The Origin of Private Property (The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 5)

After a long hiatus to focus on Hooker and McCormack, I’m finally getting back to my series on the problem of private property.  Unfortunately, it will still be some time before I start trying to provide any answers to that problem.  At this point, there is still a lot of problematizing to do–explaining why we can’t simply take private property for granted and why it makes a difference how we explain it and justify it.  Having in part 1 then addressed the ambiguity in the definition of private property, in part 2 (and a follow-up) addressed the facile appeal to the eighth commandment as providing an account of the justification of private property, in part 3 the problems that the New Testament raises for private property, and in part 4 borrowing from Kathryn tanner a description of the distinctively modern understanding of private property, I will in the next two segments attempt to classify the range of possible explanations that may be offered for the origin and justification of private property.  

No doubt there have been plenty of theorists and ethicists who have already proposed such classification schemes, but as I haven’t come across them, I’ve invented my own scheme.  Of course, like all such schemes, it draws neater distinctions between various approaches than actually exist; many theories of property would probably blur some of the lines I draw here.  But hopefully this will helpful in providing a survey of the various logical possibilities.  I warn you that this will be a tedious exercise, but it’s a necessary one, I think, if we are to properly appreciate how complex the problem of private property really is.  


In this segment, I’ll be distinguishing between origin narratives, as opposed to justification arguments (the next segment).  Most of the origin narratives I’ll be looking at will have a justificatory element, and most of the justification arguments will contain a large element of origin narrative; however, they serve to focus attention on different aspects of the problem, and so, to get the fullest picture, it will be helpful to run through them separatelyNote also that as my focus here is on the basis for private property, I will not be considering narratives describing a move from a state of private property into communism, as we find in Marxism for instance (though I will be considering a few possibilities in which private property never comes to be in the first place).


So, if we ask, “Where does private property come from?” there are three main answers that can be given: (I) in the beginning, all things were private; (II) in the beginning, some things were private, and all the rest was common; (III) in the beginning, all things were common.

The first statement, once we examine it, appears almost untenable today, although for a spell during the 17th century it achieved remarkable dominance in certain circles.  If this option were true, we would have to say that Adam was endowed at his creation with private proprietorship over all things, answerable perhaps to God for his administration thereof, but not to men, as his right predated the existence of other men.  When descendants were born to him, they acquired property inasmuch as he opted to bequeath it to them, and otherwise had none.  Now, the patriarchalist theory that arose in the seventeenth century argued that by this inheritance, according to the right of primogeniture, the kings of the earth legitimately hold full dominion over all property in their realms, having inherited a title thereto in direct descent from Adam.  How exactly the theory worked I’m not sure, but needless to say, it depended on a conviction of the natural inequality of men that is untenable today, and should indeed have always been untenable from a Christian perspective.  If we were to affirm instead the natural equality of all men before God, and their equal claim to God’s gifts in creation, then on the original private property thesis, we could presumably say that although Adam owned all things, he was bound to divide them equally (or at least roughly equally) among his descendants, who were then to divide them equally among their descendants, and so on.  But of course, such a conception would raise the question of how the whole world, as yet mostly unexplored, was to be successfully so divided; at best, only those lands currently known and surveyed could be divided up, the rest would have to be considered as common in one sort or another, though there might be some general principles of equality governing its division.  In any case, this would take us to spelling out the possibilities under option III.  In any case, I am not actually aware of any thinker who has argued for this equal-inheritance-from-Adam model of private property, so I will forbear from exploring it further.

So then, on Option I–the assumption of original private property–we have either to assume a patriarchalist inequality legitimating regal dominion, which almost no one would want to anymore, or an equal division which would in practice have to treat most things as common from the beginning.  So this assumption seems to be a non-starter.  However, this has not kept some Christians from carelessly speaking as if private property really was original in this strong sense.  For instance, in their atrocious book Calvin and Commerce, David Hall and Matthew Burton assert, “After the flood, for example, Noah and his family virtually owned the world,” implying that the entire world must be considered the private property of whoever first came into it.


Option II can be dealt with fairly briefly.  For if we say that in the beginning, some things were Adam’s private possession, and the rest was common, it is difficult to see what role the private portion could play in a subsequent narrative of property today, unless for a patriarchalist thesis.  A patriarchalist might argue not that Adam possessed at first the whole world as his private possession, but that he possessed a certain portion of it, which could be passed on along the eldest male line, to legitimate a certain supremacy of wealth and dominion for monarchs supposedly descended from this line.  Or perhaps, if we posited an equal division of property among all Adam’s descendants, this option would argue that a certain minimal portion of the world belongs to each human being as his private inheritance from Adam, while the bulk of the world’s property, originally common, has been divided up in a different fashion (as will be discussed at length in a moment).  Such a proposal, though, would be rather too vague and abstract to serve as the basis for any concrete determination of what naturally belongs to each human as their right of inheritance.   So in any case, any form of Option II would leave us still having to account for most of the property in the world according to one of the forms of Option III, to which we shall now turn our attention.


