Part 4: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property: Ethics in Yellowstone without property rights
Part 4: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property: Ethics in Yellowstone without property rights
by Jim Macdonald
Read Part 1: Who gave whom the right to create Yellowstone National Park
Read Part 2: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property
Read Part 3: Against the right to private property
On a cold summer morning in the mid 1990s in Grant Village, Yellowstone National Park, I stumbled to the boardwalk leading me to the Hamilton's General Store to work.My slumber was suddenly broken by the sight of something tan. I let out a gasp. It was not a bear but rather a cow elk feeding at the side of the boardwalk not more than a few inches from me. I sprang backwards; the young woman looked at me for about three seconds. She, then, continued to munch on the vegetation, and I continued on.
This has happened to me many times in Yellowstone and is very common in this strange world. Many of the elk will not run at the sight of a human being; whether this is the Garden of Eden or whether it's human domestication of supposedly wild elk run amok, I cannot say. In Yellowstone's past, bears used to beg for food at the side of the road, but now this is no longer the case. There used to be 30 - 40 million bison on the North American continent, but now the 4,000 confined in the cold Rocky Mountain environment of the park are considered far too many. Like the elk but unlike today's bear, they can seem domesticated except for those instances when a tourist has gotten too close or proven to be too annoying. The wolf, first eradicated by humans, then reintroduced, and now threatened again by state governments, seems to be wild when the pack chases down an elk for prey. Yet, so often, beyond the wild scene is a group of watchers with spotting scopes looking on and taking pictures. Many of the animals have collars in order to be studied by science. Bison are hazed, quarantined, and slaughtered, or subjected to canned hunts, shot on sight by hunters the moment they cross the invisible political line that is Yellowstone National Park.
On a hike into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone this past summer, down the Seven Mile Hole trail, my silence was interrupted by two fighter jets that flew low over the Yellowstone sky. They zipped by several times during the hike shattering the silence. They came back through the next day when I was on the Mt. Washburn spur trail. In wilderness, I dined in hotel restaurants served by foreign workers from Poland, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Taiwan, and Bulgaria. Many I spoke with were unable to enjoy the scenery around them because they had to raise the money just to get home, having claimed to have not been informed of the total costs of working in Yellowstone. Some washed cars and did anything possible to make a little money.
By and large, in my experience, I have been blessed with some of the most personal encounters a person can have with one's environment, and I have been blessed to know some of the nicest and most interesting people who have shared the experience of living and working in Yellowstone. I will never forget how awestruck I have been every time I have seen a backcountry waterfall, smelled the air scented by a lodgepole pine, or seen a geyser erupt. I've also been in awe of the people I have met, the animals I have seen, and the crazy landscapes I have witnessed. There is nothing I want in my heart but to preserve that experience and to add to it. The way some people feel about their home country is the way I feel about this particular land.
It is for that reason that I have chosen to explore the Yellowstone experience and to try and know as much as possible about the land my heart inhabits. Whether it is the unusual rock on my path or the human history of the place, I have desired to enrich my experience by understanding what it is that makes it what it is.
Over time, I have learned that Yellowstone is far more complicated than we could ever imagine. My experience with the elk was not an accident or a coincidence. The experience of the bear, the buffalo, and the wolf as we see them in Yellowstone is also not an accident. That of fighter jets flying over me and that of the workers of Yellowstone are also not accidents. Our experiences, as curious and as singular as they are, might have been otherwise, and when faced with that, we are faced with the question of whether they might have been better. And, even if we think of ourselves as people who refuse to look backward, in looking forward, we who love Yellowstone so much that we cannot help but knowing as much as humanly possible, would like to know what to do in the future. That is, we cannot understand what it is we should be doing if we don't understand anything about the world in which the doing happens.
