Justifying Private Property (The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 6)

I will warn you–this post is a doozy.  Even by the preposterously lengthy standards of my posts for the past three weeks or so.  But as thoroughness is intrinsic to what I’m trying to do here, I’m not sure of any way around it.  The long and arduous trek, however, does yield some real fruit at the end (or at least I think it does…it’s quite possible I’ve taken a wrong turn on the way there, in which case the fruit will probably end up being rotten, and I rely on any readers to tell me if this is so).  If you’re the impatient sort, you could just scroll to the bottom for the interesting bits, and see if they make any sense out of context.

Having explored in the last segment a range of possible accounts of the origin of private property, I will here attempt to categorize the different kinds of justification arguments for private property.  Or perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that I will survey different answers to the question, “What is the ethical status of private property?”  I will look at nine answers, each of which, I expect, has actually been espoused by a range of thinkers in history; although my grasp of the history is too poor to spell out examples properly, I will try to provide some indications where possible.  Also, there are several points at which the following taxonomy overlaps with or is susceptible of further sub-categorization in terms of the taxonomy I gave in the previous segment; I will try to take note of these connections at important points.

The classification here will be simpler than that of the previous post, with five main answers, two of which admit of three important subdivisions.  So, what is the intrinsic ethical status of private property?


The first and simplest answer is to refuse the question, to insist (1) that private property is an amoral institution, that the decision about what kind of property regime to enact must be based, if anything, on purely utilitarian or pragmatic considerations.  Private property can on this account never be more than a social construction, which human beings may introduce if they expect to gain more benefit from it, or abandon it if they see fit; and whatever they decide, no one can object on ethical grounds.  Historically, this would have been a very unusual answer indeed, and one that no serious political theorist (except perhaps the likes of Machiavelli and Hobbes).  However, in modern times, with the breakdown of Christian and natural law ethics, utilitarianism and pragmatism have gained the ascendancy in most of ethical discourse, including property rights.  I’m inclined to say that the influence of Locke and our greedy desire to claim as high a status for “sacred” property rights as possible has prevented such amoralism from gaining as much influence in the issue of property as in most other questions, even among professional ethicists.  A majority still want to claim some intrinsic ethical status for private property, but not a large majority.


If we want, then, to attach an intrinsic ethical status to private property, the two most obvious are (2) to say that private property is simply wicked, or (3) to say that it is directly ordained and positively commanded by God, so that its absence is simply wicked.  These opposite extremes are fairly unusual, both historically and on the contemporary scene.  Regarding the former, Proudhon is probably its most notorious exponent, with his famous declaration that “property is theft,” a conviction shared by a number of modern communistic utopians (though not, I would venture, a large number; more have been historical materialists, like Marx himself, who considered private property to be a stage that must be transcended, and thus more obsolete than evil per se).   There have always been occasional communistic movements that have preached the absolute evil of private property, particularly in Christian history, but they have rarely gotten very far.  The latter extreme, of directly ordained private property, while rhetorically fairly common in our day and age among what I call “divine right capitalists” is, I think rarely seriously advocated.  To make this claim (at least in the sense I intend here), requires that one understand private property as having begun at creation, which as I explored in my previous post on property, is actually a rather difficult claim to coherently maintain.  This is quite distinct, I think, from arguing that private property was a natural, even a necessary, development within history.  We can make this claim and understand it to include some kind of divine authorization, but if we do, we are granting that private property had to come into being; it was not, as it were, part of what God looked down upon on the sixth day and said “it is very good.”


If we deny these two extremes, and that private property is simply amoral, we are left with a whole range of potentially viable options, in which private property is (or may be) legitimate, but is not self-authenticatingly so.  These can be grouped under two main headings: (4) “natural” (meaning here prelapsarian), and (5) “unnatural” (meaning here postlapsarian).  The term “unnatural” will require some brief elucidation before I continue.  I do not mean thereby “wrong”–in fact, some options I will explore under “unnatural” would hold PP to be positively right for us.  However, whereas “natural” understandings of PP regard it as a development that could or should lawfully have happened in man’s created state of innocence, “unnatural” understandings portray it as a development necessitated or caused by man’s fall into sinfulness.  This distinction runs very deep in the Christian ethical tradition, and parallels a similar (and in many ways, intimately related) disagreement over whether political authority would have existed in a state of innocence or only after the fall.  Clearly, a great deal hinges on the decision between these two main options; just as much, however, hinges on the decision between the various sub-options of each, to which we shall now turn.


