Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Private Property Still A Bad Idea

  • Image courtesy of

  • My good friend, El Capitan recently linked to an old post of mine in which I said that private property was a bad idea. Because of this, I have gotten several comments, all of which say essentially: you're wrong. El Capitan had the most detailed and thoughtful response of them all.

    I think that the critics of my post must have thought that I posted this as some sort of commentary on capitalism. I did not express my ideas very clearly at all in the original post. As an economic and political institution I feel that private property is the worst basis for an economic system except for all the others that have been tried (apologies to Winston Churchill for altering his original quote). Now I will abandon economic and political concerns with private property entirely.

    My objection to private property is that it serves as a very effective distraction from living a meaningful life. I can only draw upon my experiences and memories as to why I have reached this conclusion. These feelings about private property actually stem from my relationships with people: my friend Charlie who has - almost literally - nothing of his own, Jim from my coven, and my personal experience.

    Charlie is disabled. His spinal column is degenerating. He has told me the name of his disease, but I cannot recall it now. Pain is held at bay with powerful painkillers and even they can't totally alleviate it. Charlie owns an '85 Buick with 243,000 miles on it. If it wasn't for a mechanic in Alcoholics Anonymous who helps keep it running, he would not make it to AA meetings. He lives in subsidized housing.

    Charlie owns almost nothing and he is one of the most content people I know. Very little upsets him, and when he is upset it does not last very long. He does not worry about much. Charlie is grateful for what he has. That may be the key difference between Charlie and myself. He is content with what he has, grateful to have it. On the other hand I have many things but not as much gratitude and serenity.

    Laura and I were going to give Charlie our old car, hoping he could use it. The old Plymouth Sundance has a blue book value of $0.00. The Sundance is too small for Charlie's wheelchair lift, so he was going to sell it. Charlie spoke with one of the social workers who monitors his case and the social worker told him under NO circumstances should he accept our gift and sell it. If the title transfer came up in his case file, he might lose medicaid benefits. No more pain meds for you!

    So, Charlie, a man whose most valuable possession is a motorized wheelchair literally held together with duct tape, can't have our car. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I understand the point is to prevent Medicaid fraud, but it is amazing how they can crack down on one disabled guy but can’t seem to stop organized corporate looting of the Medicaid program. Charlie was excited by the prospect of selling the car because he could then pay off a friend who loaned him money for parts for his current car. Last year I paid him $80.00 for editing some of my writing (he used to teach English). Charlie took the money and used it to buy his son and daughter some nice Christmas gifts.

    A current factor on my attitude toward property is my friend Jim. He is dying of lung cancer and it is terrifying how rapidly things are progressing.

    Jim introduced me to the concept of Voluntary Simplicity. The concept is, well, simple. It is to live life for fulfillment rather than for prosperity. It does not mean doing without, or living in poverty. It just means evaluating your priorities, finding out what is truly important to you and then setting aside that which does not forward those goals. I don’t feel that I am presenting this philosophy of life as well as I might, so I would recommend visiting What is Voluntary Simplicity? for a better summary.

    My friend Jim lives this life. He retired early so he could have time to enjoy life, friendships and pursue his own interests. Cancer changed his plans, but perhaps it all worked out since he has some time without the burden of work do as he pleases. Jim had no vehicle when he retired but wound up with a little red truck he inherited. His house was small, but comfortable and paid off.

    Jim has friends and time for his friends. It has actually been quite a gift to know him because I am learning from him. I would like to be more like him in many ways. I like his life priorities, I like his attitude (even as he faces death) and his company is a comfort to me. Jim’s no saint, and I don’t think he’s perfect (in fact his view of the role of women irks me no end), but even when we disagree there is a companionable nature to it.

    I think Jim lives his life in balance. That is something I would like to do.

    What about me?

    I have a dysfunctional relationship with material possessions. It goes like this. I don’t like myself very much. Product X comes along, it could be a kilt, it could be a computer, it could be a house. Somehow I tell myself: Andy, your life would be better if you had Product X. No matter how many times I do it, I always believe that Product X will help me live a better life. So I go and I work hard and I earn money and I set aside money and finally the day comes and I go buy Product X.

    Actually the above is somewhat untrue. I usually charge Product X because I can’t wait. I want instant gratification right now! Then I go and work hard to pay off the credit card I just ran up.

    Now I have Product X and for a while it makes me happy. I am pleased with the product and with myself for being so clever as to have gotten it. But time passes and whatever it is, kilt, house, book, etc. is no longer important to me and I stop feeling so good and then I notice Product Y. Rinse and repeat.

    So what does this mean with regards to private property?

    Essentially this: to the extent that I spend my time worrying about what I own, what I do not own, and how to go about getting what I do not own, I suspect I am simply wasting valuable time that cannot be replaced. Possessions come and go and basing your self worth on them is a losing game. If my house burned to the ground, I could get new clothing, and new possessions. If Laura were to die in the fire, or my pets, they cannot be replaced, ever.

    So what is more important to me? Property or people? Well, if you look at the number of hours I work, the amount of effort that goes into obtaining things, maintaining them, buying them versus the number of hours spent with the people I love, in the nature I love and with the animals I love…well, you can see why I am not serene and happy.

    So far as I know, there is no way to reclaim a lost hour. It is my belief that most of what I have written about myself applies to almost everyone I know; except Charlie and Jim. It is not the fault of anyone else that I feel this way or live this way; it is my choice. The same is true for anyone else.

    That is why I feel, from a spiritual standpoint, that private property is a bad idea.

    But it won’t stop me from trying to talk my wife into purchasing a new iMac G5.

    For more resources on Voluntary Simplicity visit:
    Thoughts on Voluntary Simplicity
    More Voluntary Simplicity