Two men found themselves stranded on a desert island with no provisions. Realizing that they would need food, both struck out to survey the island to see what was available. One headed inland, while the other, David, decided to skirt the coast along the beach. After roaming for a day and a half, he found nothing to eat or of utility along the coast. The beaches of the island were truly devoid of anything that could be used for sustenance. Exhausted, and thirsty, he too realized that heading inland towards the center of the island was perhaps the best hope of finding food and fresh water after all.
Finally, after hours of hiking through sand, David saw what looked like an Oasis of trees on the horizon. Indeed, it was and as David got closer he was thrilled to see coconut trees—lots of them! He walked over to one of the trees and picked up a coconut that had fallen off.
Just then, the other man appeared from among the trees. David hadn’t seen him in a couple of days since his failed search along the coast and was eager to ask how he had fared. But before David could ask him anything, the other man yelled, “Hey! What are you doing here?”
“My search for food along the coast of this island turned up nothing. This whole place is ringed by nothing but barren sandy scrubland. Looks like you had the right idea to head inland. How have you been?”
“What are you doing with my coconut? Put it back!”
“Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t know it was yours. I just assumed it fell off this tree here.”
“Well, it did, and it’s not yours!”
David was confused. “What do you mean? Were you going to eat it?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” said the other man. “That’s not the point. The point is this is my land, and that tree is on my property, and you are trespassing!”
“How is this your land? This land just is, on this island that has existed long before we got marooned on it 2 days ago.”
“Well, while you were out wasting your time strolling along the beach, I was smarter and headed here. I was here first, so I have the right to claim the inner island as my property.”
“You’re joking, right?” asked David.
“Absolutely not. Even though we are both stranded on this island, we will conduct our affairs in a civilized manner, not as savages. I insist that we respect each other’s property rights!”
David wasn’t sure how to respond. This guy seemed a bit fanatical. He gestured at the large oasis of trees they were standing in. “Um, okay. But the inner island appears to be the only food source available on this island. Clearly, there are enough coconuts here to more than feed both of us.”
“That is not the point”, snapped the man. “This is my property. The coconut trees are on my property. I don’t mind parting with some of the fruit from my land, but I demand compensation in return! I will not stand here and allow some freeloading idiot who was too stupid to have the foresight to head to the inner island first, to demand that I now allow him to steal from me! I have settled this land. It now belongs to me.”
“Settled it? What do you mean you settled it? We both shipwrecked here less than 48 hours ago!” At this point, David was starting to get irritated with this guy. His insistence on exercising sole ownership over deserted land they both happened to now occupy struck David as petty, arbitrary and just plain wacky given the circumstances.
“Do you see this?” the man asked, holding up what appeared to be a baseball-sized chipped rock. “While you were gallivanting along the beach, I created this tool, which is necessary to crack the coconuts open. I have developed the means of harvesting coconuts from the inner island, thus I have settled this land! You, on the other hand, have developed nothing except a bad sunburn and laziness!”
David bristled at this. “I was looking for food too in other places! How was I to know that the entire perimeter of this island is a sandy scrub wasteland? I know this now, but there could have been birds, fish, crabs, meat, not to mention opportunities for shelter. Clearly, I struck out, but why don’t we use this knowledge to both of our benefits, and work together to harvest coconuts? In the meantime, I will take this one, and also fashion a tool with which to crack it since I’m starving.”
“No, you will not! I cannot allow you to just steal my coconuts! Furthermore, this tool I have crafted from stone, it was my idea. I own this idea too. It is my intellectual property! I cannot allow you to simply copy my great idea. I must be rewarded for my great ideas, and if I allow just anyone to copy it, then the incentive for great ideas on this island will die. If that dies, so too will all cultural progress, and ultimately the inhabitants. I am this island’s first captain of industry, and I demand to be respected and rewarded for my hard work and foresight! You’re clearly not up to the task.”
“More like the captain of delusion,” David thought to himself. “Hard work and foresight? You merely bashed 2 rocks together to create a makeshift hatchet. That’s not exactly rocket science. Sure, you got lucky wandering into this coconut grove before I did. On another island, it could have been the other way around. I could have found crabs, or birds nests with eggs and driftwood to use for fires to cook with, while the inner island was barren.”
