Monday, May 25, 2015

Why Have Property?

Recently — over the past couple of centuries or so — the idea has grown up that ownership of capital is justified on the grounds that it is the best way to optimize the possibility of an adequate and secure income.  As a bonus, property (the right to be an owner) also confers power.  As Daniel Webster noted almost two hundred years ago, “Power naturally and necessarily follows property.”

Dan'l Webster
These are very good reasons — but they are not the reason people have the right to own.  People have the right to own, the right to property (also called “access” or “the generic right of dominion”) for one reason, and for one reason only: it is part of human nature, and thus the natural law.

That may sound trite or even meaningless, especially these days when ownership is abused, but that’s because many people simply do not understand what is meant by “nature.”  What does the dictionary (Webster’s in this case, although not Daniel’s) say?  Nature is “the inherent character or basic constitution of a person or thing.”

Noah Webster
In other words, if you take something pertaining to a thing’s nature away, it is no longer that thing.  Thus, if you take away a part of what makes a chair a chair (the seat, for example), what is left is not a chair.  It has some of the essence of “chairness,” but it doesn’t have all of it, and cannot be considered an actual chair, whatever you choose to call it.

Similarly, if you take away a natural right from a human being, that is, a right by nature (such as life, liberty, or property), then what is left is not a human being.  It changes from a person (something with rights) to a thing (something without rights).

That is why the “labor theory of title,” derived from David Ricardo’s “labor theory of value,” is so very dangerous.  It gives the impression that human labor, and human labor alone, confers the right to be an owner, and then only what someone produced directly with his or her labor.

Henry George
The agrarian socialism of Henry George (all of socialism, in fact) is based on the assumption that property — the right to be an owner — is not inherent in each and every human person.  Claiming that rights and duties are legal fictions, some socialists deny that humanity has any rights at all.  Other socialists say that only humanity in general, not individual human beings, has the right to own.

George more moderately claimed that people have an absolute right to own what they have produced with their labor, but nothing else.  His theory was that land, not being created by man, could not be owned by man, nor could any individual legitimately control land or derive any income from land ownership.  All income attributable to land belongs to everybody, and can be taken by the State in the form of a “single tax” for social purposes.

Karl Marx
The bottom line, however, is the same: to a socialist, ownership is not an inherent part of human nature.  The State or community or whatever may permit private ownership, but it can also prohibit it without violating the fundamental laws of existence — as the socialists (re)define them.

In other words, ownership (property) is a conditional, not a natural right.  This means that “someone else” (i.e., the State) controls and has the right to enjoy the income from whatever you “own” if “someone else” decides it is for the greater good, or just feels like it.

Let’s address the issue of whether labor alone confers title.  This is a key element in most socialist theories — even Marx admitted that people have the right to own what they themselves produce . . . and then contradicted himself by maintaining that “the people” (i.e., the State) can take it away, giving ten measures by means of which the State could utterly destroy private property.  The first two items on Marx’s list are 1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.  (This sums up Henry George’s program.)  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

Msgr. John A. Ryan
The “labor theory of title” has a few problems.  First of all, it suggests to some people that property is not truly inviolable, but is conditional, based on whether or not one “worked” to obtain ownership.

Heinrich Rommen
That, however, cannot be the case, for legitimate title also comes from inheritance and gift, even charity; to assert that only labor confers title implicitly rejects the legitimacy of title itself.

This was Msgr. John A. Ryan's error in A Living Wage (1906), when he claimed that private property is absolute and sacred because it is required for human welfare, i.e., “because the welfare of the person exists.” (A Living Wage, p. 48.)

On the contrary! Private property (in the sense that every human being has the right to own) is absolute and sacred not because the welfare of the person exists, but because the person exists!

Do you see the trick? If an inalienable, natural right is conditional, that is, depends on something other than the mere fact of existence for legitimacy, then it can be alienated and separated from nature once the condition is no longer met . . . according to whoever has the power to decide whose welfare requires private property. . . .

Might ends up making right, as the solidarist political scientist Heinrich Rommen explained happens every time there is a shift from reason to faith, or from knowledge (e.g., the fact of existence) to opinion (e.g., somebody’s best guess as to what constitutes legitimate welfare and therefore justifies property).

This, of course, does not apply to the necessarily limited rights of property, which must be tailored to need, welfare, and the common good as a whole, only the natural right to property. Even then, however, the socially determined and limited rights of property must never be defined in any way that nullifies the underlying natural right to be an owner in the first place.


1 comment:

Brian Keane said...

hi Michael
for context:On the contrary! Private property (in the sense that every human being has the right to own) is absolute and sacred not because the welfare of the person exists, but because the person exists!

Do you see the trick?
Did not until you pointed it out!! thanks for removing the blinders and old saw, fore warned is forearmed etc.