ideas, from tips from sources or from suggestions from other reporters at the paper. I also have beats, so I have ownership over topic areas and can develop a network of sources that is mine.

All this ownership is relative. My ownership of a source is very limited as is their ownership of me, but there is a property relationship there. And all levels of ownership are constrained in time, even the publisher's ownership of the very words she prints. Copyright expires.

In September 2003, who owned executive authority in California? Did that person own the problems in the state and did he admit the extent of his ownership? Does this other candidate over here overstate his ownership over the bodies of other people? I don't know, and even the election does not answer these questions in a factual sense. Do we vote for Arnold to see the return on a significant investment of property in him, of time and of money, over the last two decades, as we streamed into his movies? Any student of political science can tell you with great certainty that this is a dynamic at play. For a politician, there is no question that accepting a $5 donation nets much more loyalty than issuing a $5 handout. It is not an accident people tend to become reluctant to cash out of long-held stocks as they plummet further and also find it difficult to end lengthy relationships on the decline.

So how are freedom and property connected? I coming to believe we are ourselves defined, internally and at large, by our property. Yes, I mean property in the sense of real estate and jeans and video games and stock options. This is not, on the face of it and necessarily, materialism. Rather, it is a natural extension of more fundamental yet poorly-understood forms of property that are much more valuable but just as easy to surrender. We own and are defined by our time, our bodies, our agenda, our attention, our ideas and, ultimately, ourselves. It is not just these things that define us but our strategy for surrendering and banking them.

Sometimes we give away too much, sometimes we horde the wrong things. But though we may walk away from the bazaars of life penniless and taken, or rich with worthless paper, we hold irrevocably the deed to our own destiny.