One key issue which has divided the traditional conservative/classical liberal position from that of the socialist/left liberal position is the matter of property. In its extreme, it sets the anarcho-capitalist, who tends to see property as one of the defining features of a just society, against the traditional anarchist who, in Proudhoun’s words, exclaim that “Property is Theft.” In any event, property is one of the most important and, I would argue, least understood, ideas in political thought. Neither those who defend the idea of private property nor those who support wide scale socialization have thought through what it means. This essay is an effort to do just that.
Starting from the most traditional sources of libertarian thought sends us back to two of the most important names in modern philosophy, John Locke and Rene Descartes. From Locke we take the phrase “life, liberty and property,” one which supposedly defines the “natural,” “self-evident” and “God given” rights of man. If Locke’s phrasing sounds familiar, it is probably because the terms are lifted (almost) verbatim in the Declaration of Independence. Less acknowledged is the general influence of Descartes, whose philosophy is both rationalist in arguing from first principles and individualist in its metaphysics, essentially placing the individual consciousness at the center of Western thought. This is not a universal notion but one which mostly holds sway in the United States and is particularly important to libertarianism with its focus on individual rights and responsibilities.
Another key feature of this approach, and one frequently misunderstood, is that “rights” in this context are best understood as “negative rights,” essentially the right to be left alone. The rights to life, liberty and property do not entitle the individual to any positive good nor does it provide any obligation to supply those goods to others. It would be just as easy (and accurate) to define these rights as responsibilities. As both individuals or as groups of individuals (governments,) it is our responsibility to respect other individuals, which is to say, respect their rights.
Again, there is fairly general agreement within Western society in respecting the rights to Life and Liberty. In the simplest terms, that means we believe it is wrong to kill and wrong to restrain or control others. There are points on which we disagree of course. While most all may agree on a right to Life, on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and war, there is much dispute. And while most all may agree on a right to Liberty, on issues like contract law, minimum wage, self harm and addiction, and criminal justice, there is also much dispute. These are worthwhile topics for discussion but I regard them as tangential to the general acceptance of the underlying principles.
That brings us to the third of Locke’s triumvirate of rights and the one which is the topic of this essay: property. In its simplest form it might be characterized as to right to obtain and keep our “stuff,” whatever that might mean, and it imposes the responsibility of respecting the “stuff” of others. In other words it says that it is wrong to steal or to take what does not belong to you. And, while putting it in those terms makes it sound entirely uncontroversial, in practice it is a very different story.
As an example we might return to Locke and his relationship to the Declaration of Independence. We note that, although an early draft of that document used the words “life, liberty and property,” the final draft omits property in favor of “the pursuit of happiness.” It is interesting that the Founding Fathers made that choice and I think suggests that they were aware that the right to property might not be as universally accepted.
I am going to conclude part one of this essay with a short (and unsatisfactory) definition of property. In part two I will try and flesh it out in more detail. So here we go. Property has a few key chacteristics. First and foremost, in order for something to be defined as property, it must be a (relatively) scarce resource. Second, it must be divisible in a meaningful way. Third, it must be a tangible good. Again, these are intentionally vague, but still somewhat controversial. I urge you to think through this definition and see if you can improve on it in some way. In a few days I will do the same.
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