“Well, we’re not on another island, we’re on this one. If you want the coconut, you must give me compensation. This is how it works. Like any civilized society, this island will have a market-based economy, based on supply and demand. This is the natural order of things! I have the supply of coconuts you are now demanding. That is fine, but you must give me something in exchange, or else we will anger the invisible hand that guides the market toward equilibrium! If I allow you to have it for free, then you will just keep coming back for more and more, and I will be robbed blind, and all of my foresight, work and cleverness will be for naught. Why should I tolerate this theft of coconuts? Why should I let you use my coconut splitting tool? The time you spend using it is time I cannot use it. Why should the inventor be deprived of his invention?”
“What? I don’t care about your tool. You can keep your dumb rock. I’m not interested in this personal possession of yours. I’ll come up with my own way to split coconuts. Besides, you don’t have any authority on this island, or over me. We’re both just two guys stuck here together.”
The man smirked menacingly. “Oh, is that so? Well you do realize that I have a right to defend my private property, don’t you? See this tool? It works just as well against human skulls as it does coconut shells! I will bash your head in if you ever try to take anything on my property again without my permission. However, I am not an unreasonable man. I see that you are hungry and thirsty. I will let you have the coconut, and I’ll even give you some fresh water from the spring I found on my land. But what are you going to give me in return? After all, I must benefit in some way by allowing others to take the resources from my land.”
David now realized that this man wasn’t just delusional, but also prone to violence. He was weary and hungry from his searching and knew he didn’t have the strength to take on this man in a physical altercation. The man was armed after all, however crude the weapon might be. He realized that the only thing he could do, faced with the threat of violence, was to try to negotiate. “You can see full well that I have nothing to give you in exchange. Sure, you can attack and even kill me, but what purpose would that serve? You would just be stranded here alone on your self-proclaimed private island.”
“Ah, well, there is one thing I would consider that you might still be able to offer me in exchange.”
“And what might that be?” David wondered out loud.
“Your hands! Your time! Your labor! There are plenty of coconuts to be fetched from my trees. If you fetch my coconuts all day and bring them to me, I will compensate you with enough cracked coconuts to eat and water to drink to ensure your survival.”
“Let me get this straight… You’re suggesting that I climb trees and pick coconuts for you all day, in exchange for the ‘privilege’ of allowing me to have some of the food and water on this island that you claim is now your private property and belongs solely to you?”
“That is outrageous!”
The man turned and started to walk away. “Fine, take it or leave it. It’s a free market after all, and you are free to choose. My offer stands. A day’s worth of work in exchange for a day’s worth of food and water from my land. You know where to find me if you change your mind.”
David suspected the man knew as well as he did that he didn’t truly have a choice. Sure, he could reject the man’s offer to allow David to work for him in exchange for food, but then David would have no way to access the only apparent food source on the island. So, as much as it pained him to be coerced into such a ridiculous deal based on the silly notion of the man ‘owning’ the inner island, David had no viable alternative at the moment.
“Okay, okay,” David said. “You win. I’ll work for you. I don’t really have a choice do I?”
“Nonsense, this is a free island! You would be employed at-will. You can quit anytime you want! I think you’ll find working for me sure beats starving in the scrublands. I’ll even let you work a half-day today and I’ll give you some split coconuts and water tonight, okay? Just find and bring me 20 coconuts before sundown and I’ll have your cracked coconuts and water waiting for you. See, I’m a generous employer. There might even be other benefits of working for me if you end up being a good worker! Oh, and just one other thing…”
“What’s that?” asked David.
“As your new employer, please call me ‘Sir’. After all, you are now dependant on me for your food and livelihood, and because of me, you now have a way not to starve, so it shouldn’t be too much to ask to show me the proper respect if you please. Now, get to work!”
“Yes sir,” David muttered. With that, David, already exhausted, did what was asked of him by his new island-owning employer and managed to find 20 coconuts by sundown. Luckily, 10 were on the ground, but he had to climb 3 trees with his strength waning to collect the rest. Luckily, David’s new employer did give David 2 split coconuts for dinner that night, and some water to drink as promised.
