There is a widely held belief that property is one of those “self-evident” or “natural” rights that must be protected at all costs. But who said so and on what basis?
What most people don’t seem to know is that there was actually a fairly intense debate in the early modern period over whether property was in fact a natural right, like life and liberty, or whether property was a social convention adopted by human beings for particular beneficial social purposes. The difference in those two positions is potentially profound and has implications for how we think of government, taxes, and our rights as individuals. After all, if private property is not a right in nature but rather a human social convention, we have the right to alter how we manage it, if we believe that is needed.
The debate to which I am referring took place in the seventeenth century, that same century in which intellectuals were busy articulating what came to be our modern notion of rights. Apart from historians who study that period, this important debate over property has been all but lost from view in what has become the modern conviction that property is an inherent, self-evident and natural right. Yet one can’t dismiss this earlier debate as simply belonging to outmoded historical ideas, since this was the same century in which our very modern conception of rights was fashioned.
The Origin of Private Property
At the core of the debate was a fascinating puzzle: How on earth did the institution of private property come about? Why did this question constitute such a puzzle? The shared assumption in the period was that the world and everything in it belonged to humans in common from the beginning. Since the world was owned or shared in common, the question naturally arose as to how and why private property had come about and how had it been authorized. Furthermore, if private property arose in the course of human history, and not in the beginning with nature, how could private property be considered a natural or essential right?
The conviction that the world was initially shared in common was very much rooted in a religiously inspired understanding of human origins, but was also validated by what Europeans understood of ancient human history and the nature of simpler human communities that they were encountering during the Age of Discovery and conquest. The nature of property was also thought to be a deduction from human reason itself.
All Property was in Common
Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is the widespread understanding that the world and everything in it had been “in common” in the beginning of human life. This understanding of human origins was thought to be obvious from Revelation. Genesis, of course, was understood at the time not only as the word of God but also an historical account of the creation and early history of humankind. According to the first creation story in Genesis 1, God had created the human entity, Adam, on the sixth day of creation. According to a widely accepted understanding of these verses, God had given the world and the creatures to human beings in common. Let’s take a look at these verses (following the King James translation): 1)I am using the King James Translation since this was one used by some in the seventeenth century. Many of the philosophers of the seventeenth century were classically trained and able to read the Hebrew in the original.
And God said, Let us make man [or Adam or “Humankind” depending on your interpretation] in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it : and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is [sic] fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat [food].
There are a number of interesting questions of interpretation in these verses that have been subject of religious and scholarly debate for a long time.2)This passage in Genesis is ambiguous for a number of reasons and has been subject to many different religious and scholarly interpretations, which are beyond scope for the present discussion. Why Genesis says in the plural “Let us make Adam…” is one of the interesting questions. Another interesting question is “in what sense Adam is made in God’s image?” Just as a creature of reason? Is Adam a male who is split later into Eve, a sexless creature, or a hermaphrodite? Is Adam’s maleness part of what it means to be made in the image of God or is gender produced after creation and irrelevant to the question of God’s image. These and other questions have been taken up in religious and scholarly literature.
Property is in Common at Creation
For the present purposes, these verses of Genesis were understood by many religious and political philosophers in the seventeenth century to mean that God had given the earth and the creatures to human beings “in common.” Adam was understood to represent “humanity” or “Man,” and the use of the plurals (“let them” have dominion) was understood to mean that Adam was a symbol of humanity in general. By this understanding, God had given the world and everything in it to human beings in common. In other words, God did not authorize private property in the creation of humans.
Just what “in common” meant, however, was subject to debate among political philosophers and religious exegetes. Some thought that humans had what today we would call a joint partnership, that is, everyone had common rights in everything. Others thought the verses meant that no one had rights at all and the earth and the creatures were in common in the sense that they were available to all equally. On either of these understandings, Adam was a symbol of humanity in general and God had given human beings rights to the world in common.
This understanding of Genesis, then, gave rise to an important set of questions. Since there was no private property given by God to humanity, private property must have arisen after creation. If so, was private property still natural and part of God’s law of nature? And if not, was private property a natural right, like life and liberty, or was it a convention that had arisen among human beings for particular historical and social purposes? The thinkers taking up this question did so in full awareness that there were significant economic discrepancies in individuals’ wealth of their day. And so the question of whether the inequality of material wealth was authorized by God at creation was also at stake in this question. In other words, did God intend humans to have wide discrepancies of wealth?
Adam Owned Everything
It is worth mentioning that not everyone understood Genesis to be saying that the world was given to humanity in common. Robert Filmer offered a fairly unconventional and provocative reading, even among royalists, when he argued in Patriarcha (published in 1680) that God had given the earth to the individual man Adam, and Adam alone owned the world and even his children and wife.3)On the dating and overview of Filmer’s work, see the “Introduction” by Peter Laslett to Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Political Works. On the basis of this interpretation, Filmer justified patriarchal power and the power of the monarchy, arguing that men owned their children and wives (like Adam) and that the Kings who owned their people were the first born descendants of Adam, the first property owner. This was an important enough argument in the late seventeenth century to call forth a response from natural rights philosopher John Locke, who wrote his whole First Treatise on Government arguing against Filmer’s understanding of Genesis. We sometimes forget that debates over the key biblical passages were core to our emerging modern political conceptions.
