Between the seventeenth century and the twenty-first liberalism has traveled a great distance on the subject of private property. It was in the late seventeenth century that the works of the Father of Liberalism, John Locke, were first published. In his treatises in which he argued for the contract theory of society, for natural rights, and individual liberty, Locke made private property the foundation of rights and civilization. Today, it is not uncommon to hear “liberals” repeat mindless slogans like “people before property” or “human rights before property rights”. These slogans, as Russell Kirk pointed out decades ago, express nothing more than the desire to have the government expropriate that which belongs to somebody else.
Socialism, from which contemporary liberalism has absorbed many ideas and values, is built upon a foundation of enmity towards property. In the 19th Century, when various different socialisms sprung up, often as or more hostile towards each other than to capitalism, the one thing which they had in common was their hatred of property. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the founder of 19th Century French socialist anarchism declared “La propriété, c'est le vol” (“Property is theft!”). Karl Marx, who attacked Proudhon in the third chapter of the Manifesto of the Communist Party declared in the second chapter: “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”
When a movement exists with the express purpose of destroying an institution like property it is important that those who believe that institution to be beneficial and would prefer that it be retained oppose the movement seeking it’s destruction. From what stand point should the defenders of property launch their attack upon socialism?
To many the answer to that question is “liberalism”, that is liberalism in its original form, the liberalism of John Locke, Adam Smith, and J. S. Mill. Those who would defend property from the standpoint of liberalism refer to themselves as “classical liberals”, “libertarians”, or sometimes, although very inaccurately, “conservatives”.
In the course of this essay I will first make the case that such people have chosen the wrong standpoint, that they are building their edifice upon a foundation that will not support it. The seeds of contemporary, more socialist, liberalism can be found in classical liberalism. After having made this case, I will make the case for an alternative foundation for the institution of private property in traditional society – the society, the authority of which, classical liberalism was founded to attack.
The quotation from Karl Marx given above is a truncated quotation. The first three words “In this sense” were omitted. What sense is Marx referring to?
In the four preceding paragraphs Marx had argued that communism is not unique in its goal of the abolition of existing property relationships. “All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change consequent upon the change in historical conditions” he wrote, and gave as an example the French Revolution, which “abolished feudal property in favour of bourgeois property.” What was distinct about communism, Marx argued, was that it sought the abolition of bourgeois property and:
modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.
This is the “sense” Marx is referring to. Marx saw history as an ongoing struggle in which classes of exploited “have nots” (people without property) would constantly overthrow their exploiters, the class of “haves” (people with property) becoming the new class of “haves”. The bourgeoisie, however, would be the last class of “haves” and their property would be the last form of “private property”. The proletarian, Marx argued, in overthrowing the bourgeoisie, would establish communism in which the distinction between “haves” and “have nots” would vanish, nobody would be exploited, all property would be owned in common and society would function according to the principle “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.
While most of what Marx wrote was complete rubbish there is insight we can glean from him in the parallel he drew between the French Revolution and the Communist revolution he was advocating. If the bourgeoisie were to feudal society what communism was to bourgeois society then the ideology which the bourgeoisie devised to justify overthrowing feudal society can hardly be said to be a pro-property ideology. What was that ideology?
The French Revolution to which Marx refers was launched in the name of the “rights of man and of the citizen”, gathering its inspiration primarily from the writings of the romantic philosopher Jean- Jacques Rousseau. In the English-speaking world, however, the transition from feudal to bourgeois society was accomplished, in a much less violent manner. The ideology which inspired or explained the transition in the English-speaking world was the classical liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith.
If English liberalism achieved the same end as the French Revolution through less overtly violent methods what does that say about liberalism as an appropriate ideological foundation for the institution of property?
Before returning to Lockean liberalism it is important that we define property. What is property? What concepts are essential to its nature? What is “private property” as opposed to other types of property?
The noun “property” simply means “that which is owned”. Specialized uses of the term in law, politics, and economics come back to this basic meaning. In law property can be either personal property (your clothes, books, and other such items), real property (land, buildings, etc.) or intellectual property (the legality of which is currently in debate, a debate which is beyond the scope of this essay). In economics “property” refers to “the means of production”, i.e. everything such as land, raw materials, a production plant and tools that is used in the production of useful goods.