Yellowstone is a national park; it is a land created by politics. That politics has been premised on a complex ideology of property rights. In this series of essays, I have made the case that the ideology of property rights infected the debate about the founding of Yellowstone National Park as well as the debate about the issues of today. Most advocates of Yellowstone argue along a continuum of property rights ranging from advocating the highest degree of private ownership to those arguing for the highest degree of public control. However, rarely is the whole ideology of property rights ever challenged. In these essays, I have done so, tracing the ideology of property rights back to John Locke. We have explored his defense of property rights, and we have rebutted Locke (see Part 3). My conclusion thus far has been that property exists; in fact, ownership of property is infinite and even necessary for every being whatsoever that exists. Yet, a right to property is a dogma with no basis in reason. Determining the value of one's labor is in the absolute sense impossible, determining the value of one kind of being over another is just as much impossible, and even if one could do either, one could not necessarily establish a right because one would not know whether the particular way in which a person appropriated a right was in fact proper. So, though in order to live, I must eat, and must use labor and in some sense make the food mine - that is to own the food - to say that I have a right to what I've taken ownership of is to say more than reason will allow.
Thus, Congress had no right to create Yellowstone National Park; to manage its plants, animals, and features; to give leases to private concessionaires; or to do anything that we have loved or hated in the name of that park. At the same time, no one and nothing else - not even the animals and plants - has had a right to Yellowstone either. We didn't even have a right to "do nothing" with the land. The concept of a "property right" is simply a fiction, and if there is an ethics in respect to Yellowstone, the notion of a "right" must be vanquished from our vocabulary. You and I have no right to it, either. That is, both the libertarians who would strip the government of ownership of parks and the liberals and socialists who would hold it in so called public ownership are all wrong.
Yet, what is there for me to do in Yellowstone, or anywhere else for that matter, if I don't have a right to do it? What is ethics in a world with property ownership but no property rights?
In life, we are faced with many things where we are forced to do something, but we do not know whether it is right. We do not know sometimes whether we should take the short cut but perhaps be stuck in traffic, or to take the long way but perhaps a smoother ride. We are faced with a lot of gray areas in life; I am suggesting that the gray area is even larger than we imagine. We have no reason to be so self assured when it comes to many of our actions, especially those actions that have to do with our sense of entitlement or privilege to or over another being. That can be a rather disconcerting realization.
Disconcerting as it may be, it is more disconcerting to pretend that one is in control when one is not. The theory of property rights depends upon knowing things we cannot know. Most disconcertingly, it forces us to codify value judgments - we have no basis to make - on the use of our labor - even though we cannot possibly know the best use of our labor in a particular place and a particular time. While we may wonder whether it was better for the elk to have looked me in the eye or to have run like mad, a world of rights says that the elk was there to serve me. Whether its eating in front of me, whether it was overpopulated, whether the vegetation should be allowed to grow instead, the elk is not relevant so much as its ultimate value to me and the labor of my commonwealth (the United States of America). Wonder all I might about our place in the universe here and now, the moral question for the property rights advocate is ultimately to the usefulness of the owner. Yet, the answer of that usefulness can never be determined with any confidence.
For instance, switching metaphors, let us consider the war in Iraq. The war in Iraq was predicated on Saddam Hussein's so called weapons of mass destruction, and then it was predicated on freedom and democracy for the Iraqi people. Aside from the myriad value judgments contained there, how are we to determine the rightful condition of the Iraqi people, and even if we could determine it, how would we make it happen? We cannot really know the consequences of the Iraq war except that beings died; the rest of it was dogmatic vanity. Just as there cannot be knowledge of a right to property, it is beyond me how there can be knowledge of a just war.
It is far more disconcerting to act as though one knows what is true when one cannot possibly know whether it is true. Yes, act we must, but to act as though one is right when one has no idea whether one is right is the clearest wrong I can imagine. It is wrong because it is incoherent and self contradictory. It is not possible to make sense of the action. The act can only confuse us or make us blind to ourselves. Either we will act and pretend that something is true, which we have never gotten to know, or we will know that the thing cannot be true but assert the right anyhow. The first case shows a lack of love; the second case shows animosity. If I love Yellowstone, my actions toward her are drawn in by knowledge. If I act but refuse to know my actions, then how could I say I love her? If I act in spite of what I know, how can anyone say that I have anything but hatred?