So, if we take route (4) and say that private property is “natural,” what are we saying?  We are saying that it is part of what has traditionally been called “the natural law”–it is part of how humans are supposed, or at any rate allowed, to live; it is the proper, or at any rate a legitimate realization of man’s nature.  This category can make sense either in Christian or non-Christian conceptions, though clearly a Christian conception can make greater sense out of the category.  For a Christian, to say that private property is “natural” is to say that it was part of God’s preceptive will for mankind, or at any rate within the range of that will.  

Now you will notice already that I keep qualifying with “at any rate”–this shows you that I shall intend to show that “natural” does not necessarily mean commanded.  In his discussion of the “law of reason” (his term for the natural law), Richard Hooker argues that all things are not necessarily good or evil simpliciter–for “in goodnes…there is a latitude or extent, whereby it commeth to passe that even of good actions some are better then other some, whereas otherwise one man could not excell another.”  Hooker distinguishes between three ways in which the law of reason can bind, and I have adopted his threefold distinction as eminently useful for the task at hand.  The law of reason “is either mandatory, shewing what must be doone; or els permissive, declaring onely what may bee done; or thirdly admonitorie, opening what is the most convenient for us to doe.”  (I shall change the order in my discussion, treating the admonitory before the permissive).  The first applies in cases of simple good and evil–there is one thing that must be done, and to not do it would be evil; or there is one thing that must not be done, and to do it would be evil–these are moral absolutes like “thou shalt not murder.”  The second (in my order)–the admonitory–applies in cases where of various possible goods, one is exhorted to choose the most good; failure to do so may be blameworthy in some respect, but not altogether so.  Examples would be many decisions in parenting–questions of how to educate or discipline your child for instance–where there might be a best way to do it without all other ways being thereby wrong.  The third–the permissive–applies in cases where of many evils, we are allowed to choose the least evil, and not to be blamed therein.  An example might be killing in self-defence.  To kill, we might say, is never good, and yet in certain circumstances, it may be permitted to prevent the worse evil of one’s own innocent death.  (Obviously, this example is highly-disputed territory; I merely provide it as an example of how the logic of a permissive law of reason might work.)


If we apply this general paradigm to the question of property, what do we have?

Option 4A: Private property is mandated–although in the beginning, all things are common, this is merely a negative commonality (see previous PP post), and humans are required to realize the proper form of their social nature by developing private property relations.  A failure to do so would be unnatural, unsound, and wrong.

Option 4B: Private property is advisable–in the beginning, all things are common (whether negatively or positively construed), and it could remain so, but on the whole, the goods of mankind and the goods of creation are probably best to be accomplished by a private administration of property, so that a failure to so arrange things would be imprudent and likely blameworthy.

Option 4C: Private property is permitted–in the beginning, all things were common (again, either negatively or positively construed), but the inconveniences attending this arrangement are such that in many cases it would make more sense to enter into private property arrangements, so that one is not blameworthy for undertaking a private property distribution.  This is not in itself good, but it may be so as an alternative to the problems that might otherwise arise–as the “least evil” option.

Now, it is worth noting right away that Option 4C is a somewhat unstable one…it is hard to differentiate between Option 4B on the one hand and varietis of Option 5 on the other.  For when we talk about various evils among which private property must be understood as the least, we are clearly using “evil” metaphorically if we are talking of a prelapsarian condition, and if we are using it metaphorically, then it’s hard to see how we’re saying more than Option 4B–that is, that the absence of private property would imply various inconveniences or just be somehow less good.  However, I include it not only for the sake of logical symmetry (which is always nice), but because I think there is a difference of emphasis that is reflected here, and that can be discerned in various thinkers.  It’s a question of whether you lean toward saying that private property could very well have been instituted, but really need not have been, or whether you say that all things considered, it really should have been instituted, but it wasn’t absolutely necessary.  Aquinas’s theory of property, which I have discussed a fair bit before on this blog, is an eminent example of an Option 4B view.

