On Private Property Rights and Equality

June 16, 2015

Property is one of those concepts and institutions whose origins and justifi cation most people don’t bother to think about. Property simply is assumed to be protected by our liberties. But if we delve into the ideas about property among those early modern thinkers who fashioned our modern notions of rights, we find some surprising convictions that should give us pause and help us rethink our basic assumptions about the allocation of resources, ownership, and our own responsibilities.

Among many advocates of liberty today, it is an unquestioned assumption that anything that we have in our possession or anything that we come by through our efforts, work, labor, and luck become and are part of our property. That view assumes that we own the results of our labor and what came to us through any accidents of history. Anything that we create, produce, and achieve is ours alone. For the same reason, anything our parents and ancestors have created was theirs alone. Anything that comes into our hands through inheritance or through the activity of our lives is our private property. This conception of property is intimately tied into our notions about what liberty is and means. Liberty includes the right to own the results of our labor and efforts and to be recognized for our talents…

For some readers, it will be interesting and perhaps even surprising to know that at the dawn of human time, the world and its resources were given “in common” to all humanity, according to our modern natural rights thinkers. Precisely what in common meant and how private property arose subsequently were points of disagreement. The debate turned on a variety of historical, philosophical, and religious questions. Why, when, and how did private property emerge? Was private property a natural right or a human convention? If the world was given in common, how did property become private, and what turned it private? If humans are equal, why is property distributed unevenly? These questions had their religious variations as well. What specifically did God give to Adam, the first human, in particular? Was the world Adam’s alone or was it a gift to humankind in general? How did private property emerge out of that original gift to Adam?

The idea that the world’s resources were given in common is a good launching point for our discussion of property. Underlying this view is a set of interesting assumptions about the nature of history, human character, God, and morality. The core conviction is that the world was intended in some sense to benefit and sustain human beings equally. There are two key assumptions here that both need some examination.

The first is that either nature or God (which, for some thinkers, were one and the same) intended the natural world for human use and purpose. This is a teleological and religious perspective. It assumes that the purpose of creation was human oriented and in service of humanity. Humans were understood as the pinnacle of creation, and the rest of the natural world was created at least in part to serve human purposes. This is an assumption
we can and should rethink, for it would seem reasonable to question, from both a religious and secular ecological perspective, whether this human-centered philosophy now appears to be arrogant. If the planet and resources were not given for human purposes, or were given in some more limited way, or were not “given” or “intended” at all, then the founding assumption that the world is for human use is problematic.

Doubts about this view already are hinted at in the writings of the early moderns, some of whom argued that God ultimately has property in  everything, and human property rights are therefore only secondary to God’s ultimate ownership.4 If we today see ourselves as part of nature, instead of above nature, then the very question of what right we have in natural resources intensifi es, a position that ecologically oriented secular and religious thinkers have made in emphasizing the obligation of stewardship.5 Furthermore, these early moderns in some ways anticipated a view I wish to develop further below. That view holds that nature and God gave humans only the use of nature’s resources at the beginning, but not private property rights per se. We shall come back to the question below of what it would mean to see humans as having only temporary use rights and not permanent property rights.

You can read more about On Private Property Rights and Equality Chapter 6