In political arguments about “private property” the term “property” tends to encompass both the economic meaning of property and the legal concept of “real property”. The adjective “private” means “not open to the public but exclusive for the use of X”. When we modify property with the adjective “private” we express the idea of that property which is owned, not collectively by society, but privately by society’s members.
One last word needs to be defined and that is the verb “own”. To own something means more than just to possess the use of it. Human beings can use resources without owning them. We all breathe the air but non of us owns it. We all use the light of the sun but it is not our property. The basic difference between owning something and merely using it is that when you own a resource you have the right to determine how the resource is used, whether for your own benefit or the benefit of others. Inherent within this right is the right to exclude others from the use of the resource.
Now having the “right” to determine how something is used and to exclude others from its use is different from having the “ability” to do so. Lets say you go out and build a wall around a section of land, fortify the wall, and arm yourself to the teeth. You may very well possess the ability to determine the use of the land and prevent others from using it. That does not mean that you have the right to do so and if you do so in the middle of a public park that thousands of people frequent on a daily basis you are probably going to run into some difficulties as a result of your actions.
What makes the difference between the person whose control over resources he claims for himself rests solely on his ability to defend his claim by force and the person who actually owns resources?
The difference is that the latter’s claim to the property in question is recognized by society and protected by society’s laws.
What does this tell us about private property?
It tells us first, that society has a interest in recognizing and protecting the institution of private property. The private ownership of property, therefore, benefits not only those who own property themselves, but society as a collective whole.
Secondly it identifies for us the idea in supposedly pro-property Lockean liberalism that is the seed of the anti-property contemporary liberalism.
In the first of John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government, Locke had argued against Robert Filmer’s defense of patriarchal authority.(1) His second treatise was devoted to suggesting an alternative theory of the origins of society, authority, and government. In his theory, men in their natural state, are “free, equal and independent”, and societies arise when men voluntarily contract with each other to form a society and government for their greater security. Men’s basic rights, according to Locke, go back to the pre-societal natural state. The fifth chapter of his second Treatise is devoted to the question of how property arose in this natural state. God had given the world, including the land and all lesser creatures, to man in common, Locke argued, but “every man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person.’” He then goes on to argue:
This nobody has any right to but himself. The "labour" of his body and the "work" of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this "labour" being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others.
Locke’s theory that property, like rights and the individual himself, predates society, requires him to come up with an explanation like this. There are a couple of problems with it however.
The first problem is that the entire theory of which Locke’s “labour theory of property” is a subcategory is manifestly false. It is the human state of nature to live together in societies, not to be “free, equal, and independent”. Society precedes the individual person – as can be seen every time a baby is born, for he is born into a pre-existing society, his family.
The second problem is that this theory is also the foundation of Marxism.
Think about it. How does Marx’s theory of history work again? First, all things are owned in common. Then some people appropriate to themselves that which was previously held in common and form the class of the “haves”. This leaves the rest without anything. They become the class of the “have nots”. Because the “haves” have all the property they are able to exploit the “have nots” who have only their labour. The exploitation takes this form: the “have nots” exchange their labour for wages from the “haves”, but because the “haves” have all the property the bargaining is one-sided and the “have nots” never receive the full value of their labour. This continues until the “have nots” overthrow the “haves” and become the new “haves” until the process ends with communism being established.
Marx’s theory is false, but apart from Locke’s theory of the origins of property it would be completely incoherent. It is nonsense to think that the workers in a factory are exploited just because the factory owner makes a large profit from selling the factory’s product. Nobody would ever have thought so, however, if Locke had not argued that property arises out of labour.
Locke is wrong. There is no state of nature for human beings that is prior to society. The man outside society is the most unnatural of men. Property is a product of society.
Traditionally, societies are bound together by a common set of beliefs, customs, and habits. These form the core of a society’s culture and they include basic concepts of what is right and what is wrong with regards to human behavior. The terms we use for a particular system of right and wrong (morality) or for the branch of philosophy devoted to the question of what is right and wrong are derived from the Latin and Greek terms for “custom” or “habit”, reflecting the fact that standards of right and wrong are primarily collective rather than personal. A society with a higher civilization than others will believe in moral standards that transcend itself, that are universal, written in a natural law flowing from a higher authority (God’s). In such a society, however, the higher, universal rules, must be expressed in particular customs and habits.
