Thursday, February 11, 2010

Property Theory and HBO's Deadwood (part 2)

In my last post, I noted how HBO's television series Deadwood reflected a Lockean concept of property.  The mining camp of Deadwood exists in a state of nature without organized government, but property nonetheless exists, recognized initially because of the labor of its "owners."  Even so, a shadow looms over Deadwood, placing the property rights of its residents in jeopardy.

Deadwood owes its existence to the nearby gold mines, and it is this proximity to gold that threatens Deadwood's survival.  Both the camp and the gold claims rest on land that legally belongs to the Sioux, but the discovery of the gold has prompted the federal government to begin negotiating a new treaty that will cede the land to the United States.  The prospect of cession has watered the mouths not only of other settlers and prospecters, but also of the powers that be in the nearby Dakota and Montana territories.  Talk of annexation into one of these territories (especially Dakota) is prevalent, and territorial officials seem ambivalent toward the property claims of Deadwood's current residents.

Thus, Deadwood finds itself in a situation where its property and freedom are threatened by the very autonomy and lack of government that served as a draw to most of its early settlers.  This, too, reflects Locke's philosophy, which posited that rights held in the state of nature are "constantly exposed to the invasion of others" due to the lack of formal enforcement mechanisms.  And Deadwood's residents respond to these threats in Lockean fashion -- by organizing a government of sorts to better protect their previously-acquired property interests.  At a meeting of the elders, the de facto leader of the camp tells the others that they need an "informal municipal organization" complete with "titles and departments" to help ward off the possibility that the territorial officials will appoint a government of "their cousins to rob and steal from us."  The hope is that having its own government in place will assist the camp in reaching a favorable peace with the outsiders that may seek to do it harm.   Although there is a lack of true desire for real government, the residents reluctantly acquiesce to a modicum of government for the purpose of protecting what they already have (chiefly, their property).  Reflecting on the prospect of government and civilization coming to Deadwood, one resident comments, "I'd settle for property rights," suggesting that the primary reason to have the former is to ensure protection of the latter.

Once this decision to organize is made, however, it is clear that law will soon be coming to Deadwood.  And the impending presence of formal laws and institutions will test the labor-based view of property around which the camp has been structured.  More on that in a later post.

Mike Kent

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