NEITHER GLORIFYING NOR DESPISING
It is practically inconceivable that literally everything
would be private property, including lakes and rivers, beaches,
roads, railways, refuse-dumps, the postal service, all radio
and television broadcasting, and so on and so forth (also the
oceans?). And it is practically inconceivable that literally
nothing would be under the dominion of an individual owner to
the possible exclusion of everyone else, including a person's
body and/or its parts, the food and drinks
'e consumes, the
clothes 'e wears, the photographs 'e possesses,
'er ornaments at
home, the works of art 'e has created in 'er spare time, and so
on and so forth. Nevertheless, logically speaking it is a
contingent matter whether a state in which everything would be
individual or private property is biologically and sociologically
feasible, and whether a state in which nothing would be
individual or private property is feasible in that, or some
From a normative-philosophical point of view 'the course of wisdom' is
—as has been insisted— 'neither to attack private property in
general nor to defend it in general'.
Or —as has also been said— 'the issue is not the maintenance
or abolition of private property, but the determination of the precise
lines along which private enterprise must be given free scope'.
Both logically and normatively one may be indifferent to the issue whether
ownership in general should be private or public, or some mix of the two.
One may have it depend on the circumstances of the time and place, unless,
of course, private ownership, or for that matter, public ownership, has
become an end in itself.
The distinction between end and means is very important
in theories of property and closely related to the limitation of
property rights. When private property is an end in itself, all
limits on private appropriation are lacking, and an unlimited
accumulation of private property becomes possible. It was
already correctly pointed out long ago that 'a human being
that has made wealth 'er end has a desire for wealth without
limit, whereas one who desires wealth as a necessary means to
supporting life desires only limited wealth'. When property is a
means, the end itself is something else, such as felicity or
another kind of perfection, a good or happy life, utility,
individual freedom or 'fulfilment of the will'. In pro-property
theories the utility notion, which should center on the attainment
of happy lives, has usually degenerated into an economic end
of an ever-growing production to be maximized forever. (Or, is
this why the end was called "utility" in the first place?) Those
who do not treat property as a means need not defend a limited
property right, but when they do allow a right of unlimited
accumulation, they simply do not realize what its practical
consequences are. It is this why private property, or unlimited
private property, has been denounced as 'destructive of the
Rather than overtly being treated as an end in itself, property
may also be introduced as a primitive sort of 'exclusive right'.
It then requires external limits in order not to collapse under
the weight of the most irresponsible callousness (as we have
seen in the case of a shipwrecked person reaching the beach of
a historical-entitlement owner, and in the case where such an
owner happens to have the only waterhole in the area not dried
up). The theoretical problem with such an
external limitation is that it may not only change the end of
the story, it could, logically speaking, change the whole story.
For the external principle appealed to is there not at all or
it has been there all the time. This is also the case when
property is treated as a means.
The principle justifying both property and its limits is then internal
For example, if the right of property is deduced from the principle and
right of self-preservation, then this right of property is a limited one;
limited where unlimited accumulation would deny the right of
self-preservation to others.
Likewise, if utility is really a principle of happiness (or desires,
preferences, interests), then a greater productivity may justify private
property to a certain extent, namely insofar as greater productivity and
the corresponding increase of private property maximize utility or
create a happier world. Yet, as soon as a still greater
productivity and/or a still larger extent of private property
are responsible for an unhappier world, the same principle of
happiness puts a limit on production and privatization. For
not everyone is an infinite desirer of utilities and personal
power (and no-one should be).
Those who have merely sought for the justification of an ideological bias
could not care less about the limitation of property by its internal
subprinciple(s) or about external principles
needed for its limitation.
Having justified a right of property by appealing to the right of
self-preservation, for instance, a theorist could easily turn this
property into an unlimited right, especially an unlimited right in land.
And 'e would then only have to introduce money, which can be collected
without restraint, to render the original limits on private appropriation
completely ineffective — as has been pointed out before.
What ensues is, then, an unequal access to the means of labor, and
therefore of a comfortable life, which pitiably undoes the original,
'natural, human equality' of the right of self-preservation.
Theoretically this need not, and even is not, the result, but historically
the argument has been construed this way to suit ideological purposes.