So, it may be disconcerting not to know what to do, but it is far more disconcerting to act with defiant certainty about something one has no reason to be certain about. If one knows that property rights are fictional and asserts that they are in force anyhow, then any person conscious of that would be suffering from a soul at war with itself. On the other hand, if one never bothers to explore the rightness of one's actions, to what degree could they be said to be acting as moral beings at all? If one acts and does not know whether one should do it, how can that be considered a moral action? In fact, that's how we act in 95% of what we do, and we feel no moral qualms about any of it. And, we don't, because most things we do involve moral questions we could not possibly answer. However, there are those acts we do that we say we should do but have no idea whether we should be doing them. Those acts are scary. It's like driving home while drunk. You might be okay, but it won't be because you knew what you were doing.
The first step, then, in acting in a world without property rights, is to renounce them, if only for the sake of your soul. In renouncing them, this does not mean that you give up all your possessions. You will still eat food, build shelter, and clothe yourselves. Yet, in renouncing your and anyone else's right to possess, you relieve yourself from the moral vanity of pretending you know that the way things have ended up are for the best and should be that way.
The people of the world, who believe in rights, materially affect everything else. That elk would not have seen me had there not been an effort to save elk, that is, to feed them, to protect their habitat, and to prohibit poaching. I cannot tell you whether such a world is better than the world that might have been otherwise except in one respect. I know that it was the self delusion of privilege that maintains these conditions, and self delusion is more harmful and less moral than the alternative. And, as much as that self delusion enforces itself on the world, that is for the worst. It is not only self oppression; it creates the habitual conditions where others must labor under this vanity. We cannot possibly know the extent of it, but we know that the condition makes little sense. Our own mental world does not happen in a vacuum, and so it is not enough to simply renounce the right to property as though they were only words on a page. Renouncing means action in the world. The extent to which action based on this dogma has been resisted, breaking the habit of property rights-based action, the better it is. It is not that you have some kind of personal right to act; it's that you must if the condition that you and others labor under is to be eradicated.
The moral world, then, is not one where we judge our success on the property that we construct but rather on whether we have torn down the vanity that has been attached with that construction.
But, why should that matter? What did a little vanity ever do?
The vanity that one race might be entitled to own another set the conditions for slavery; the vanity that one type of person was greater than another has set the stage for one genocide after another; the vanity that people were greater than their environment has produced the global environmental catastrophes that await. Yet, all those vanities would be nothing we could judge if the silent one behind it all were not exposed. It is not the sheer numbers of dead, tortured, and abused that are the most telling signs of immorality but rather the simple one behind it all. If it were numbers alone, then meteors that struck earth would be branded immoral (as well as the hurricanes that strike New Orleans and tsunamis that hit lands along the Indian Ocean). What makes something immoral is the inconsistency of the act. To act as though something is true when it is not is the condition of immorality. We cannot say what kinds of natural disasters would happen in a world where people acted naturally, whether someone accidentally passes a disease to every other person the planet, or eats the last raspberry, or shoots the last grizzly bear, but the immoral disasters that are wholly unnatural are the true tragedies of human history. Our sadness and disconnectedness from ourselves, from each other, and from nature result today from asserting ourselves as better, more deserving, more rightful than other beings when we have absolutely no basis on which to make the claim. The magnitude of the vanity does not matter, whether we think we are right in slapping our children, building a nuclear bomb for our own self defense, or even creating Yellowstone National Park. All actions have good and bad consequences that we cannot see, but privilege, self entitlement, and therefore property rights, lead us to act in a way inconsistent with what we know, which is ruinous. That, we know for sure.