To say “In the beginning, all things were common,” sounds to many today like dangerous radicalism, but as we have already seen, this seems upon reflection to be the most coherent account that could be given.  If God created the world, and filled it with good things, and put into it man to oversee the whole and use it for his sustenance, and if all men are by nature equal before God, equally deserving of sustenance from and enjoyment of the fruits of creation, then in the beginning, all of creation belongs to all men equally, and to none particularly.  Not, of course, that it would make much difference whether we spoke of “common” or “private” in the time of Adam, but as soon as man multiplied and began to fill the earth, we would need to be able to say whether some men had a particular right to some portion thereof, or whether all had an equal claim upon it.  The latter seems clearly the most plausible option.  But here we branch into many competing ways of construing this original commonness.

First, the statement “all things were common” could be construed in (A) a negative sense or (B) a positive sense.  According to the former, this means merely that nothing was as yet specified as the particular possession of anyone, but it could become so.  According to a positive construal, this would mean that all things were communally owned–communities of men had control over property, which was positively shared among the members.  Think of it as the difference between a city park and an unclaimed wilderness.  In the one case, anyone has equal right to use it because everyone has rights of use; in the other, anyone has equal right ot use it because no one as yet has rights to it. 


Now, our IIIA negative commonality is obviously a temporary state–it is property over which no one has as yet established any rules of use, private or public, a situation that is bound to change sooner or later.  I suppose we could imagine a condition of perpetual anarchy, in which humans never established any fixed rules for how property was to be claimed and used, so that there was a perpetual war of all against all for its resources.  However, clearly (and thankfully) that is not how history turned out.  So if we believe that option IIIA characterized property in the beginning, there are a number of ways it could then come to be governed by certain rules of possession and use.  These can be classed under 1) unilateral, and 2) multilateral means of appropriation.  Under unilateral appropriation, any individual could, acting on his own initiative, remove property from its state of negative commonality and make it into his private possession, by carrying out certain actions with respect to it.  Needless to say, we are most accustomed to theories of this sort, John Locke’s being the most famous.  However, there are strong counterarguments to be made against unilateral accounts–how could any individual justly take actions that might negatively affect his fellows without their consent?  (distinguish between origin and justification here.)  Alternatively, then, we could say that even completely unclaimed property only passes into private ownership by the decision of communities, by an agreement among men to allow each of them to take exclusive possession of resources, and have rights of dominion and use over against one another.  

But, to be entirely precise, we would have to differentiate between a spectrum of eight different options, four under each of these headings.  First, under IIIA1 unilateral appropriation, we could suggest (a) a complete free-for-all, in which no rules whatsoever governed the acquisition of property, a might-makes right system.  Or we could suggest (b) that there are certain “natural” conditions that must be met–e.g., the Lockean “mixing of one’s labour”–that are necessary and sufficient for staking an exclusive claim to resources.  Or (c), we could assert that, over and above these natural conditions, the community of one’s fellows would be able to establish certain further conditions for legitimate acquisition and continuing title–e.g., that one could only stake an initial and continuing claim to certain resources, so long as there was sufficient left for one’s fellows to claim for their own needs (Locke himself makes a proviso of this sort).  Or finally, (d), we could go so far as to say that while property could be claimed unilaterally, such claims would always be subject to revocation by the community, which would never cede to individuals a complete right to dispose of resources according to their own pleasure, but would maintain the right of the whole community to make decisions regarding distributions that affected the whole.  With this last, we are close to, though still logically distinct from, multilateral appropriation.

So, what are the options for IIIA2 multilateral appropriation?  Well, (a) the community could come together as a whole and establish rules for legitimate unilateral appropriation.  That is to say, imagine a tribe moving into a new area, calling a council, and together stipulating various conditions that, being met by any member of the tribe, would entitle him to private possession of a certain piece of territory (these could be similar to the Lockean conditions, for instance).  This seems very close to IIIA1b above, but is distinct inasmuch as these conditions are understood as positive, rather than natural.  Alternatively, (b), the community could come together and simply allot various portions of property to individual private possessors (whether equally or unequally), but with the understanding that, having made this initial distribution, the community now left this property entirely in the hands of its new private owners–an irrevocable distribution, in short.  Or, (c), the community could make a revocable distribution, dividing up resources among private owners but with the proviso that they were always subject to partial or full redistribution by the community should the common good so require.  Finally, (d), we could imagine a state of negative commonality of which the only change was a communal act of appropriation into a state of positive commonality–where the community asserted a positive right to administer and share the resources which until now had been governed by no rules and rights.  Obviously, these eight options disguise an enormous number of possible variations, but the basic distinctions should be clear enough.


