Category Archives: Equality

The Foundation of All Ills

Bertrand Russell wrote, in chapter two of his Political Ideals (1917):

Even in times of peace, most men live lives of monotonous labor, most women are condemned to a drudgery which almost kills the possibility of happiness before youth is past, most children are allowed to grow up in ignorance of all that would enlarge their thoughts or stimulate their imagination. The few who are more fortunate are rendered illiberal by their unjust privileges, and oppressive through fear of the awakening indignation of the masses. From the highest to the lowest, almost all men are absorbed in the economic struggle: the struggle to acquire what is their due or to retain what is not their due. Material possessions, in fact or in desire, dominate our outlook, usually to the exclusion of all generous and creative impulses. Possessiveness—the passion to have and to hold—is the ultimate source of war, and the foundation of all the ills from which the political world is suffering. Only by diminishing the strength of this passion and its hold upon our daily lives can new institutions bring permanent benefit to mankind.

Institutions which will diminish the sway of greed are possible, but only through a complete reconstruction of our whole economic system. Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world. In place of them we need a system which will hold in cheek men’s predatory impulses, and will diminish the economic injustice that allows some to be rich in idleness while others are poor in spite of unremitting labor; but above all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live. A better system can do all these things, and can be established by the democracy whenever it grows weary of enduring evils which there is no reason to endure.

What is Property?

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

“Property is theft!”

– Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? (1840)

“Property is freedom.”

– Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property? (1840)

(That’s not very helpful, PJ.)

Last week, I discussed some libertarian confusions about the idea of property and the human body. In that post, I mentioned Locke’s theory of property – the idea that we have some “natural” right in objects that we have “mixed our labor” with. Locke has been a big influence on certain brands of libertarianism, but it was the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick who pointed out the problem with this theory. He imagines pouring his tomato juice into the sea to try to acquire the ocean. Other Enlightenment philosophers, like Kant and Rousseau, held more realistic views of property. Property is not a relationship between a person and objects, but a relationship between two or more persons regarding objects. If I own a shovel, then my rights to the shovel do not describe my relationship to the shovel. My ownership of the shovel describes my relationship to others with regards to the shovel. Principally, I can use the shovel and they can’t, unless I give my permission.

We generally think of our property as objects that we have “sole and despotic dominion” over, to use Blackstone’s phrase. The concept of property is not as simple as that, not even in the time of Blackstone. Property, instead, is composed of a “bundle of rights”. The basic rights given by most economic texts will include:

  • the right to use an object;
  • the right to the income from its use;
  • the right to transfer ownership rights.

But this does not exhaust all the possible rights in property. The British jurist, Honore, identifies five additional rights:

  • the right to possess the object;
  • the right to manage the object, that is, make decisions regarding the object;
  • the right to the capital of the object, or the wealth produced by the object;
  • the right to secure the object;
  • the “absence of term”, that is, there is no point at which you stop owning the good;

Interestingly, Honore adds two duties in property: the “prohibition of harmful use” and the “liability to execution”. The latter means that the property may be taken to satisfy other obligations, such as the repayment of debts. Most of us understand that our right to property is not infinite. We have duties to society as much as society has duties to us.

The argumentative strategy of libertarians and other property-centered ideologies is, like Locke, to find a “natural” right to property. That means a right that would exist for people in some hypothetical world without society. Early modern political philosophers called this the “state of nature”. Such rights would be somehow fundamental to our thought and would not be dependent on social recognition for their reality. If we could find rights that exist without society, then every society would have to recognize them. As discussed last week, Locke’s strategy to make property a natural right failed, and similar strategies also fail.

Property is almost entirely a right created by social institutions, principally the state. Without the state, one person could not accumulate enormous quantities of wealth. There would be no property, except what one person or groups of persons could protect for themselves, or what others would be willing to accept. As such, property arrangements are also alterable by the state, as in taxation, regulation, and expropriation.

The only exception to the social dependence of property rights could be personal possessions. I’m actually in possession of several personal objects, and violence, threat, or fraud would be necessary to remove them from me. That would be unacceptable because we do recognize prohibitions against violence and deception, regardless of social arrangements. But that is because they are acts of violence against persons, not for some natural right to property. This is the kind of property for which “property is freedom”.

If we lived in a democratic state, the people could alter the social arrangements of property as they pleased. This would only violate anyone’s fundamental rights if personal possession is violated. Property is a bundle of legal rights, and we can rearrange those rights to create new forms of property. For example, the public could demand that its natural resources be returned to them after a certain period in as good a quality as their original state. Also, the rights in property to an enterprise could be held in common among a community. The right to capital and income from assets could be conditional on access and use by the public. Before the 20th century, such diverse property regimes were considered ordinary. In fact, most societies have enjoyed the common ownership of land. This is why the modern imposition of private property means that “Property is theft!”.

Of course, we do not have a democratic state, we have a plutocratic state. Until that is fixed, the American state will continue to deliver the wealth of society to the ruling class.