If you take Option 4A, you are basically committed (unless you posit a change in the natural law, which no traditional ethicist could do) to saying that the initial state of commonality was one of negative commonality, negative commonality that must be resolved into private ownership.  This was our Option IIIA in the previous post, which admits, you may recall, of eight different sub-divisions.  Of these, only IIIA2d would be impossible here, for the ethicist who saw private property as a necessary natural institution.  Any of the others–a Lockean unilateral appropriation, or a division into private property by the consent and under certain constraints from the community (more along the lines of Grotius or Pufendorf, for instance).

Alternatively, if you take Options 4B or 4C, you could construe the original commonality either negatively or positively.   One could imagine an original positive commonality, only one that is capable of being changed (Option IIIB1 in the previous post).  But a negative commonality would make good sense, a commonality awaiting specification into stable property relations.  One could say then that a specification into private property relations would be admonished (4B) or permitted (4C), but a specification into a positively common property arrangement (Option IIIA2d in the previous post) would be possible.  It is unlikely, however, that if one accepted a development into private property under either 4B or 4C that one would consider such a development legitimate if appropriation occurred on a strictly unilateral basis.  After all, if one considered private property as to some extent optional, and considered common ownership of some kind as the original state, this would imply that the rights of the community precede those of the individual, and thus any private property distribution would be subject to some extent to the consent or oversight of the community.


Let’s turn then to consideration of the “unnatural” concepts of private property.  Remember that, as I said above, “unnatural” does not in this context mean “wrong”–it merely denotes the view that private property would not have developed in man’s natural, created state, but only as a result of the Fall (here I use theological language, but there are secular and pagan analogues) .  The views I shall consider here do not, unlike Option 3, consider private property therefore to be in itself wicked; it is, we might say, like the death penalty.  Of course, that is another hotly-debated subject, but most of that debate (for Christian ethicists at least) would fall within the same sort of range I shall explore below, and so this will provide a helpful analogy.  The death penalty is clearly a result of the Fall, but is not therefore in itself evil; rather, it is in principle a legitimate (some would say necessary) response to the conditions introduced into society by the fall.  It is a remedial institution–remedial for wickedness, not merely inconvenience–and that is how most of the Christian tradition up until Aquinas understood private property.  Here again there are three main options, again classifiable in Hooker’s categories.

Option 5A: Private property is not appropriate in the state of nature, but once sin comes into the world, private property is required.  There is simply no other way to administer a world ruled by competing wills, and so property must be divided up this way.  Failure to do so is hopelessly utopian, doomed to failure, and in fact a wicked attempt to deny the order God has required for dealing with man’s fallen nature.

Option 5B: Private property is not appropriate in the state of nature, but once sin comes into the world, private property is advisable.  It is certainly possible to administer property in common, even in a sinful world, but it is very difficult, prone to fall apart when confronted with human greed and laziness.  We are thus admonished that private property is now the best way to proceed, though we are not forbidden to look for ways to make other arrangements work.

Option 5C: Private property is not appropriate in the state of nature, but once sin comes into the world, private property is permitted.  It is still not ideal, to be sure, but it may often be the only way to proceed.  Individuals or societies that administer their resources in this way are not therefore blameworthy, but one may well want to try other arrangements, despite the difficulties attending of common property in a sinful world.  

How do Option 5 views relate to the various accounts of the origin of private property, given in the previous post?  Well, again there is no one-to-one correspondence.  If one believes that the Fall introduced serious tensions into a pre-existing condition of common ownership (a condition obviously somewhat hypothetical if we are talking about only Adam and Eve), then this could make sense whether that condition were construed negatively or positively.  If negatively, one might well say that in the state of innocence, each man would simply take from nature what he needed, without overly trespassing on what his neighbor needed, but sin introduced a greediness to take at the expense of others, that required (or at any rate invited) the remedy of a clear enforceable limitation of who owned what.  Or if positively, one might well say that in the state of innocence, humans would consult together about the allocation and use of resources, and would make sure that they were shared equally, but that sin introduced such quarrelsomeness, corruption, and inefficiency into this arrangment, that required (or at any rate invited) a separation of control, so that each household was responsible for administering its own goods and no one else’s.  It does not seem to me that the choice between Options 5A, 5B, or 5C would materially affect this decision. 

