search
top

Property beyond Growth: Toward a Politics of Voluntary Simplicity

Over the last four years I’ve been working on my doctoral thesis, which I submitted for examination in January this year and which has recently been passed. The thesis, entitled ‘Property beyond Growth: Toward a Politics of Voluntary Simplicity,’ explores the notion of a private property / market system ‘beyond growth’ and argues that any such system will depend for its realization upon the expansion of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement.

For those interested, I’ve provided a more detailed summary below and have posted the full thesis here.

GENERAL OVERVIEW OF SUBJECT AND ARGUMENT

Capitalism depends upon economic growth, and since the Industrial Revolution, economic growth – punctuated with recessions – is what capitalism has delivered. But growth relies upon natural resources, so limitless growth on a finite planet is impossible. There is, of course, a large and disconcerting body of literature warning that Earth’s limits to growth will dawn upon us sooner rather than later – that they are already dawning upon us. Furthermore, there is a growing body of sociological research on the ‘life satisfaction paradox,’ which indicates that getting richer has stopped contributing meaningfully to wellbeing in the advanced capitalist societies. Why is it, then, that economic growth is still the overriding policy objective of even the richest nations on the planet?

In this interdisciplinary thesis I begin with the premise that the economies of our world – starting with the richest ones – are going to have to learn how to stop growing, and to stop growing in a way that is stable and deliberate, not the result of unplanned recession or ecosystemic collapse. On that basis I present a sustained inquiry into how the property systems of capitalism could be legally transformed for the purpose of creating an ecologically sustainable, socially desirable, ‘steady state’ economy. I also present a ‘grassroots’ theory of legal transformation based on the post-consumerist living strategy known as ‘voluntary simplicity.’ Drawing on a wide range of literature, including ecological economics, degrowth scholarship, critical legal theory, and Henry Thoreau’s ethics of consumption, I hope this thesis will engage all those interested in what might lie beyond growth capitalism and consumer culture.

FORMAL ABSTRACT

This thesis argues that when an economy has grown so large that it has reached or exceeded the threshold point beyond which any further growth is ‘uneconomic’ (i.e. socially or ecologically counter-productive), property relations as expressed in law should no longer be defined and defended in order to grow the economy. Instead, property relations should be reconstructed in order to achieve more specific welfare-enhancing objectives – such as eliminating poverty, lessening inequalities, and protecting the environment – and the efficient growth of GDP or lack thereof should be treated as a by-product of secondary importance. For these reasons reference will be made to a ‘post-growth’ property system, a system whose coherency, viability, and desirability will be evaluated and ultimately defended as the central project of this thesis.

After outlining the central thesis, the introduction looks more closely at the notion of economic growth (as measured by increases in GDP) and considers how its rise to dominance as the pre-eminent policy objective of governments has given modern property law a ‘pro-growth’ structure (focusing on the U.S. jurisdiction). Chapter One presents a multi-dimensional critique of growth – social, ecological, and economic – and concludes by proposing a new macro-economic framework ‘beyond growth.’ Chapter Two examines whether the macro-economic framework proposed could be advanced legally by reconfiguring property relations in advanced capitalist societies. Responding to the objection that such institutional restructuring would illegitimately interfere with established property rights, it is argued: (1) that due to the indeterminacy of property, contract, and market concepts, significant reform of a private property / market system is not a conceptual impossibility; (2) that the state is always and necessarily involved in defining property entitlements and market structures, a point that fundamentally blurs the private / public distinction which is often used to insulate the economy from state intervention; and (3) that defining those property entitlements and market structures is a normative, value-laden undertaking and therefore cannot be done in such a way that is neutral between conceptions of the good life.