David had hoped to work for the man for a few days while regaining strength and energy so that he could figure a way out of this ridiculous arrangement. He considered exploring the coast again since his employer didn’t seem too interested in guarding that as part of his private property as well. However, David knew it was a risk he probably couldn’t afford to take. He would have to miss a few days of work, with a good chance of winding up empty-handed again and he didn’t relish the thought of having to go back to the inner island groveling for his job back after only a couple of days. Besides, there was no guarantee that his employer would still be interested in allowing David to work for him, especially if he came across as ‘unreliable’. The man threatened violence against him to keep him from accessing any of the inner island’s resources needed for his self-sufficiency unless he offered compensation. It was painfully unfair, but what was to be done?
So, David resigned himself to this new status quo. The ‘daily grind’ had established itself on the island. Every day, he worked himself to near-exhaustion collecting coconuts in exchange for enough food and water to have the strength to work the next day. It seemed so wrong and ridiculous. Why should he have to trade almost all of his time and labor for limited access to the resources he needed to survive, merely because this other guy he had the misfortune of being stranded with threatened to violently defend his arbitrary claim of private property? David wondered if he was ever going to find a way to directly provide for himself, rather than providing for his employer all day in exchange for a small fraction of the coconuts he collected. He wondered what his employer did with all of the coconuts he harvested. What did he do all day anyways while David was climbing coconut trees in the island heat on his behalf?
A New Arrival
One day—during this particularly dangerous period of seafaring in the island’s history—another man happened to find himself stranded on the coast of the same island. He too staggered aimlessly along the coast and became convinced of its lack of resources before heading inland. Eventually, he too saw the oasis in the distance and what appeared to be a man climbing up a tree to collect coconuts. Excitedly, he ran over to greet the man just as he was climbing back down. “Hello! Pardon me, but I’m stranded and have no idea where I’ve ended up!”
“In a nightmare, I’m afraid.” David was surprised by the unexpected appearance of this man.
“A nightmare? How long have you been here?”
“Oh it’s hard to tell but I’d guess about two months or so by now.”
“Are we the only ones here?”
“No, there is one other, and he’s a real piece of work. He washed up together with me when our boat sank, found a rock that he uses to split coconuts open with and now claims to own all of the food and water on the island, certain of the fact that it is now his property due to his enterprising ‘genius’”
“What? That’s not that difficult to figure out. But whatever. It looks like there’s a ton of coconuts on this place—that’s great!”
“Oh yes, there’s certainly an abundance of coconuts. Unfortunately, this other guy declared that we must respect what he called his ‘right to private property’, and then subsequently claimed all the land the trees grow on as his. He won’t let you have any coconuts unless you give him something in return.”
“Oh, so you’re paying this guy for the coconuts?”
“Well, sort of. I have nothing to exchange except my time and labor, so he sets daily quotas of coconuts I must fetch, and if I meet my quota, then he lets me have a few coconuts that he splits open for me with that rock of his, as well as some water.”
“It sounds like he’s just making stuff up to get you to do work that benefits him greatly and you hardly at all. You look exhausted! How many coconuts have you collected for this guy?”
“Well, it depends on whatever he feels. At first, he only wanted 50 a day, but now he’s increased the quota to 100.”
“Why? What does he need 100 coconuts a day for? That seems stupid to me. Don’t you think so? Why do you go along with this?”
“Of course it’s stupid!” exclaimed David. “But, what can I do? He claims that I have a ‘choice’, and can stop working whenever I want. However, if I stop working, he will not give me cracked coconuts and water. He knows as well as I do that the land he claims as his own contains all of the food and fresh water on this island, so this caricature of ‘choice’ is merely a twisted joke, a taunt. If I try to take the coconuts or water I need for my survival, he threatens me with violence. Plus, even if I was able to gather coconuts for myself, he threatens violence if I try to employ a method similar to his for cracking them open. He expects payment for the use of this ‘idea’ by someone else, and complains that his intellect is being robbed if he were to receive no reward.”