Now, there is one part of our taxonomy still to be filled out–the various possible understandings of IIIB, positive commonality.  Here again there are two main subdivisions: this could be conceived as 1) a mutable state of affairs, or 2) an immutable state of affairs.  In the first case, property would be understood as being subject to common oversight and administration, but such that it could subsequently be divided up privately if it seemed good to the community (and such division could occur along any of the lines sketched in IIIA2 above); in the second, this common property administration would be seen as a permanently binding institution.  A further distinction is also possible in both cases–a distinction between a) decentralized regulation and b) centralized regulation.  These are not the most precise terms, and are certainly not hard-and-fast categories–we can imagine a great many possible variations.  But to give some idea of the distinction I have in mind, here’s a couple examples.  As an example of something like the former, though, we might imagine a society that treated all its farmland and forests as common property, and thus set up various rules of fair use–each member of the society was free to make use of the property and gather resources from it, but not beyond a certain amount, or on certain days, or in case of certain circumstances that would be injurious to his fellows, etc.  Individuals would generally be seen as self-policing, and only in cases of blatant violations would the community intervene in some capacity to reassert its rights to dispose of the property over the individual’s rights.  As an example of the latter, we could imagine a society in which a council directed individuals in their various tasks of gathering resources from the communal land, which resources were then all brought to a common pool to be shared out by the council’s direction according to the needs of each.  Both of these models could be communal property regimes, but clearly they would function quite differently.  


To recap, then, we have the following taxonomy (apologies that the outline formatting isn’t working right…)

Origin of Property

I. All things originally private

A. Divided up unequally, with property dominion descending to ruler

B. Divided up equally among Adam’s descendants

II. Some things originally private, all the rest common

A. Private portion divided up unequally, with property dominion descending to rulers

B. Private portion divided up equally among Adam’s descendants

III. All things originally common

A. Negatively construed

1. Unilaterally appropriated

a. No conditions, free-for-all

b. Natural conditions must be met

c. Natural conditions must be met and continuing social restraints apply

d. Initial appropriation, though unilateral is always subject to revocation by the community

2. Multilaterally appropriated

a. Community determines rules for legitimate individual acts of appropriation

b. Community makes an initial distribution, but cannot retract its decision

c. Community makes an initial distribution which it retains power to revoke.  

d. Community asserts positive communal ownership 

B. Positively construed

1. Mutable state of affairs

a. decentralized administration

b. centralized administration

2. Permanent state of affairs

a. decentralized administration

b. centralized administration


Now, this has been quite a tedious exercise, but it should be clear that the route one takes here makes an important difference to any theory of property justice.  In the modern world, most debate tends to fall within the bounds of IIIA1 narratives (bolstered by careless rhetoric that sounds like some form of Option I), in which it is granted that individuals have the right to make property their private through their labour on it, and the only question is to what extent social conditions and restraints continue to govern their possession of it.  Historically, Christian theorists would generally have held to some form of IIIA2 or IIIB1, and there are still some who continue to argue this case (though usually not the Christians, incidentally).  However, the ethical and theological dimensions of such theories will become clearer when we look at justification arguments, to which I shall turn in the next segment.

2 thoughts on “The Origin of Private Property (The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 5)

  1. Donny

    A private property theories chart. I'm flabbergasted.Just one question, though. Why such a big emphasis on land an inheritance? What of other aspects of property that aren't necessarily tied to land itself, liking owning what you produce with your labor? Do you see that as flowing from land/inheritance theories, or will you deal with that separately?


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Good question, Donny. I am aware of the frustrating oversimplifications I'm having to make here, which are necessary if I'm to make any headway, instead of spending a dozen posts fleshing out distinctions. Land is not the only form of property, but it is the archetypal form, so to speak. All other property (aside from intellectual property, which is a whole 'nother can of worms) ultimately derives from it. If I take a chunk of iron and go into my smithy and forge a sword (or better, a ploughshare!), then shouldn't that be mine, as the product of my labour? Sure seems like it. But what if I stole the iron? To account for ownership of the iron, we have to trace that ownership back to the mine, which means accounting for who owned the mine and how. Same with the stones that make up the walls of my smithy. What if it turned out that I bought the iron from a guy who bought it from a guy who bought it from a guy who'd been sneaking it out of his neighbor's mine at night? Do I still own the sword? If labour establishes ownership, then it seems it can only do so to the extent that it creates something new. Inasmuch as this was iron and is now a sword, I have acquired a right to the sword by my labour. But I didn't create it out of nothing, and if I didn't have a right to the iron in the first place, I can't have full right to the sword simply by virtue of my labour. When we trace this back, we find at every stage someone creating something new out of existing materials. Land and natural resources are what no man has created, only God. Inasmuch as man makes something new out of these, perhaps he acquires a property right to the new thing produced, but how and to what extent does he acquire a right to the part he didn't create? This is the ultimate question that must be solved to make sense of property.


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