The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 1

In recent months, I have been intrigued by the issues surrounding private property–its origin, moral basis, and legitimate use.  For some time now, I’ve been pursuing this line of research via a very slow and thorough read of Jeremy Waldron’s ridiculously thorough, incisive, and provocative The Right to Private Property, and thought it was about time I distill some of the fruits of that reading in some essays on the problem of private property, intended to be more broadly popular than narrowly academic. (Note: I should say before I start, to guard against the sometimes bizarre misunderstandings I encounter, that I am nowhere in this trying to argue for the abolition of private property or anything of that sort.) 

Of course, the problem we face today is that very few people think there is any “problem of private property” to worry about.  The questions, once so vexing, of whence private property arises, how it is to be justified, and how it is to be distributed, are now largely taken for granted.  The last, to be sure, still excites considerable debate, but despite the frequent rhetoric from the right about widespread “socialism,” both sides of the political spectrum, throughout the modern west and increasingly throughout the modern world, accept that the basic form of ownership is private property.  Modern economics now feels comfortable simply accepting private property as a given, as a first principle to economic deliberation rather than the carefully-argued conclusion to such deliberation.  An economics teacher I know assures me that he once canvassed a half-dozen economics textbooks to search for any discussion of the basis and origin of private property, and found nothing whatsoever.  

Most surprising at all, perhaps, from a historical standpoint, is the attitude toward property among conservative Christians, where private property is taken for granted as something divinely-commanded and inherent in human society.  I say “most surprising from a historical standpoint” because for its first several centuries, the Church’s conviction, often voiced by the most renowned Fathers and theologians, was that private property arose only as a result of the Fall, and was perhaps indeed inseparable from sin, so that the only way to own property justly was to own it in such a way that one acted as if one did not own it; and even with this strict standard, many felt that common property was a better route to take.  It was not for more than a thousand years that scholastic theologians felt comfortable arguing that private property could be legitimate in man’s natural state, and even then, they qualified their argument in such a way as to still maintain that private property was only a permissible, not a necessary, development, and thus always subservient to other ends.  In other words, private property wasn’t unnatural, but that didn’t give it an automatic stamp of approval either.  With the rise of humanism and its embrace of Roman writers, a loftier view of private property began to gain ascendancy in the Christian West, but it wasn’t until the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that it began to be seen as good and natural without qualification.  And even since that time, it has been theologians more than anyone who have maintained a constant chorus of dissent to modernity’s embrace of the wonders of private property.  

But aside from these theological scruples, on which I have touched in occasional previous posts, and which I shall revisit soon, our blithe acceptance of private property is surprising for another reason: do we even know what we are talking about?  Defining private property rights is hardly as straightforward as we may generally assume.  As R.H. Tawney put it,

“It is idle . . . to present a case for or against private property without specifying the particular forms of property to which reference is made, and the journalist who says that ‘private property is the foundation of civilization’ agrees with Proudhon, who said it was theft, in this respect at least that, without further definition, the words of both are meaningless.”   

Jeremy Waldron starts by pointing out a fairly basic complication of our understanding of private ownership.  This cannot rightly be understood, he says, as designating a relation between a person and a thing, since things cannot have rights or recognize rules; it must be a relation between various people, a set of rights that people can claim over against other people, presumably including also certain duties.  This complicates the matter because the rights and duties of such interpersonal relationships are manifold, distinguishable, and in principle separable.  Indeed, it is quite obvious that many of the rights normally belonging to ownership can be separated from some of the others; a tenant, for instance, may have quite extensive rights of occupation, use, management, etc., may indeed in some circumstance have nearly all the rights normally pertaining to ownership, without thereby being an owner.  It may be difficult to say exactly what sets of rights qualify as ownership, particularly as these will differ considerably depending on the kind of possession in question.  As Waldron says, “The objects of property…differ so radically in legal theory, that it seems unlikely that the same concept of ownership could be applied to them all, even within a single legal system.  In England, the ownership of a Porsche is quite a different thing from the ownership of a piece of agricultural land.”  In modern societies, indeed, most wealth that makes up people’s “property” does not consist in objects at all, but in various financial rights and shares that are the product of ever more complex legal constructs.  Indeed, on this note, it is worth remarking that Waldron suggests that the type of property involved in the corporation, which makes up a large majority of the supposed “private property” system in modern America, is perhaps not accurately described as private property at all: “A society in which the main means of production are held by large corporations and managed by executives and boards responsible to a large and dispersed body of shareholders differs so markedly from a society dominated by individual private ownership that it is tempting to describe corporate property as a distinct type of property regime.”  

The rights and duties pertaining to property ownership also differ from society to society.  In almost every society, we are not free to use our property entirely as we wish, but are obliged to observe certain limits–for instance, with an automobile, we may be constrained as to where we can drive it, how fast, what fuel we can put in it, what maintenance we have to do on it to keep driving it, etc.  A strict libertarian may indignantly exclaim that all this is an infringement on private property, but most of us would admit, while perhaps quibbling about details, that such constraining duties are to some extent part of what it means to be a property owner.  Such duties of course differ in different countries, but so also do the rights of property ownership.  As Waldron says,

“In America, an owner can leave his goods in his will to more or less anyone he pleases.  But an owner’s liberty in this respect is not so great in England; it is even more heavily curtailed by statute law in, say, New Zealand; and in France the operation of the doctrine of legitima portio casts a different complexion on wills, bequest, and inheritance altogether.  What does this show?  Does it show that the French have a different concept of ownership from the Americans and the English, so that it is a linguistic error to translate propriete as ‘ownership’?”

The upshot of all this, suggests Waldron, is that when we speak of private property, we are speaking of a Wittgensteinian “family resemblance”–a general collection of common features which differ somewhat from society to society–a “concept” of which many “conceptions” are possible.  

The reason I draw attention to all this ambiguity (aside of course from the fact that it’s always fun to muddy the waters and mess with people’s heads) is to point out two things, at least: 1) I’m not sure the people who yell on talk radio and TV till they’re red in the face about the need to protect rights of private property have any clue what they’re talking about; and even if they do, they certainly need to do rather more to make it clear before they deserve to be listened to; 2) to treat private property as a “natural right,” pure and simple, a right that people have simply by being human, and not because a government has granted it to them, is clearly not quite so straightforward as we might like.  Even if we wanted to preserve this concept in general, we would have to admit that much of what is involved in property ownership necessarily rests upon prudential legal definition and social convention, and thus requires some kind of governmental regulation. 

So, with these ambiguities established, I will move in the second post to establish a second sort of ambiguity by briefly examining the common appeal to Scripture in defence of private property.

3 thoughts on “The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 1

  1. Donny

    Perfect timing. I'm teaching economics next semester, and this material would be interesting. So speed it up, so I can work it in. It's all for the children, Brad.


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Alright, Donny, I'll do what I can. Always glad to help the children (by subverting them and turning them into a bunch of little socialists, so you end up losing your job! Mwuhahaha!) 😉


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s