The new arrival stroked his chin. “It sounds to me as if this ‘reward’ he demands is the subjugation of your time and labor solely for his enrichment. By depriving you of the opportunity to access the same resources and methods available to him, he coerces you to expend almost all of your time and energy in his service—for his gain entirely—except for the pittance of a portion of food and water he allows you to have merely to keep you strong enough to keep coming back to work for him day after day.”
“Exactly! He then has the nerve to suggest that I am the thief, trying to take his coconuts and his ideas, while threatening me with blunt force trauma.”
“I see. Well, guess what? There’s now more of us than him. We may be stranded on this island, but I for one refuse to be stranded as a character in his fantasy of exploitation. Let’s work together to liberate this island! I’ll help you!” The newest inhabitant of the island extended his arm and the two men shook hands. “I’m Tim by the way. Would you mind if I ate some of these coconuts you’ve gathered? I’d appreciate it very much—I’m starving!”
David was slightly worried. “I don’t mind, but the guy who makes me call him ‘Sir’ certainly will! If he finds out that you or I took some of these coconuts, he’ll flip! If I don’t return with 100 coconuts this evening, I won’t get my dinner and I might lose my job!”
Tim chuckled and pointed at the pile of coconuts David had collected. “Relax, Your dinner is right there.”
“Okay, but how we are going to crack any of them open? I haven’t been allowed to make any tools and even if I was, I haven’t had the time to search for the materials to do so. I’ve been trying to meet my quotas, and by the time I’ve met my quota for the day, it’s dark and I’m exhausted and sore and need to rest so I can regain my strength for the next day.”
Tim smiled as he reached into his pocket. “It just so happens that I was the ship’s carpenter on the vessel that sank. I guess I forgot to put this small chisel back in the tool chest before I fell overboard in the storm. I’ll split them open since you gathered them. Let’s eat, and then we’ll come up with a plan.”
The revolution on Coconut Island was a bloodless affair. David and Tim figured their best weapon wasn’t the bench chisel, but their cooperation. After they ate and finished discussing their plan, David picked up one of the coconuts from the pile he had collected and decided to leave the rest. There was no need to haul bunches of coconuts with him as he hiked inland tonight. Tim followed a distance behind, making sure to hide among the trees once they arrived at the spot where David normally met with the capitalist to hand over—quite literally—the fruit from his daily labor.
The man was standing with his arms folded, a dour look on his face. “You’re late!”
David shrugged. “Yeah, I wasn’t really in a hurry to get back today.”
The man furrowed his brow and rubbed his chin. “It doesn’t look like you met your quota today either…”
“Nope, I guess not,” replied David as he tossed the single coconut at the man’s feet.
“I beg your pardon? Why the flippant attitude with me? Didn’t I tell you to address me as ‘Sir’? After everything I’ve done for you, the least you could do is show a bit of respect!”
“Actually, I was doing some thinking today, and I realized that I’m the one that’s been keeping us fed. I’ve never seen you climb a single tree to collect any coconuts yourself. What exactly do you do all day anyway?”
“That’s none of your business! Besides, why should I fetch coconuts myself, when you’re doing that for me?”
“Well, you might want to practice climbing some trees because I quit.”
“Oh? You quit, huh? Alright. Feel free to come crawling back to me in a day or two again when you begin to get hungry. You’re certainly not getting any food or water tonight either!”
“No problem, I’m kinda full already.”
“What? Have you been eating my coconuts? How dare you, you thief! How did you crack them? I bet you stole my idea too! Your insolence and thievery will be punished!”
In a fit of rage, the man lifted his rock tool. Just as he was about to bring it crashing back down onto David’s head, he was startled to hear another voice behind him. Spinning around, the man found himself face-to-face with Tim, who was holding the chisel.
“If you hit him, I’ll stab you. Put the rock down.” But, there was no need to wait for him to comply because David took his chance to lunge forward and knock it out of his hand.
At this point, the man realized he was outnumbered, and backed down. “Sorry, sorry, I uh, well, I was just upset that my worker here is stealing from me. Where did you come from?”
“Stealing from you?” Tim laughed. “Outrageous. From what he’s told me, and what I just observed, I would say it’s you who’s been stealing from him, and threatening violence if he does not go along with your nonsensical claims of owning the land on this island.”