Having established that property law, in particular, and the legal framework of the economy, in general, are malleable creatures of legal convention, the argument of the thesis becomes explicitly engaged with questions of normativity and value. Chapter Three draws on the life and ideas of Henry Thoreau to express an anti-consumerist ethics of consumption. It is argued that Thoreau’s ethics of consumption provide a coherent and attractive normative foundation for a post-growth jurisprudence of property. Chapter Four focuses attention on theories of law reform arising out of the growing literature on law and social movements. After explaining how cultural values and practices shape law, this chapter examines the Voluntary Simplicity Movement, an emerging social movement which represents the most coherent manifestation (in contemporary Western culture, at least) of the Thoreauvian ideals of sufficiency and simplicity. It is argued that this social movement will almost certainly need to expand, organize, and politicize, if anything resembling a post-growth property system is to be realized in law. The final chapter goes beyond foundational theory and critique and sketches an outline of what a post-growth property system might actually look like as a legal reality.

MORE DETAILED CHAPTER OVERVIEWS

1. Planned Economic Contraction: The Emerging Case for Degrowth

Since growth scepticism remains a marginalized intellectual position, especially in the legal academy, Chapter One must provide more details on its scientific and theoretical foundations. The chapter begins by presenting a multi-dimensional critique of growth – social, ecological, and economic – and concludes by proposing an alternative macro-economic model based on the scholarship surrounding degrowth and ecological economics. It will be argued that when an economy has grown so large that it exceeds the social and ecological threshold point beyond which further growth is uneconomic, lawmakers should initiate a degrowth process of planned economic contraction. The primary aim of this degrowth process would be to move toward and ultimately arrive at an ecologically sustainable and socially desirable ‘steady-state’ economy. That, in essence, is the basic macro-economic framework within which this thesis is situated. The most significant feature of this framework is that it does not accept that growth should be a dominant policy objective of developed nations – a feature which this thesis will argue has significant implications for how property systems should be legally constructed or reconstructed. The maintenance and protection of ecological integrity, on the one hand, and redistribution of wealth to eliminate poverty and lessen inequalities, on the other, are the main policy objectives which this chapter will argue are implied by the idea of a degrowth transition toward a steady-state economy.

2. Critical Property Theory: Politicizing the Economy

Chapter Two examines whether the macro-economic agenda of degrowth could be advanced legally and politically by reconfiguring property relations in advanced capitalist societies or whether doing so would illegitimately interfere with established property rights. It is important to emphasize that the post-growth jurisprudence of property being proposed in this thesis will not seek to discard the central organizing institutions of ‘private property’ and ‘the market.’ Rather, it will examine the possibility of giving them a radically new content. This inquiry is central to this thesis, as noted above, because within the dominant neoliberal paradigm it is widely assumed that state institutions should protect existing property rights and enforce contracts, but otherwise presumptively stay out of the ‘free market’ economy. So far as that neoliberal position is accepted, significant restructuring of the property system will be deemed an illegitimate legal and political agenda.

This chapter, however, will not explore in any detail what concrete property reforms may be needed to initiate the transition to a degrowth society, since that issue will be taken up in the final chapter once the groundwork is complete. Instead, this chapter will examine the preliminary issue of whether significant property reform is even a democratically available option, or whether, on the contrary, reform is prima facie objectionable on the grounds that it would involve illegitimate interference with established property rights. In other words, the primary concern of this chapter is not so much whether degrowth reform, in particular, is justifiable, but whether significant reform of the property system, in general, is even possible. That said, the discussion of property reform in general is still framed by the environmental and redistributive motivations of the degrowth movement in particular.

In examining these issues the chapter will seek to establish, drawing on the best insights of legal realism and critical legal theory, the following three points: (1) that due to the indeterminacy of property, contract, and market concepts, significant reform of a private property / market system is not a conceptual impossibility; (2) that the state is always and necessarily involved in defining market structures and property entitlements, a point that fundamentally blurs the private / public distinction which neoliberal politics rely on to insulate the economy from state intervention; and (3) that defining those market structures and property entitlements is a normative, value-laden undertaking and therefore cannot be done in such a way that is neutral between conceptions of the good life. These three points, it will be argued, open up the theoretical space needed for the fundamental reformation of private property / market systems, since together they suggest that if the value-orientation of lawmakers (or their constituencies) change, so will the manner in which those lawmakers create, define and interpret the malleable legal rules which govern the economy. In this way, the legal structure of private property / market systems can evolve legitimately and in potentially radical ways, given the political will.

