AGAINST PRIVATE PROPERTY
When a theorist analyzes the institution of property as a
social or cultural institution, and when
'e then speaks of
"norms", 'e means 'cultural norms'. In speculative sociology
these 'norms' can be classified according to the kind of social
interaction situation in which they are a solution to certain
problems — problems from the position of all, or of certain,
people involved. Thus, a situation of inequality may be a problem
to the disadvantaged in such a situation in that they may
attempt to get rid of the inequality; it may also be a problem
to the privileged in such a situation in that they need
solutions for the best and easiest way of maintaining the
inequality. The type of cultural or subcultural norms which
typically help to perpetuate the status quo in inequality
situations are partiality norms. (See
3.4.1.) They are norms
which on balance strongly support the interests of the
advantaged party but which apply to all people equally, since they
would otherwise lose their effectiveness: in this respect 'norms
of partiality' are impartial.
As we have seen, the best example of a cluster of partiality
norms has been said to be the one associated with the institution of
private property, particularly those relating to inheritance.
The idea of the sanctity of individual property, and the (sub)cultural norms associated with it, would merely
serve to 'perpetuate the position of the haves and their descendants
in states which are inherently states of inequality'.
On the basis of this cluster of norms it is, indeed, not only the poor who
must not steal from the rich, the rich must not steal from the poor either
— at least not in a way as perspicuous as forbidden in Thou shalt
In the end this form of impartiality will benefit the rich.
It could be replied that such a sociological analysis of the institution
of private property is purely factual or
factual-modal, but it is obvious that
in a description like this one the inequality of wealth is regarded as
Private property (the institution of inheritance in particular) is
therefore described as perpetuating an injustice and this
makes that the description is in disfavor of private property norms.
Whether the argument is correct depends on the impossibility of
justifying the inequality itself.
The perpetuation of inequality is definitely an important
argument to limit specific and particular property rights,
especially those with regard to inheritance. Central to the idea
of limiting private property is that undeserved disadvantages
ought to be prevented or rectified, but desert itself is so
much impregnated with normativity that the idea is entirely, or
predominantly, analytical. Those stressing 'desert' will probably
only go farther with their limitations on gross inequalities
than those not stressing it. (To this extent the use of the term
desert does have some pragmatic meaning.) Does a person also
deserve what 'e has justly acquired or received? If not (for
these reasons), then the emphasis of the anti-property argument
is on the injustice in distribution when the ensuing inequality
is not 'deserved' in a narrower sense. If equality is not
believed to be a good thing in itself, the question remains of
what the criterions of desert are, even in this narrower sense.
And then, the whole argument does not really affect property, or
private property, in general (that is, the general justification
of private property), but only unjust distributions of it, or of
shares in it (that is, particular justifications of private
Some have claimed that there is an intimate connection between
property as such and crime. One theorist, a utilitarian
opposed to all systems in which 'one man enters into the
faculty of disposing of the produce of another man's industry',
draws on the argument that 'the fundamental source of crimes
consists in one man's possessing in abundance that of which
another man is destitute'. If property were divided equitably,
this would put an end to oppression, servility and fraud, to
coercion and punishment. Envy, malice, revenge and selfishness
would vanish where all shared alike the bounties of nature. The
accumulation of property atrophies both the intellectual and the
moral development of people; both of the haves and the have-nots.
Well, this impressive plea for the superiority of egalitarianism
sounds very sympathetic, but we must not simply choose
the most unfavorable empirical assumptions to reject the unequal
distribution of private property, where others equally arbitrarily
choose the most favorable ones to support it. Yet, such a
choice is necessary for everyone who is at once a utilitarian
and an egalitarian. Quite a few utilitarians but too joyfully
ignore the most unequal distribution of goods which might follow
from the principle of utility itself.
Because utilitarianism is wholly dependent on calculations of the total
amount of happiness, or a similar quantity, and because such calculations
often cannot be done or simulated at all, it comes as no surprise that
also with regard to private property utility has been an argument for, and
an argument against, private property, dependent on the theorist's
On the social disutility view of property it is thus a
source of poverty and social instability, and the needs satisfied by
private ownership are said to be minor in comparison
with the need to get rid of poverty and the need for stability.
Since calculations are impossible at the general level, and
since empirical presuppositions remain arbitrary at this level,
the argument is not useful when applied to property in general.
But just as with the related perpetuation of inequality
argument, it becomes more worthwhile at the levels of specific
and particular property rights where empirical assumptions can
be made more plausible.
Utility may then be a reason to recognize, and disutility a reason not to
recognize, specific or particular,
intrinsic property rights.
The security of property so emphasized by pro-property
utilitarians which would be essential to maximum productivity,
has been described by others as "a power of discretionary
idleness", that is, "a right to keep the work out of the hands
of the workmen and the product out of the market". The natural-rights
theorists' right to property has, equally sarcastically,
been described as "the natural right of investment", that is,
"the right to enforce unemployment, and so to make the community's
workmanship useless to that extent". Even if property
had been 'natural' and useful in the hands of owners who were
present in the past, absentee ownership and the character of
business enterprise have entirely invalidated the old natural-rights
and utility arguments for private property on this view.
Production may be 'a matter of workmanship' but earnings are 'a
matter of business' — it is argued.
And —as pointed out too— 'there is a difference between
socially desirable productivity and the desire for individual
A related argument against those whose justification of
private property lies in labor-based entitlement or desert is
that their reasoning is self-defeating when applied to the means
of production beyond what is needed for one's personal livelihood.
On this argument the worker's right to the whole produce of
'er labor is said to be
defeated by the appropriation of
natural resources and capital, and these instruments of production
should therefore be held in common. It has already been
replied to this that the argument has no force to the extent
that 'each unpropertied person retains the material liberty to
appropriate an equal share'. This could coincide with 'private
property' in the historical sense of property based on the labor
of its owner (but it need not in the light of other justificatory
theories, as the equal in equal share bears witness to).
Hence, also this anti-property argument cannot be advanced as a
general objection against all forms of property or private
property. But it certainly carries much weight in specific or
Property has been cast off by one writer on the 'rational'
grounds that it would be difficult to see how someone could own
a thing 'e does 'not actually use or consume, or why others
should refrain from using or consuming it, when they want it, but
do not own it'. In contradistinction to property, usufruct
would, then, be 'a clear concept'. Whereas 'property is
irresponsible and unconditioned', usufruct would be subject to
unforeseen changes of the social or economic conditions and would
carry moral obligations. What is a fair share (in the total
usufruct) is determined in this view by general principles of
'ethical economics', social facts and the system of production
and distribution. Local and economic agents would be authorized
in such a society to grant rights of usufruct.
tho, this juggling with
the concepts of property and usufruct amounts to not much more than a
terminological trick which leaves the conditions themselves unchanged.
For usufruct presupposes property, and property presupposes a person or
group of persons as owners. But in this conception it is nature which is
the so-called 'owner' of its component parts, and people
(themselves part of it) may then claim usufruct of those (other)
parts. What the argument is really against is not property but
a particular sort of property, that is, ownership by individual
members of a community (with the possible exception of things
they actually use or consume), ownership which is irresponsible
towards nature and future generations and ownership which is
not, or hardly, subject to later changes in circumstances. With
the authority vested in and the important tasks assigned to
local or specialized administrations, they have become the de
facto owners in this 'anarchic' society. In this respect the
difference with a totalitarian state without any private property
(again, with the possible exception of things people personally
use or consume) is only one in scale.
Moreover, denying the legitimacy of the concept of property does not
even shield an anarchist, social or not, from the question of which part
of nature is owned in
practise by which