Robert Frost’s lovely poem, “Mending Wall,” says something profound about the importance of the institution of property. The poem is about Frost and his neighbor meeting together to piece together a crumbling wall between their two properties. Frost pokes fun at the tradition; without a wall, will Frost’s apple trees sneak across the property line and gobble up the cones piled up beneath the neighbors’ pines? As the two walk the line, replacing a stone here and a stone there, the neighbor, in an almost ritualistic mantra, responds to Frost’s skepticism with the well-worn line, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Some can and have interpreted Frost’s poem as a gentle argument against erecting barriers that separate us. I think that’s a mistake. Of course, I admit to overlaying my own political and philosophical views atop his writing. But with that in mind, the poem tells me to that clear property lines do indeed make good neighbors. In fact, this wall is what draws Frost and his neighbor together in a valuable social ritual. Even in the absence of an obvious need for the wall, the tradition stokes good will.
In a broader and more directly political sense, property does indeed make good neighbors. Where property rules are unclear or have not been established, social strife and distrust tend to proliferate. Where they are established by law or custom, parties have a neutral arbiter whose presence alone allows them to avoid dispute and uncertainty.
This seems to hold true on small and large scales. Parents of young children have all learned that allowing kids common ownership of toys is a recipe for constant conflict. If parents establish clear ownership of childrens’ possessions, then order settles in and kids can learn important social values like sharing–a virtue that will never arise if property rules are unclear or non-existent. Truly, in a home of common ownership, children only learn to cling desperately to everything and not give an inch.
The same appears true for communities and nations. Where countries do not have established customs and laws governing property, strife, distrust, and corruption fester (Russia is, unfortunately, a prime example of this problem). A similar phenomenon seems to have played its role in the rapid demise of the various utopian communal arrangements that cropped up during the Second Great Awakening in 19th century America.
Frost’s repeated refrain throughout his poem is: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” I think Frost’s neighbor had the right of it–communities survive and thrive thanks to walls. We should take time to mend them.