3. How much Property is ‘Proper’? Thoreau’s Alternative Economics

One of the central themes in the previous chapter was that property law, in particular, and the legal framework of the economy, in general, are inescapably normative constructions. What this means, essentially, is that when lawmakers are defining the property, contract, and market rules which structure and govern the economy, they cannot avoid making a vast multiplicity of value-laden decisions of policy. One way to attempt to bring about legal change, therefore, is to challenge the normative foundations upon which existing legal relations are based and to provide improved foundations. By logic of argument, that is the course taken up in Chapter Three. The growth model of progress is normatively based upon the idea that human beings are essentially consumers whose well-being depends on ever-increasing levels of income and consumption (made possible by growth in GDP). This chapter challenges that normative basis by presenting a descriptive statement and analysis of the alternative economics of Henry David Thoreau. A post-growth property system is defended in this thesis partly on the grounds that it would enhance human well-being, despite it implying a phase of planned macro-economic contraction, and this argument calls for an explanation of the perhaps counter-intuitive premise that well-being could be increased while consumption is reduced. By examining Thoreau’s theory and practise of voluntary simplicity, such an explanation is offered. Thoreau’s critical approach to consumption directly undermines the normative foundations of the growth model of progress and, by extension, I will argue, the pro-growth conception of property which that model has shaped. In doing so, this chapter opens up the normative space needed to develop a conception of property beyond growth. Rejecting the consumerist ethos that ‘more is always better,’ Thoreau’s central normative insight is that ‘just enough is plenty.’ And that simple insight, it will be argued – which has both distributive and ecological implications – provides the most secure normative foundation upon which to construct a post-growth jurisprudence of property (and a degrowth society more generally).

4. The Social Construction of Law: The Promise of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement

It is not enough, however, simply to propose a new normative foundation for a property system and hope for the best; which is to say, capitalism as we know it certainly will not lie down like a lamb at the mere pronouncement of Thoreauvian ideals. Some methodological explanation must also be offered as to how those ideals of simplicity and sufficiency could become infused into law, and that process of legal transformation is the issue which will be explored in Chapter Four. In particular, this chapter will focus on theories of law reform arising out of the growing literature on law and social movements. Drawing on that literature and developing it in the context of this thesis, the foundational argument of this chapter is that law can be understood, to a large extent, as an expression of cultural values, such that cultural evolution tends to induce legal evolution. In more theoretical terms, the argument is that if legal concepts (including property) are social constructs, then social movements can be understood as a cultural mechanism through which legal concepts are socially constructed and reconstructed. Upon that methodological foundation, the chapter will proceed to define and discuss the Voluntary Simplicity Movement, a quietly emerging social movement which represents the most coherent manifestation (in contemporary Western culture, at least) of the Thoreauvian ideals of sufficiency and simplicity. It will be argued that this social movement or something like it will almost certainly need to expand, organize, and politicize, if anything resembling a post-growth property system is to emerge through democratic processes in advanced capitalist societies. The basic reasoning here is that the legal structure of a property system will not reflect an ethics of simplicity and sufficiency until such an ethics is embraced at the socio-cultural level.

5. Political Downshifting on the Path to Entropia

The final chapter goes beyond foundational theory and critique and sketches an outline of what a post-growth property system might actually look like as a concrete legal reality. It does so by employing a literary technique of ‘looking backward from the future,’ a technique that, although unconventional, proved to be useful in outlining a program of radical reform. The goal of this chapter is to explore practical ways that property relations could evolve in advanced capitalist societies to achieve policy objectives more specific than economic growth, objectives such as ecological sustainability, material sufficiency for all, distributive justice, leisure expansion, the flourishing of culture and community, and the advancement of democracy. Although the legal reforms proposed in this chapter may well slow an economy’s growth – even to the point of degrowth – and thereby not maximize a nation’s GDP per capita, the underlying thesis being advanced is that the reforms would at the same time: (1) increase human well-being; (2) promote social justice; and (3) enhance the health and integrity of the planet’s ecosystems. This is the potential ‘triple dividend’ which it will be argued makes a post-growth property system such an alluring and promising prospect.

The full thesis is available here.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

top