In Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, which is kind of the ideological polar opposite of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, there is one particular argument that denies the legitimacy of private property in favor of public property.

Bellamy believed that a person uses all of his or her knowledge and experience to produce a good or a service. All of those knowledge and experience were derived from past thinkers and inventors, through interaction with society. All those goods are public properties said Bellamy, produced by humanity and none can privatize it.

Since any further inventions or innovations will necessarily use those goods defined as public properties, new inventions and innovations will continue to be public properties. The usage of public property as an input is sufficient to classify a product as public property.

The inventors and innovators have no moral right to appropriate the products of public property as private properties. It belongs to everybody, so Bellamy held. Just as a person used all these public goods for free, the person must repay it back to the owner of these public properties, which is the society or more practically, the government. As you can see, it is a pretty collectivist idea.

This idea is set within a thought complex where money does not exist and a central planner is all-knowing in terms of productive and distributive efficiency. The central planner assigns all labor based on needs and capability into an “industrial army” and the problem of scarcity has been solved. More generally, the central planner manages all input of production. The whole book was decidedly painted by the statist version of communism all around.

This line of thinking is attractive for those who are against the idea of private property, never mind the impracticability of the matter. In the book, the idea was practical only because of the existence of an omnipresent government that does everything and can enforce the status of a good as a public property. But I am not really interested in its practicality, or impractically rather. I am more interested in its morality, and its origination, which Bellamy based Looking Backward on, despite its elaborate description of Bellamy’s prefered economic system.

The problem with this kind of thinking is its initial state assumption. Bellamy assumed past knowledge is the product of humanity and a person that uses that product owes humanity something in return. In short and more clearly, if you use it, you must return it back. It assumes collective ownership of all things and it preserves collective ownership regardless of circumstances. It is an effort at drawing a perfect circle that goes round and round.

But going back to the first men when none owned anything, or rather without making any assumption on ownership, consider the first state when men were beasts far back in history. The question is who owned what in the very first state of affairs?

Did the first men own the lands, the air and the water, or did these resources were not owned?

If they owned these resources, did they own it privately or collectively?

Bellamy necessarily assumed that these resources were owned collectively by the first men. The mere use of these resources make these resources public property.

I differ. I refuse the relationship between usage as a sufficient condition to turn a good into ownership, hence turning the good into either private or public property.

I differ because unlike Bellamy, I hold that these resources were not owned by anybody. It was a common owned by none. Consider this: if I used the water from a free-flowing river owned by none, would I automatically own the river?


Furthermore, if I used the water and others used it as well, would it automatically mean all the users collectively own the river?


My point is that usage does not translate into ownership, privately or publicly. Bellamy assumed otherwise.

More importantly, lack of private ownership does not automatically suggest public ownership. Within the realm of property ownership, there is a dichotomy between private and public property. But within the universe, there is a dichotomy of ownership and absence of ownership.

Bellamy, I think, worked within the dichotomy of private-public ownership and mistook that as the universe.

But this relates to physical resources. How about something intangible, like calculus?

It is true that knowledge, like calculus, is the product of contribution of hundreds or thousands of men and women throughout the ages. Without any exaggeration, it is a product of humanity. But although it is, it is not owned by humanity. The discoverers of various laws, theorems, rules, lemma and anything that has logical value in the case of calculus made it free for society to use. But free does not automatically translate into ownership, just like physical resources. None own it but they are free to use or learn it.

Recall the universe and the place of ownership dichotomy within the universe.

3 Responses to “[2436] Bellamy mistook public-private dichotomy as the universe”

  1. on 06 Oct 2011 at 00:19 kata sayang

    Couldn’t help continue the discussion of this article with the Open Source software eco-system that essentially has facilitated even this very blog we are exchanging ideas. Yes, the line to draw between public and private is inherently difficult. People from the previous century has spent more than a generation battling that. We in this generation are seeing flaws in today’s ‘greed’ driven effort to take the public for the benefits of the private individuals.
    For the sake of fairness, this line of debate involving ‘private’ and ‘public’ could only come about a functioning democratic system… well.. hopefully.. 😉

    attaching just another link on open software …

  2. on 07 Oct 2011 at 14:34 Hafiz Noor Shams

    @Kata Sayang

    Open source is not public property because it’s neither owned by everybody nor anybody. It maybe a public good but public good is defined more widely than public property. A public property can be that public park funded by taxpayer money and actually owned by the public through the government.

    Open source is free and like I’ve rationalized, free doesn’t mean it’s owned by the public.

  3. on 06 Oct 2011 at 20:14 bella

    Great post exposing Edward Bellamy’s “authoritarian socialism” (there is a book by that name about him). Edward Bellamy and Francis Bellamy touted military socialism and national socialism and their dogma was the origin of the Nazi salute when Francis Bellamy began the Pledge of Allegiance with the military salute that was then extended outward to point at the flag. They influenced the National Socialist German Workers Party, its rituals (robotic chanting to flags & leaders), dogma, and symbols (including the use of the swastika to represent overlapping S-letters for “socialism” under German national socialism. The above are some of the discoveries in the the work of the historian Dr. Rex Curry.

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