So, it is our separation from ourselves and from each other, the internal inconsistency in our soul, that is the greatest crime. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized it when in Letter from Birmingham City Jail he cited the theologian Paul Tillich in identifying the root problem with segregation being "separation." That, in fact, is what he and others have identified as the very nature of sin. Sin isn't bad simply because it is sin; it is bad because of what it does. It destroys a being by making it out of whack with itself; it keeps a person from being private since the person does not even know the most itimate part of himself while keeping a person from being public since he does not understand how one's acts are out of tune with the rest of the universe. How ironic it is that understanding the limits of our knowledge is the best way to act in accordance with everything whatsoever.
We have no right to choose working on Yellowstone over social justice over war over animals over environmental work over anything we do. In my case, like the fact that I eat food and ride a bicycle, I simply do. What I hope I am doing, however, in the particular manner of my life is to renounce the oppression waged by the belief in property rights. That alone is what makes my acts moral in this context. By writing, by speaking, by being, I am engaged in communication not simply to make the world better in this one respect, but as part of my own private renunciation. I do both at once, and it is not possible to do the one without the other. It does not matter whether Yellowstone is owned by a syndicate, by me, by that elk, or by the U.S. government, when someone asserts a right to that ownership, it is something that ought to be resisted.
One problem that some of you might have of this strange minimalistic morality that I have outlined is that it does not tell us what to do in particular situations or what we would do once we have cleared ourselves of vanity. How will renouncing a right to property make the problems with bison, elk, bears, and wolves go away? How will that relate to the management of wild lands? What difference will it make if the rights to Yellowstone National Park are ever renounced, assuming one could even go that far? And, given that many people are not going to ever renounce their entitlement, rights, and privileges, how will that practically play out? It may seem more than a tad bit mystical to talk about renouncing rights without a particular sense of saying how one will act. It seems to tend toward ethical nihilism.
While I do not have many particular answers, I don't think the change I am talking about is insignificant. We have to ask ourselves why the world is the way it is now. Why is there Yellowstone National Park? Just considering the myth for a moment, many people believe it exists in order to set aside a natural area that might not otherwise be there if the Congress had not set it aside. Yellowstone exists in a world where people believe they can control their environment and yet are afraid they will not be able to control it. They want to control it to the extent that they can, and so they set aside boundaries. People invent things because they want to control something about their lives and believe they have the privilege to do so. In part because their lives are so out of control, they build tools in order to better manage and give off the illusion that they can make their way. Nations build militaries and people carry weapons because they want the illusion that they can and should be able to control their lives from danger. Industrialization has happened in a world where people have increasingly great insecurity about their place and yet increasingly greater confidence in their ability to parcel something off to be bettered and secured. Medicine cheats our deaths for awhile; safety rules do the same. Walls and fences are all about cheating a nature we ultimately cannot control. As beings, most of us want to live, and we want to enjoy our lives. As a result, we will practice arts that will do our best to laugh at the face of a reality that's actually out of our control. All beings, through their own inertia, tend to do this, though ultimately we all will be scattered like the wind.
Rights take this instinct to survive and enjoy our survival and adds moral motivation to our actions. What happens when we take that kind of moral motivation away? Surely, we are going to try and survive and enjoy ourselves just as before, but are we as likely to believe we are entitled to make the world for our survival and enjoyment? Is there not a cause and effect relationship between the industrialization of the past several hundred years, the pace and amplification of wars and genocide, the sheer population growth of humanity, and everything that Locke was writing about property rights? We cannot look that elk into the eye and feel good about it for long because both the elk and us are caught up in a moral universe so complicated where we are told everything we should be doing but cannot understand any of it. Is the elk eating good for elk in general? good for beaver? good for me? Is the lack of fear in its eyes a wonder or a sign that she ate too much alfalfa at the National Elk Refuge the winter before? This world has been built and motivated by rights, and while taking rights away does not guarantee that the same world won't come back in its place, I do not know how we could look at the empirical realities of our experience and think that it will. If I have no more entitlement to the space I occupy than the air, am I as likely to harness the air absolutely for my purpose? I will still breathe, but am I as likely to go to such wild extents to make sure that I can?
