Let us imagine a lifeboat, decamped from a sinking ship, with a skilled navigator, charts, and some quantity of fresh water and food. Let us further imagine that the navigator is able to assure us that, if we keep rowing, we will reach the safety of land in a month. Upon examining the supplies, we discover that, with careful rationing, there is food and water for all for this month, although we are all going to be very hungry and very thirsty for the entire trip. Still, we can make it to land, and that is what is important.
We, then, might pick one of our number, based on who is good at numbers, or at bookkeeping, or by drawing straws, or by some other method, to arrange the rationing of supplies so that all arrive safely, and to arrange the schedule of rowing so that all are doing a fair share of work, limited, perhaps, by those who may be ill or infirm are thus unable to work as much as others. This doesn’t excuse him from rowing, of course—we need every hand.
They key in this scenario is “careful rationing.” If any of us are to get there, we must work together, and share what we have. “Everybody rows, everybody eats!” This is not a principle that requires discussion, it is obvious in the situation and no one questions it. It is not impossible that someone in the boat will point to a small child or someone sufficiently disabled as to not be able to row and suggest this person be thrown overboard, but I beg to submit most of us wouldn’t agree to any such thing, at least until the circumstances became desperate, and perhaps not even then.
Now, let us change our scenario. We come across a large crate floating in the ocean, and, lo and behold, it contains a supply of food and several gallons of water! Now our situation has changed: now some subset of the passengers can not only survive, but can survive comfortably, eating and drinking their fill. This is outstanding! There is no need to even consider throwing anyone overboard. Now we can—what?
Who gets the extra? Who decides? We might all have a conversation in which we determine who the best rowers are and give it to them, or we might decide to alternate, or divide the extra up as evenly as possible, or we might decide to draw straws, or any of a number of other options, but one thing is clear: The person who is in charge of handing out the rations is suddenly in a much different position—he’s no longer just “one of the passengers,” now he has something that he not only never had, but didn’t even exist before: power! And, however self-sacrificing he may be inintially, as his hunger grows, the thought will inevitably come to him, “I’m giving out these rations, why am I going hungry?” He might surreptitiously start stealing, he might announce his decision openly and invent a reason why it is ordained by god that he get more, or any of a number of other things depending on his character and the exact circumstance, but it is unlikely that he will go hungry for long. He explains that for all that time he was doing extra work with no extra reward. The extra is now his due. Besides, he has possession, which, ipso facto, makes them his. The rations are his private property, and property rights, as we all know, are sacred.
However, those of us who are still hungry and thirsty start looking at him. Why him, we ask ourselves? Why not me? I’m a good person, I’ve been doing my share of work, why should I be denied extra food and water? If property rights are sacred, well, why can’t it be MY property? Now our rationer has a problem—everyone is looking at him, and he is looking at the cold water outside the boat and thinking that if doesn’t do something, he not only won’t have his entitled position, but he might not even have his life! But, hey, here’s the good news: He still has charge of the rations. “Hey, you–big guy! How’d you like some extra food and water? All you have to do is help keep the rest of them in line, and I’ll give you a little extra. Better than being hungry, right? Oh, and call me “My lord.”
The rest of us are not pleased with this new development. We don’t like the rationer, and we don’t like the big guy any more either, though he was fine yesterday when he wasn’t threatening us, but now he is threatening us, and even slapping us around when we complain about the situation. Boy, it would be nice to take both of them and…but, you know, he is pretty big. And not only that, well, the fact is, if we got rid of those two, someone else would just take their place, and we’d be right back in the same situation.
But then, suddenly….another crate! More food, more water! Let’s look at what we have, count the days, the number of rowers…YES! Victory! We can all eat and drink our fill and know that we will safely arrive, and—
Wait. What is happening here? Why isn’t the rationer simply giving up his position and going back to distributing everything fairly and evenly like he did before? Maybe he’s come to enjoy his privileges. Maybe he’s afraid of us, knowing how he treated us. But for whatever reason, he is hanging onto his position even though there is no longer a need for it.
I’d intended to go on with this parable, but I think I’ll stop here. It is, like any parable, far from perfect; just to begin with, we have neither navigator nor charts but rather have to create them as we go. And the notion of exactly the right number of rowers and exactly the right amount of rations is obviously contrived;the real world doesn’t work that way. And in the real world, the “rowers” are actually producing the food and water.
Nevertheless, for the point I want to make, which is the relationship between surplus, private property, and the development of the State, I think it holds up pretty well. Thoughts?