However, what does seem clear is that an “unnatural” understanding of private property would all but rule out unilateral appropriation (Option IIIA1 from the last post) accounts of the origin of PP.  Why is this?  Well, let’s think about it for a moment.  Clearly enough, if one imagines a natural state of positive commonality, of active community ownership, then to get from this state to one of private ownership, direct action of the community is necessary.  The community may decide on any number of ways to break up the common possessions into individual possessions, but it seems highly unlikely that it would it would choose simply to allow a free-for-all–a scramble for possessions in which each individual stakes a claim on whatever he can.  Even if it did allow unilateral appropriation, as it might in a circumstance where the world was wide open for each to claim whatever he needed (as it was after the Fall), the community would presumably still have some say over the use of the property, given its antecedent claim.  What we are imagining here is a situation like that of the 1862 Homestead Act in the US, in which the government permitted individuals to move into undeveloped, unclaimed land (well, theoretically; in reality, occupied by native Americans), and make the land theirs by mixing their labor for it and then filing for a deed.  This is unilateral appropriation of a sort, but not pre-political, as in Locke’s concept; it in fact depends on political organization to legitimate it.  

The same goes if we imagine a state of original negative commonality.  For in this situation, the very problem that private property is addressing is one arising from greedy individuals seizing whatever they can.  The solution to this is a political one–to make enforceable public distinctions between mine and thine, distinctions that cannot simply be based upon however much an individual can appropriate for himself, Lockean-style, since this is precisely the evil that needs to be redressed.  In this understanding, “mine and thine” are not pre-political realities that men enter into political covenant to protect, as Locke understood it, but are rather realities that come into being only by virtue of political covenant.  We have natural common right of possession, then a degeneration into a war of all against all, and then the political creation of a private right of possession.  Private rights having then being created by the community, they are safeguarded by the community, but clearly with restrictions on legitimate appropriation and use enforceable by the community; the absence of such restrictions, after all, was the problem created by sin in the first place.   


A final point that we must here note is the role of redemption.  After all, the Fall is not the end of the story–we have Creation, then Fall, then Redemption.  If PP is “natural,” in the sense of belonging to creation, then it would seem it ought to survive in the state of redemption.  To be sure, redemption does not merely return us to creation, but takes us beyond it; nevertheless, it is creation restored and enhanced, it is recognizably continuous with the state of creation, and not a complete overturning of it.  So private property would most likely continue to be affirmed in redemption.  However, if PP is “unnatural,” in the sense of belonging to the Fall, then redemption seems likely to enact a reversal of it.  Of course, redemption does not undo the Fall all at once–it is a gradual process–but it does call us to start living in a new manner, and to start transcending the old way of life.  So, Christians who have seen PP as a result of the Fall have generally considered the institution to be relativised, overturned, undermined, transcended or some such by redemption–they have considered that redeemed man is called to start living out the replacement of private property that man’s restoration to his true nature involves.  

Indeed, until the late Middle Ages, some form of Option 5 was most common among Christian thinkers; indeed, it seems to me that there was a gradual move from an original stark pessimism regarding private property–a 5C view occasionally bordering on Option 3 (PP is simply wicked), becoming increasingly optimistic so that first 5B became more prominent, then 5A, then 4C, and finally Aquinas’s 4B view (which was still strongly contested by Option 5 variants for a couple centuries).  Then, of course, in the seventeenth-century, optimism about PP took another great leap forward resulting in the historically quite novel Option 4A, with which many of us now live quite comfortbly today.  


Where have we then arrived?  Why does all this matter?  Well, we seen a couple paragraphs above one very important reason why it matters.  If one wants to imagine private property rights as pre-political rights, held by individuals over against society, and toward which society as a whole has only duties, but not rights of its own, there are in fact only a very few routes by which one can reach this conception.  And yet this conception is clearly, rhetorically-speaking, the dominant one in modern America, particularly in Christian America, it is the dominant rhetoric in what I call “divine right capitalism.”  Since this already came up earlier in this series, I will quote a recent blog post by Doug Wilson as a convenient example:

“This command [thou shalt not steal] presupposes the institution of private ownership — private property as a divine institution — and sets up a fundamental protection against assaults on the right to own property. It does this in just the same way that the prohibition of adultery presupposes the institution of marriage. If marriage is just a “social construct” that our laws can redefine or abolish, then the same goes for adultery.”  