Property rights give people the illusion that their reason makes them lords of the land. There is no doubt that these rights give them greater tendency to protect what they think is theirs and to act in the greatest possible way to protect that ownership. That, in fact, is one of the problems with rights, though its proponents starting with Aristotle lift it up as the greatest virtue. The propensity to act is more and more grandiose and global in nature because the threats to our property rights are almost infinite. Because we believe we have these rights due to our ability to reason, the use of our reason to construct barriers to protect our rights also grows infinitely. Rights, in essence, are capital used to act and build upon; they are the capital of the moral universe. Yet, the grandiosity of our global assertion of our rights only creates a global catastrophe of chaos and confusion. What reason in a world without rights would there to be to build the Berlin Wall, to build the nuclear bomb, to police the border, or do so many of the things that we do?
However, maybe a world with Berlin Walls, nuclear bombs, and national borders is just as good as a world without one. Maybe so, but how could we possibly say that this is the world that we would want? If that is the world that you want, I guess I'd have to think that one of us was crazy. These things are constructed not because people want them but because people believe they are entitled to a particular way of living.
In my experience, which derives from my senses, I am first drawn to that which pleases the senses. We call this aesthetics. I eat, not because it is right, but because it pleases me to do so. I smell the air, hear the noises of the waterfall, and act based on this experience. However, the world we now inhabit, built on a fortress of property rights, is one where action is not based first on aesthetics - that is, sense-based - but rather on the entitlement to a particular kind of experience. We live and die for vague ideas like freedom, we work for justice, and those of us who are philosophers seek the truth. These are not small ideas, but they are vague in application. When we pretend that the ideas are clearer than they are, we act in a way that is not consistent with the drives of our sense experience or with freedom, justice, or truth! If you strip the value of the right away, you are left instead with the values and drives given to us from our experience. We don't have to pretend we can figure out whether bison or cattle should occupy some "Montana" outside of some "Yellowstone National Park," but we are going to be drawn in any number of directions. As humans, we would not be able to survive without each other, and most of us are going to want to survive. We will form groups of people and dissolve groups of people, but we need not have the baggage of a chosen group, an entitled people, or a people who makes more rightful decisions. We will create rules, manipulate the land, and we will have no shortage of difficulty, but how can we say it is more difficult than living and acting on the burden of defending the rights to what is ours? The difficulty of the reality I describe is a difficulty that relates directly to our sense experience; the difficulty of the other has been abstracted from it. The first makes use of our common sense; the other one is an artificial contraption used to make certainty where there is none.
Right now, everything we do is fraught with moral peril. Morality, however, is rather sparse in its demands of us. We are simply asked not to go against the simple demand of reason, that we not claim to know more than we know. However, we have managed to make morality in practice a lot more demanding; as a result, we are all bound to an immoral condition. The better world I describe is still fraught with peril. It is not possible for one being to live without another dying; it is not possible to preference one thing without shafting another. There are consequences in all our choices, and we have no idea the full reach or extent of them. In the end, we will still die. However, that is peril enough; in attempting to moralize the way we deal with our peril, we've only created that much more.
In the meantime, there's a lot that can be done. In a world besieged by a belief in property rights, some are less able than others to resist the consequences of this reality. In Yellowstone, there is nothing that a buffalo can do that has crossed the Yellowstone National Park boundary. It will probably die. One tangible thing that can be done to resist a world of property rights is to stand with bison who are simply attempting to assert their desire to survive and thrive. Bison may not have a right to wild lands, but our rationale for preventing them is an abstract and needless roadblock standing in the way. We might say the same of the other animals that are being managed in various ways. In some ways, it may seem that elk are thriving under the management. No doubt that individual elk are thriving in individual ways, just as many of us can be fat off the fruits of American imperialism. At the same time, the cause of elk is being used as a bludgeon against wolves in the name of protecting the proprietary rights of hunters as well as those of livestock owners. This assertion of a right ought to be resisted, and one should stand in solidarity both with wolves and with elk for a world that frees them from the burden of these rights. If we consider humans, the class hierarchies and privileges that exist in Yellowstone in some ways benefit people of even the lowest classes; they are the ones who get paid to spend a lot of time in paradise. Nevertheless, these class distinctions are based on a complex view of entitlement and property rights; as such, when workers find themselves abused by such processes, it is helpful to the entire process to stand in solidarity with workers. Foreign workers, in particular, should not be lied to about the terms of their employment; no one has a right to profit from their labor. Standing with workers is a statement against the proliferation of a property rights-based society and better allows them to stand against it. We cannot say that the consequences of their resistance will be in every way desirable; we would be foolish. However, as we have discussed, it will strike at the most critical condition that's driving the self oppression of our society.
