Now, the claim that "property is a right, but it is not an absolute right" can be understood in one of two ways, one right, and one wrong. The right way to understand it is that the right to be an owner is absolute, a natural right, inherent and inalienable in every single human being that is, was, or ever will be born. What is not absolute is what an owner can do with what he or she possesses, even, in some circumstances, what a person may own. That is, the exercise of private property must be limited by the wants and needs of the owner, other persons, and the common good as a whole.
The wrong way to understand the statement, "property is a right, but it is not an absolute right" is to assert (usually without any proof other than personal faith) that private property is "prudential matter" so that some or all people can have their allegedly natural right to be an owner taken away if some other people (those with the clubs, guns, or guillotine) decide that is the "right" thing to do.
Cobbett disagreed most emphatically with the idea that private property is somehow "prudential matter," and said so in no uncertain terms:
You may twist the word freedom as long as you please, but at last it comes to quiet enjoyment of your own property, or it comes to nothing. Why do men want any of those things that are called political rights and privileges? Why do they, for instance, want to vote at elections for members of parliament? Oh! because they shall then have an influence over the conduct of those members. And of what use is that? Oh! then they will prevent the members from doing wrong. What wrong? Why, imposing taxes that ought not to be paid. That is all; that is the use, and the only use, of any right or privilege that men in general can have. Freedom is not an empty sound; it is not an abstract idea; it is not a thing that nobody can feel. It means, — and it means nothing else, — the full and quiet enjoyment of your own property. If you have not this, if this be not well secured to you, you may call yourself what you will, but you are a slave. (William Cobbett, A History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, 1829, §456)As surely as America's Founding Fathers (especially George Mason of Gunston Hall, who embodied the natural right to be an owner in the first section of his draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776), Cobbett saw that political life — civil life itself — was rooted in private property: "All men are equal by nature; nobody denies that they all ought to be equal in the eye of the law; but, how are they to be thus equal, if the law begin by suffering some to enjoy this right and refusing the enjoyment to others?" (William Cobbett, Cobbett's Advice to Young Men, and (Incidentally) to Young Women, 1830, § 338) All of the italics in the quote are Cobbett's, by the way.
Is the point still unclear? Just in case anyone had any doubts on the matter, Cobbett kept repeating it — in italics:
What is a slave? For, let us not be amused by a name; but look well into the matter. A slave is, in the first place, a man who has no property; and property means something that he has, and that nobody can take from him without his leave, or consent. (Ibid., § 344)Private property not a natural right? Private property "prudential matter"? Not likely — unless you are an advocate of mass enslavement, or a toady of the slavers.
In light of this, there is only one possible distributist — or Just Third Way — response to someone who claims that private property in the means of production is not a natural right, or that the wage-welfare system that forces people into dependency on the State is the only way to temporal salvation (instead of being, as Chesterton and Belloc emphasized over and over [and over and over] another form of slavery). That is to point out the rather obvious fact that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863 . . . why are you trying to undo all his work?
William Cobbett laid it out quite plainly. Own or be owned. It's that simple.