Here, PP is emphatically claimed as something that precedes all human laws, that belongs to each individual (or rather, each household) naturally and by divine right.  This must be an Option 4A view (if not an incoherent Option 2 view).

However, in these same circles it is often claimed that the great virtue of capitalism is that it is a system built on the assumption of human depravity–that private property in particular is an institution required by and fitted for sinful man, who simply cannot succeed in any attempt at common ownership.  Capitalism and its corollary, PP, may not be “natural,” but they natural under a post-Fall condition–they are the only option, we are told, and are therefore divinely commanded.  This sounds like an Option 5A view.

Now, one or other of these must be true, it seems.  Option 5A is more theologically plausible, but as we have just seen above, it yields the conclusion that PP is inescapably a political right–it is a product of human society and to some extent dependent on the will and constraints of the community.  And of course, this is precisely what Locke and his modern pseudo-theological followers want to avoid.  Moreover, it strongly suggests that Christians ought, to some extent, to be seeking to transcend private property and live out restored nature, something few Christians seem particularly interested in doing these days.  Option 4A, Locke’s own, seems to yield the desired practical conclusions, but at the cost of being highly suspect from a theological and ethical perspective, as I shall explore further in the next installment.  We simply cannot have our cake and eat it too.  We must recognize that it makes a difference how we account for the origin of private property, and how we account for its ethical legitimacy.  Neither are simply self-authenticating, and the decisions we make have important political and ethical ramifications.  


In the next installment, I’ll look at some problems with the Lockean view.  Then, in the eighth, I hope to finally turn to the constructive task.  That will mean leaving the realm of mere abstraction (which I have inhabited here), which talks freely about the “state of innocence” and “the postlapsarian state” without any attention to the concrete Biblical narrative of these states, and turning its attention (in large part, at least) to the insights and constraints provided by the Scriptural witness.



5 thoughts on “Justifying Private Property (The Problem of Private Property, Pt. 6)

  1. Donny

    Interesting, and thanks again for the thoughts.Honestly, the more I think through what you're writing, the more I think the question I had last time is going to be one of the bigger questions to resolve. When I think of divine rights private property theories, at least practically, I usually think of people defending the rights people have to the fruits of their labor, and not so much to the rights they have to the wilderness they stumble onto. So, yes, what you're saying is interesting and provides some helpful grids to use in thinking through the issues. But I honestly think someone could very well take different theories and apply them to different examples of private property. For example, someone could easily take on a divine rights private property view for the fruits of one's labor, but a more relaxed, communal view on how to distribute land. Just think of Karl Marx. He opposes private property, but what is his reason? Because he wants workers to get their due.I realize you know you're oversimplifying things, but I think it's an important dimension to take into account when you start positively constructing a theory. A lot of the rhetoric surrounding private property is wrapped up in these economic issues (differing economic theories of value, capital vs. labor vs. land-ownership, etc.).


  2. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks for commenting, Donny. Good to know you're still reading–sorry I didn't notice this comment earlier. I wonder if you're not being a bit naive, though: "When I think of divine rights private property theories, at least practically, I usually think of people defending the rights people have to the fruits of their labor." The problem is that, yes, this is the way it is often couched, rhetorically, but then economic theories (like Marxism or distributism) that actually take this right seriously are pooh-poohed or demonized. If a worker has a right to the fruit of his labor, then why don't all the Filipinos in our clothing factories have this right? Because we have asserted that the factory owner–the capital–has private property rights that trump any rights that the workers bring to the table. The problem is that Lockeanism (the most common basic paradigm among Christian defenders of private property) actually proves rather too much. If labor gives ownership, then how is a large landowner justified in retaining full possession over an estate that not he, but his servants and tenants, labor upon? But in fact it was precisely this sort of arrangement that Locke was seeking to undergird with his theory, and it is an analogous arrangement that standard capitalist defenses of private property are trying to support. You start pushing the whole "the laborer is worthy of his hire"–the laborer acquires rights over the fruits of his labor–and you'll find most of the "divine right capitalists" accusing you of being some kind of socialist.