This also means standing against the privatization of Yellowstone. While I have spent a great deal of time talking about how impossible it is to distinguish private property rights from public property rights, one should oppose privatization all the same. It is not on the basis of a public right to the commons that it should be opposed but on the basis that privatization most creates the conditions that make it harder for others to resist all property rights. Since the private property rights are concentrated in the hands of the few, the ability to resist the decisions that are made becomes less (which can be derived from Aristotle's discussion in Part 3). If given a choice between private and public, one should usually choose supporting public control of resources for no other reason than the fact that public control should in theory be easier to resist. Thus, it's not because the land belongs to us that we should assert it; it's because it is easier to fight an improper claim that has already been made if more people have a stake in it.
The principle in choosing an action, then, is not based on rights but rather upon which action has the possibility of usurping the claims to a property right. If beings are unable to assert themselves because a right has been claimed, then they are the ones least able to resist. Since the reality of every being alike suffers under the self delusion of property rights, it makes far more sense to stand with those who are oppressed under a right in order to abolish that moral reality altogether.
When I go back to Yellowstone, I intend to dance on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. I will continue my quest to love and know a land that I have been drawn to in the most sensual way. My first kiss was on a wooden boardwalk in the Norris Geyser Basin. I grew up among the people, animals, plants, and machines of this park. I've driven its roads, taken them by bicycle, and hiked the trails. I've filled up gasoline, and I've contributed to its sewage. I've seen displays of wildlife that were not nearly so natural as they seemed to me at first. I still love this land with all of my heart. I sing out loud thinking about it. There, I have seen rainbow rivers of glitter, shooting stars, and the eruption of Steamboat Geyser. I am as in love with Yellowstone as I have been any person in my life. It's a part of me; in some sense, I own Yellowstone, and Yellowstone owns me. That love is a private joy that I could not express to you publicly; it is a public wonder all the same that has been shared by millions of people and countless other beings.
When I dance on that lake, as the sun sets and the planets and stars arise, as colors that should not be possible float along a shore without waves, all will seem right in the world. In those moments, I might wonder whether it might have been better. Perhaps, the moment was not all it was cracked up to be. In truth, I cannot possibly deny it. As long as I look down on even the smallest part of my experience, it still could be better. As long as there is some part of my world that believes that it is owed something, then there is something in our dance that is not as magical. Love is not delusion, and as I love a place, I will know it. In the moments as I dance, I can't help but hear about all that's taken me away from the sensuality of experience. I cannot rest satisfied with that; maybe I don't deserve better and maybe Yellowstone doesn't either, but I so desperately want it. And, that desperate sort of wanting is not so bad. I will be content if I can leave that moment like that; that will be one small step in resistance against the insanity of our world.
Please also see relevant essays related to this piece:
Upcoming project: John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property
Part 1: Who gave whom the right to create Yellowstone National Park?
Part 2: John Locke and his defense of a right to private property
Part 3: Against the right to private property
The Founding of Yellowstone National Park into Law and into Fact
Yellowstone and class
The company towns of Greater Yellowstone
Projects stalled in Yellowstone - Privatization coming?
Privatize Yellowstone? One capitalist think tank says yes
all from The Magic of Yellowstone