The Coordination Solution, Property, and the Exception (Comment)

Libertarians and “liberals” before them haven’t somehow entirely missed “the coordination problem.” If theorists return to “two traders in a forest” or an idealized “homestead,” it will usually be in an attempt to make some general point more clear. Economic theories often (always?) begin with simple, idealized models of economic processes, and then extrapolate. The distance between the imaginary shoemaker able to produce more shoes than he and his family have use for, and transnational corporations manufacturing and distributing shoes and other items, is vast, but the illustration of the difference between use value and exchange value may still remain instructive for both.

I wouldn’t say, however, that the coordination problem isn’t a serious problem for libertarianism at some point. It was understood as a philosophical problem well before the industrial era or our era of globally distributed manufacture and consumption, with direct bearing on this question of property rights (Burke and Hume have much to say on this connection vs. different revolutionary or crypto-revolutionary social concepts). The thinking has been re-stated in many ways since and, as always in these very fundamental matters, can be re-extracted from the most ancient sources available to us – just as we ourselves and our language are also “extracted from the ancient sources” – wherever the creation of worlds or of societies (social-political orders, including all of their laws) marks, is marked by, and is constituted as a transition from a pre-history to a history, or from what was before us to what we are now.

The discussion of the claim that property is thieft fits neatly within this framework. My comment in the post [cross-posted here] about property as the “pre-adjudication” of the natural collision of individual rights is another way of describing a central, trans-generational mode of “coordination solution.”

Quite relatedly, the very idea of theft implies the existence of a moral and legal order. Definining property itself as “theft” would imply the existence of real communities prior to the existence of property (or property rights), because, if there is no place that is “our own” – even in the form of a temporary or virtual location that we nomads securely occupy today, that is our own today, where we can go about our lives unafraid of the wolves or zombies, where our customs are understood and enforced (allowing us to coordinate efficiently) – then there is no “theft” properly speaking, any more than it is “murder” for a bird to eat a worm or a T-cell to destroy an infected cell, or for a “walker” to devour this week’s victims (or this week’s survivors to decapitate this week’s to be de-animated walkers).

When we nomads occupy our little encampment by the riverside, we may declare it “theft” if one of us takes a tool from someone’s tent without permission, but we might equally consider all of the possessions of our group commonly held, and have no law or concept or custom relating to “theft.”

So “property is theft” is a tautological statement, since without property there are no property crimes. It is only retrospectively that we can look back on the first King Henry and say, if he were a subject of King Henry’s realm or the realm of a legitimate (Henry-realm-lawfully recognized) successor, what he did to found his realm would be theft. After King Henry, to try to found a new realm in King Henry’s realm is insurrection or treason – unless the project succeeds, in which case King Henry’s realm is reduced or destroyed, and a new realm and new definitions of treason and potentially of theft might be set by the new rulers.

These words – ruler, realm, rule, regime, right, etc. – define each other. To “found” a realm is always to divide up the real property, or perform the first, foundational, “original primary division” of property (of the really ruling rulers’ real rights to the real, etc.) to which all further divisions and re-divisions can eventually (lawfully, by rule) be traced.

The original primary division is an exceptional moment, a type of the sovereign moment in governance, that comes before or outside of law, and makes the law (law at all) possible or real, moves it from mere idea to reality. The laws by which the process of the foundation of laws occur can be thought of as natural or physical or bio-physical laws, not statutes (of the state), but remain as such of a very particular type, since they are the laws by which the other than merely natural order arises. (They are before the fact as mysterious as the origins of life and especially sentient life; they can be viewed as processes of the same type, for an emergent social organism as integral being.)

The “exception,” which is determined at the extreme, but inescapably, by the giving and taking of natural lives (which our friend b-psycho would like to wish out of existence) is the fundamental challenge to an individualist liberalism (and libertarianism), since a pure individualism cannot ever justify the sacrifice of the individual’s life, for the individual whose life is to be surrendered. It can never be in my interest as an individual to give up my life, but the existence of the state – and all of its laws – is always premised on the willingness of some to risk their lives and take others – as it were “altruistically” (which means, etymologically, “in reference to others rather than to oneself”: alter-istically). To construct a self-interest out of the circumstances of one’s own extinction requires a de-construction of simple individualism, and re-construction of the individual, not merely in relation to society as it presently exists, but specifically in relation to a social being that exists beyond the lifespan of any particular member.

The coordination problem is thus a corollary of the exception problem. The necessary transtemporal and social re-construction of the identity of the individual is a process we conventionally define as a matter of “religion,” and a common materialist explanation of religion refers precisely to its utility as coordination solution, and so we’re back to where we began, with the littlest possible story, of one person and his or her desires and needs somehow to be related to the self-organization of a global mass of 7 billion souls, via political theology.

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