[Note: I’m using the word “normal” in this post. Those who are not normal—myself included—should not take offense; I am using this term in the mathematical sense of “near the mean of a normal distribution,” as in within one standard deviation of the mean; in the context of cognition another word is “neurotypical,” but this is less common and less general, and many people are unfamiliar with its meaning. In the vast majority of possible systems, most will be normal and some will not. It’s nearly inevitable. See also Stupid Rule 4, for our fear of being “abnormal” is very much a Stupid Rule.]
A major part of what makes life difficult for those who are rational, especially those on the autism spectrum, (in the interests of full disclosure: I’m on the near end, just shy of Asperger’s Syndrome) is the fact that normal people follow certain rules on most occasions, rules that don’t really make sense—but that we all are expected to follow, because otherwise it forces us to confront issues that we feel more comfortable avoiding. They are all stupid rules, rules that are rationally difficult or impossible to justify; but they are universally present and strongly enforced, and we ignore them only at our own peril. Perhaps we ought to challenge them, find the places to attack them that will most weaken their grip upon humanity—but we cannot be sure to win such a fight, and we certainly cannot simply pretend it is already won.
Stupid Rule 5: Private property is a fundamental right.
Most people adopt this Stupid Rule at a very young age, about the time they learn the word “Mine” and begin talking like the seagulls in Finding Nemo. My right to my stuff being mine is often considered just as important as your right not to be hurt or even your right not to be killed. In most cases, this rule gets partly sublimated to other rules, but never completely goes away; in the most extreme examples it can remain so strong into adulthood that people find themselves becoming oil company executives or Third World tyrants. (By the way: The reason that most tyrants are Third World is that not only does economic failure attract tyranny, indeed tyranny tends to lead to economic collapse. It is not a coincidence that the Second American Depression occurred under the same President as the USA PATRIOT Act. The economic strength of Nazi Germany is an anomaly in the trend.)
This rule manifests itself in many aspects of daily life, even it cases where it makes almost no sense. For instance, it is considered at least rude and perhaps even immoral to take food from a family member’s plate—even when there is plenty of food to go around. The only sense I can make of this is based on the presumption that what is on “my plate” is “my food,” that I own it in some deep sense, now that I have claimed it from the family hoard (or it has been bestowed upon me by the family patriarch/matriarch). Similarly, it is considered rude to switch the TV channel when someone else is watching, because “my time” or “my turn” or even “my show” has a similarly sacred status. This is also why I have the right in most states to use violence—even lethal violence—to defend my home; it is “my home” in this same sacred sense. In some states, you don’t even have to threaten violence to claim it; you can offer to share it, and I can hurt or even kill you if you refuse to leave. This situation seems natural to most people; it only makes sense if private property is indeed a fundamental right, on par with the rights to life and liberty.
In fact, private property is on very shaky philosophical footing indeed. I own this computer because I bought it, from someone who bought it, from someone who made it, from materials someone mined, for someone who paid them, who bought permission to use the land, from someone who owned the land; each link in the chain seems morally justified by reciprocity and fair exchange—but why, exactly, did they own that land in the first place? At some point they claimed it—or someone else claimed it, then sold it to them—and either no one resisted this claim, or whoever did was killed or imprisoned. In my computer’s case, it was almost certainly the latter; its plastic is made of oil, its microchips of coltan, and these are substances people have been fighting over since they were discovered. Even if the oil was in fact from Canada and the coltan from Japan, it’s still hard to avoid feeling complicit in a system of violence and conflict. Private property is at its core a system of “might makes right,” and we in the United States only benefit from it because we are fortunate enough to be at the giving end and not the receiving end of the greatest military firepower the world has ever seen.
Now, on the other hand, we can’t really just have people taking and using things whenever they want; some people are surely greedy enough that they’d resort to the direct violence of guns and knives to seize their wealth, rather than the much more indirect violence of stock markets and advertising. Moreover, no matter how much stuff (and time!) there is, it will always be possible to claim more than your fair share. (The fundamental principle of economics is not really scarcity, but rather finiteness. There is, in fact, plenty of food, shelter, and resources for everyone to survive; but there isn’t enough for everyone to have as much as they could possibly claim. Whether there is enough for everyone to be happy and comfortable remains unclear—I suspect the answer is in fact affirmative, but we need first to all work together.) Clearly, we need some sort of rules for governing how resources are allocated, and we need to balance fairness and justice with stability, efficiency and practicality; it may turn out that something like private property is just what works best, and so we should only make small reforms rather than massive revolutions. Indeed, I don’t doubt it; compare Sweden to Cuba. But still, we should remember that private property is by no means a fundamental right, and people who argue that taxes are taking away their hard-earned wealth need to have it explained to them how many other people suffered and died to make that hard-earned wealth “theirs” instead of someone else’s—not least people in the military and the police who are now being provided for with those taxes. It is legitimate to challenge any particular tax or any particular spending, on the grounds that it is unfair, it is impractical, it is wasteful, etc.; but tax-and-spend is precisely what governments do and ought to be doing. Indeed, the use of coalitions that exercise the threat of violence to regulate resource allocation seems to be the fundamental definition of government itself; this is also why a world run by corporations and private militaries is less an absurdity than an oxymoron—once the corporation has a military, it is no longer a corporation, but a government. Perhaps a selfish and tyrannical government, a government-for-profit; but a government nonetheless.
All of these Stupid Rules are very deeply engrained in the human mind, and resisting them is extremely difficult if not outright impossible. But they are descriptively useful; if you ever have trouble understanding why people act the way they do, if the masses ever seem incomprehensibly irrational, I’ll bet a fair sum that they are closely following one of these Stupid Rules.