“But I was here first! I discovered the coconut trees! I figured out how to crack the coconuts open!”
“Well done, good for you. But I fail to see how that then entitles you to seize all of the resources on this island as solely your private property, and threaten violence against those who think your claims are nonsensical. David and I had a little chat today, and we decided that from now on, things are going to be different on this island. If we’re stranded here together, we’re all going to need access to the resources to survive.”
“That’s right!” David said. “From now on, no one ‘owns’ any part of the island—not even you Sir. No one owns the coconuts, except for those which he picks himself, or is consensually given by another via gift or exchange. Personal property will be respected, but there will be no private property on this island, no notion of retaining the resources others need for their survival and engaging in extortion of labor for personal profit. That ends now. I’m finished working my butt off solely for your benefit and not mine.”
David and Tim shared a common goal to abolish private property on the island. They also had the means to split coconuts themselves. The man could no longer deprive them of that. Most importantly, they had each other’s backs. He would no longer be able to threaten violence against either one to impose his will.
The man knew the gig was up. The days of lying in his hammock and counting his coconuts while David slavishly collected them were over. With that realization, he conceded and Coconut Island was liberated from the bondage of private property.
The day after David and Tim’s successful revolution, they mounted a small expedition to explore parts of the inner island the man had previously declared off-limits to David. What they found astonished them: abundant freshwater springs and creeks, as well as various other kinds of fruits growing wild in addition to the coconuts.
The most shocking though, was a small cave the man had been using to store the coconuts David had been collecting. It was chock full of piles upon piles of coconuts—more coconuts than 3 men would be able to consume in a year! Many though, had already started to go bad. David was angry that he had wasted so much of his first 2 months on the island doing nothing but contributing to this other man’s absurdly excessive stockpile of coconuts when he could have been working on making his own situation more comfortable or perhaps even working on a way to make it off the island altogether.
The sentiment he experienced most strongly as he stared at the stinking mounds of decaying coconuts juxtaposed with the abundance of fresh fruit around them, was the pointless wastefulness of this fool’s errand. So this was what the small-time capitalist had done with all the fruits of David’s labor: Piled them up in a cave to fester and rot. Captain of industry indeed!
The man who instigated all of this dysfunction eventually apologized to David and realized he had far more to gain working with David and Tim, then trying to subjugate them. Tim’s carpentry skills proved to be an indispensable asset to all. He showed them how to build framed huts and ladders to ease the collection of fresh fruits and coconuts from the trees. Their standard of living improved dramatically. They even managed to build a boat that they used to attempt fishing. It’s a good thing the island was abundant in other food because they proved to be lousy fishermen. However, the effort of constructing the small boat eventually proved to be a most worthwhile endeavor as it secured their rescue.
One day, David spotted the sails of a clipper ship from atop a tree he was collecting fruit from. It had gotten stuck in the doldrums off the coast of the island and was going nowhere fast. This gave the three men plenty of time to hike to the coast and launch their small boat, rowing out to make contact with the large vessel. The crew took them on in addition to a bounty of fresh fruit they helped to re-provision the ship with, and they docked in Boston 3 months later.
It’s been nearly 70 years since I washed up on that island’s shore with David. I know now that I was a fool for trying to impose the same sort of system on that island that we left behind and eventually returned to years later. After freeing ourselves from the bizarre mindset of private property, capitalism, and profit, it was jolting and unsettling to suddenly be thrust back into that world. Life has not been very kind to me ever since. Perhaps I’m deserving of this considering how I treated David when I had the chance to take advantage of him. I soon found myself in the position of being the exploited worker, struggling to make ends meet and pay my rent—money that is demanded by those that claim ownership of the property which I happen to exist on from month to month.
My health is failing me, but I felt it necessary to tell this story while I am still able to pen it. I do so in the hopes that others might read it and appreciate the folly that is the belief in private property. This folly underpins capitalism and is sanctimoniously preached by the evangelists of exploitation and the prophets of profit. As a master of capital, I once built mounds of festering fruit on the backs of others. As a wage slave, I now leave the world with almost nothing to my name, except for this manuscript, and memories from better days on Coconut Island.