Filmer, however, was the exception rather than the rule. In philosophical circles, it was generally taken for granted that there had been an original ownership of property at the beginning of time. This conviction, which was supported by interpretations of Genesis, also seemed to be validated by the European travel literature and reports from conquests and settlements in the New World, which seemed to show that “primitive” and “less advanced” peoples seemed to lack private property. This was the beginning of what became a European assumption that ancient human history could be discerned from the practices of advanced peoples in the Americas. As John Locke famously put it, “in the beginning all the World was America [italics in original],” meaning that humankind lived in the beginning of time in a manner like the American Indian tribes reported by explorers of his day, a view that dominated European anthropology until the end of the nineteenth century.4)John Locke, II § 49
The prevailing consensus that private property did not exist at creation or in earlier human history suggested to some it was not a specific right given by God and had instead arisen as a human social institution and convention to address certain human problems. Samuel Pufendorf, an important midcentury philosopher of rights in Germany, expressed this view in concepts that still seem very current today.5)Samuel Pufendorf (1632 – 1694), Of the Law of Nature and Nations. See especially Book 4, Chap. 4.
Property arose as the human population expanded and constituted a method to reduce the “infinite clashings” among people and to help create the “peace of human society.” Pufendorf further reasoned that since so many things required human labor for improvement, it was “inconvenient that the person who had taken no pains about a Thing should have an equal Right to it with another” who had done the work to make it. For these reasons, humans had tacitly “covenanted” to create the institution of private property. In Pufendorf’s understanding, private property was neither mandated by God, nor a natural right. It was a human institution to address the concerns of conflict and fairness.
Property is a Natural Right
The familiar modern conviction, that private property is a natural or self-evident right, was given its fullest and most famous articulation by John Locke in his famous second chapter of his Second Treatise of Government. Like his predecessors, Locke also started with the assumption that the world was given in common based on both reason and Scripture: “Whether we consider natural Reason which tells us, that Men, being once born, have a right to their Preservation and consequently to Meat and Drink, and such other things, as Nature affords for their Subsistence, or Revelation, which gives us account of those Grants God made of the World to Adam, and to Noah, and his Sons, ‘tis very clear, that God…[has] given it to mankind in common.”6)Locke, II § 25
But here is where Locke makes an intellectual move different from many of his predecessors. He argues that there must be a natural way to create private property rights, because the world was given in common. If there was no way to make something “mine,” how else could a person take food or resources that were held in common without getting permission of everyone? Would it not be stealing if I took acorns from a tree that was owned in common? Since humans have a right to live, there must be a way to create private property from the beginning. In other words, the right must be natural and from God.
Locke reasons that it is human labor that in the beginning turns what is owned in common into what is mine. Since my labor belongs to me, when I labor I mix what is mine into what is common and thereby create my private property.7)There is a significant scholarly literature on Locke’s theory of property and some of the dilemmas of understanding what he means. See note 8 below. Since I own the labor of my body, anything that my labor produces is mine. Locke’s theory has come to be known as the “labor theory of value.” Voila, property is now a natural right.
Is Property a Natural Right?
In this context here I have condensed a more detailed discussion of early modern ideas about the origin of private property.8)For a fuller discussion, see my Beyond Liberty Alone, Chapter 6. Other excellent books on the topic include: Stephen R. Munzer, A Theory of Property and James Tully, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and His Adversaries, and Jeremy Waldron. The Right to Private Property. But even in this shortened form one can see that the very question of whether private property is a self-evident and natural right was not yet settled in the seventeenth century, that same century that was crafting our modern notions of rights. It was from this century and writings that our American founders got their ideas about rights. At the very least it makes us pause and realize that our current assumption, that property is a self-evident right just like life and liberty, is a modern conviction that was developed and came to dominate, not one that has always been with us. What conclusions to draw from that history is of course an intriguing question, one that I have pondered at much greater length in my fuller study.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||I am using the King James Translation since this was one used by some in the seventeenth century. Many of the philosophers of the seventeenth century were classically trained and able to read the Hebrew in the original.|
|2.||↑||This passage in Genesis is ambiguous for a number of reasons and has been subject to many different religious and scholarly interpretations, which are beyond scope for the present discussion. Why Genesis says in the plural “Let us make Adam…” is one of the interesting questions. Another interesting question is “in what sense Adam is made in God’s image?” Just as a creature of reason? Is Adam a male who is split later into Eve, a sexless creature, or a hermaphrodite? Is Adam’s maleness part of what it means to be made in the image of God or is gender produced after creation and irrelevant to the question of God’s image. These and other questions have been taken up in religious and scholarly literature.|
|3.||↑||On the dating and overview of Filmer’s work, see the “Introduction” by Peter Laslett to Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Political Works.|
|4.||↑||John Locke, II § 49|
|5.||↑||Samuel Pufendorf (1632 – 1694), Of the Law of Nature and Nations. See especially Book 4, Chap. 4.|
|6.||↑||Locke, II § 25|
|7.||↑||There is a significant scholarly literature on Locke’s theory of property and some of the dilemmas of understanding what he means. See note 8 below.|
|8.||↑||For a fuller discussion, see my Beyond Liberty Alone, Chapter 6. Other excellent books on the topic include: Stephen R. Munzer, A Theory of Property and James Tully, A Discourse on Property: John Locke and His Adversaries, and Jeremy Waldron. The Right to Private Property.|