Boundaries of Order: Private Property as a Social System
Every once in a while, a treatise on libertarian philosophy appears that presages a new way of thinking about politics and economics. Boundaries of Order by Butler Shaffer is in that tradition — scholarly yet passionate, providing a completely fresh look at a marvelous intellectual apparatus by a mature intellectual who has been writing on law, economics, and history for four decades. It is the treatise on liberty and property for the digital age, one written in the Rothbardian and Hayekian tradition with a consistently antistate message and a unique perspective on how the great struggle between state and society is playing itself out in our times.
Its added value is a vision of the completely free society that is idealistic, practical, and thoroughly optimistic. In a thoroughly composed work that builds up from foundations all the way through to an inspiring conclusion, Shaffer presents a vivid portrait of how human cooperation within a framework of liberty and private property yields results that produce human betterment in every conceivable way. Just as powerfully, however, he shows that right now, even in the midst of an epoch of despotic state control, we owe all that we love in the course of our daily lives to the institution of liberty.
What’s striking is how this is not a book that merely bemoans the loss of a bygone era. In fact, Shaffer’s view is that the state itself represents a bygone era, ruling with dated ideas over a world that no longer exists. Reality is at once hyperlocalized and hyperinternationalized, with the two ends of the spectrum connected through digital communication and infinitely complex forms of ownership that never stop yielding unpredictable change.
The nation-state as we know it is constructed to deal with static institutions that are largely mythical, that are not part of our daily lives — and to that extent the state has become an artificial structure governing an artificial reality but with very tangible costs.
What Shaffer argues is that we are living in a world of glorious upheaval, managed in an orderly way by virtue of individual volition and property ownership. The state is not part of this path of progress and only works to impede it temporarily and at terrible cost.
Meanwhile, the political is ever less relevant for people in the course of their daily lives. It does not help us accomplish the ends we seek to achieve. In this way, he strengthens the case against the state, and intensifies it in our times: the sheer complexity of the social order stands to utterly defy any attempts to control it.
The life of a society is found in the relations between its individuals and their property-based associations. But property always has a social end, he argues. Our lives are bound up with each other within the division of labor, while our individual interests are unavoidably intertwined. If we are to live as free individuals, we must cooperate with others in voluntary association.
He further discusses the albatross of collectivism and its grave consequences, yet he understands the collective in a different way. He views it as a pyramidal model that is forced to fit on a diffuse and changing social order; it relies most fundamentally on violence but cannot achieve any socially useful end. The analysis applies not only to socialism but to all models of top-down management, even that which relies on the myth of limited government.
The book is at once deeply radical and penetratingly optimistic about the future. Shaffer helps us to imagine that the withering away of the state will not bring cataclysm but simply more of what we love and what we find useful and less of what we do not love and what we do not find useful.
One comes away from this work with an intense awareness of the great dividing line — too often made invisible by disinformation — that separates power relations from social relations.
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