It is out of such customs and habits that the institution of private property arises. Societies recognize that their members have a right to that which they have legitimately acquired (through inheritance, purchase, gift, etc.), forbid others from trespassing on that (through theft, robbery, vandalism, trespass, etc.) and protect people’s rights to their own through their laws.
Does the institution of private property then serve the interests of society as a collective whole? If so what are those interests?
I can see three ways in which the institution of private property serves the collective interests of a society. These are a) it helps preserve the peace, b) it helps conserve the condition of material things in society, c) it contributes to the general prosperity of society.
Society consists of human beings, who live and work together for their common good as a society, the collective goods of the families, churches, and communities to which they belong, as well as their own personal goods. Such living and working together generates friction and at times disagreements arise. Sometimes one person’s good may conflict with another person’s, or the good of one or both of them might conflict with the good of society as a whole. One of the purposes of law to prevent these disagreements from tearing society apart in violent conflict.
Private property is a means to this end because when property is privately owned the difference between what belongs to one person and what belongs to another is also clearly defined and distinguished. This makes it easier for disputes to be settled peacefully.
The various socialisms, of course, dispute this. They argue that the very existence of a distinction between “mine” and “thine” is the cause of conflict. All one needs to do to prove them wrong is to point to a society which has tried to put socialism into practice. The elimination, at least nominally, of private ownership of factories and land and other productive property, makes people more jealous of their most minute personal effects. It eliminates trust, tears people apart, and generates more conflict over the pettiest of things.
This is because socialism has misdiagnosed the cause of evil in human society. It is not the existence of private property, the existence of “mine” and “thine” rather than a universal “ours”. It is the human heart, which is fallen, rebellious, and depraved. There is no political, social, or economic cure to the human condition. It is from that condition that human evil comes, and the laws of human societies are better able to deal with it when private property exists and property rights and protected under law.
The private ownership of property helps to conserve the condition of material things in society. What that simply means is that people are less likely to waste and abuse resources that they own than ones which are owned in common by society. This should be obvious to everybody. Where are you more likely to find garbage carelessly thrown about? In the backyards and front laws of privately owned houses or in ditches, back alleys, streets, and public parks? Who is more likely to keep their home in well repair? The person who owns the house he lives in or the person renting an apartment? What are the biggest pollution problems in the world today? The pollution of the atmosphere, the oceans, and other resources where private ownership is largely impractical.
Ecologists have long recognized this but they unfortunately are largely infected with the affinity for socialism that pervades much of the contemporary scientific and academic world. Instead of promoting responsible private property ownership they tend to support more government intervention and conservation laws.
Practically speaking, there are basically three options with regards to conserving resources. Either a) the resources are commonly owned, and available to all, with no limitations, b) they are commonly owned, and available to all with regulations and limitations that are strictly enforced, or c) you have resources that are privately owned and available to those their owners make them available to.
The first is the worst option from an ecological standpoint. This produces the famous “tragedy of the commons” of which Garrett Hardin wrote. (2) The second option is appropriate only in very specific situations where there is a practical reason for having the resource publicly owned. Applied on a large-scale throughout a society it eliminates human freedom and produces misery. The third option, is the best option, the option that has stood the test of time.
Finally, private property contributes to the general prosperity of society. This is true on a number of different levels. There is the basic fact, that in a society with private property, like Canada, the UK, or the United States, there is greater material abundance at every level in society than in a country like the old Soviet Union where misery was the only thing in abundance except in the higher echelons of the Communist Party.
We should not make the mistake of identifying material abundance with human happiness however. The two are not the same. Private property contributes to society’s prosperity in the sense of real happiness in that people are healthier psychologically and happier when they can say of something “this is mine” and have society recognize their claim. This is part of what is meant by the term “status”. “Status” is not a concept that is well-liked by levelers, egalitarians, revolutionaries, progressives, liberals and the like but it is vitally important to a person’s well-being and their integration into society. Private property helps convey status, and with it a sense of responsibility and achievement and helps ward off alienation.
It is therefore an institution that is vital to the interests of a civilized society.
(1) In my opinion, Locke’s thesis and arguments are inferior to Filmer’s.