  3. Donny

    I think we might be talking past each other somewhat. My point was that everyone involved in the debate argues on the basis of the worker getting the fruit of his work. Capitalists tend to emphasize entrepreneurs and their right to the fruits of their inventiveness and creativity, while the labor side of the debate emphasizes the rights of the working class to the fruits of the labor.Both sides (generally) affirm both truths. Capitalists don't claim that the lower classes don't deserve "fair" wages for their work. What it really boils down to is what "fair" is and who determines it. Capitalists tend to claim that the free market should equitably divide wages, and in fact, in some cases, that the free market is what defines "fair". Think back to clothing factory example. Most people would defend the practice on free market principles, talking about the supply of labor in third world countries and the lowering of wages as a result. Businesses are simply responding to market demand by offering those wages. But no one claims that the laborers shouldn't get what they deserve. They debate is over what determines what they "deserve."So my point is that everyone in the debate basically affirms the idea that men have a right to the fruits of their labor, yet truly passionate defenses of private property tend to lie with the capitalists. Private property seems to have a strange connection to the "fruits of your labor" natural right. Is this because we think of private property mainly just in terms of land and capital, and not labor? If so, why? And does that need some tweaking?Also, the reason people are often accused of socialism when saying "the laborer is worthy of his hire" is just a semantic issue. Most people highlighting that are coming from the labor side. Oddly enough, Adam Smith, capitalist/free market idealogical hero that he is, was a big proponent of the labor theory of value (goods get their value from the labor put into them, not from their utility), and he was fairly critical of capital's abuse of the labor market.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks for the clarification, Donny. A couple things:"But no one claims that the laborers shouldn't get what they deserve. They debate is over what determines what they "deserve."" Hm…in a sense, yes. But in turning to an entirely amoral account of desert (that is, what is deserved), it is not clear that the capitalist is really speaking the same language anymore as the language in which categories like "deserve" "fairness" "worth" make sense."Is this because we think of private property mainly just in terms of land and capital, and not labor? If so, why? And does that need some tweaking?" Hm. I think I see what you're getting at, and I think it's a sort of distributist point to be making. I'll try to take that properly on board as I continue the series (whenever I find time for that–right now, I'm hung up trying to find time to brush up on Locke, to write the Locke-critique installment). "Oddly enough, Adam Smith, capitalist/free market idealogical hero that he is, was a big proponent of the labor theory of value (goods get their value from the labor put into them, not from their utility), and he was fairly critical of capital's abuse of the labor market."Truly, truly. Funny how often that happens–the movement that invokes him as its founder and hero goes off in quite a different direction of its own, and the people who are fervently contesting that movement a century or two later are doing so from a standpoint very similar to that of the alleged founder. Ruskin, and for that matter, Marx, had in certain respects more in common with Smith than Ricardo and Mill. (Notice how I say "in certain respects" to hedge my ignorance against criticism. ;-))


  5. Donny

    ———Hm…in a sense, yes. But in turning to an entirely amoral account of desert (that is, what is deserved), it is not clear that the capitalist is really speaking the same language anymore as the language in which categories like "deserve" "fairness" "worth" make sense.———Well, yeah, that's why they don't like "just price" talk. It's also why I think "just price" is absolutely needed a reliable economic theory. You need some absolute value anchoring to avoid the relativism of market value. Smith's labor theory just doesn't work. The utility theory can work, if people don't make it subservient to the market (some sort of absolute utility, distinct from people's perception of utility). I'd love to find a book that explains medieval/Thomistic just price and economic theory, but Amazon yielded nothing, and Eric hasn't responded to my email. You have any pointers?———Truly, truly. Funny how often that happens–the movement that invokes him as its founder and hero goes off in quite a different direction of its own, and the people who are fervently contesting that movement a century or two later are doing so from a standpoint very similar to that of the alleged founder. Ruskin, and for that matter, Marx, had in certain respects more in common with Smith than Ricardo and Mill. (Notice how I say "in certain respects" to hedge my ignorance against criticism. ;-))———You're blossoming into such a good scholar.


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