Castles had moats and walls to protect themselves from attacking enemies. In the times of castles, precious resources were diverted from more productive uses for the building of these defenses because without them there was no point acquiring property when the bad guys could just come in and take it. As the rule of law advanced, the need for the walls and moats decreased and eventually disappeared. Resources were still diverted from productive uses because the rule of law was provided by the state and the state levied taxes to pay for defense. Once the walls and the moats were extended to the borders of the state, the governance of the state became the biggest threat to property rights. A successful state could stop the marauders at the border, but another citizen could get the blessing of the government to acquire property. This could be on a small scale: thugs paying off the police to look the other way, or on a larger scale: Goldman Sachs draining the treasury for its own benefit.
Some communities have their own way of protecting property as we saw in The Godfather. Once again the property owner had to divert resources (pay) for protection instead of more productive uses. Even though the thought of the mafia seems like something quaint from the past, the dynamic is alive and well today. Instead of tommy guns however, the current set of bandits wear suits and carry briefcases full of insurance policies and law suits. And just as the mob mostly protected itself while putting on a good show of protecting its friends, lawyers and insurance companies protect themselves while pretending to protect their clients.
Even though we like to think that we are safer today than back in the times of the castles, the murderous hoard is just as menacing today and the state is just as ill equipped to protect its citizens. Having thought a fair amount about this kind of thing lately, I have come up with three potential strategies for our current times:
1) Have Nothing to Protect: I think this is the best strategy. I do believe that people with nothing or very little to protect are the happiest. In addition to the obvious negativity associated with time and energy spent on your defenses, it can be difficult to know who to trust.
2) Security Through Obscurity: Just like guy said on the fishing trip about the attacking bear: “I don’t have to outrun the bear, just my buddies!” Applied to protecting property, the goal is to be a less attractive target than those around you. This has one obvious weakness. If you are attacked – you are pretty much dead.
3) Become a Lawyer or Insurance Person: If you can’t beat them… join ‘em. If you are going to have property to protect, this is really the only way to do it. It does have karmic consequences that could bring you back as a weasel or worse next time – so consider the consequences before going through door number 3.
Maybe that thing about the meek is right. Just putting food on the table, a roof overhead, spending time with your family, and having friends you can trust – is riches enough.