Property – A Human Institution

There are probably four major areas of human behavior and thought which have been most responsible for our arrival as human beings at this year, 1963. These four are: religion, government, the family and property.

Of these four basic human institutions, only one appears to have drawn beyond the realm of controversy. This is the family.

There was a time when theorists conjectured that the family relationship was an improper one and sought to wipe it out. A residue of this thinking is still found among those who profess to believe in the economic fallacies of communism. "Social engineers" have from time to time suggested that children should be raised by the state rather than by the parents who give them life. The recent experiment in this sector of human experience conducted by Mao in China, reacted against him with such explosive force that even Mao had to backtrack in a hurry.

Even the Russian constitution states that the family is the basic unit of society, and the United Nations, that quagmire of social theorizing, has gone on record as favoring the right of all men and women to form families.

Apparently, the family relationship is here to stay.

As to both religion and government, controversy has rarely been at a higher level than it is now.

For the moment we'll put aside the temptation to discuss either the organized religious forms or the organized political satrapies with which the world abounds.

This takes us to property. And we are strong in our belief that if men and women could learn the basic truths concerning it, a possible waning of the vigor of controversy in each other area might ensue.

Anthropologists and archaeologists have learned much about early men by finding bits and pieces of things which constituted some of the property of old. The artifacts carefully and painstakingly gathered and catalogued by experts provide us with a good deal of evidence that from earliest times men have had some concept of property, of property relationships and property values.

Yet in this area of human activity, most people today have little more than an emotional awakening. Few have had training or education which permits them to consider property as a vast human institution, one which may very well have provided the base, if not for the family, at least for all religious conviction and all government.

To consider property at all, it is essential to analyze it to discover what it is, and also what it is not. Nor can property be understood merely as an abstraction. Ownership, which is not the same as property, is unavoidably a part of any understanding we might acquire.

Not only is ownership important but so is divestiture of property. It is likely that, in spite of appearances, fostered by both religious edifice and government structure, our sense of morality dates from our discovery of the meaning of property and the nature of ownership. It is also possible, and even probable, that most of our current concern in the area of race relationships could be resolved if an understanding of property and ownership were widespread.

It is obviously true, for example, that all crime arises from a failure on the part of some person or group to understand and to abide by the rules insofar as property is concerned.

Criminologists are prone to classify criminals by race, breeding, nationality, religion, and so on. But, if knowledge of property and ownership were more general, it would be found that criminals from whatever race, background, country or religious conviction, are universally in error and untrained and lacking in knowledge in this single area.

What Is Property?

While Pierre Joseph Proudhon was reading his Plato, Rousseau and Godwin, his attention was captured by the meaning and significance of what is called property.

To his surprise, the Frenchman learned that there was no serious work in existence at that time (1840) which attempted to define property as he conceived it to exist.

In an effort to provide for this omission, Pierre wrote his most important study, which in time became one of the classic reference works for all socialist and anarchist thinkers, called: "What Is Property?" After repeated bouts with the subject Proudhon came up with an answer to his own question.

"Property," he said, "is robbery."

His thoughts went like this. All property derives from raw materials of which the land is the base.

Human beings do not make the land and hence do not make the raw materials.

Therefore, all land and all raw materials cannot properly belong to anyone. If anyone takes something as his own exclusive property, he is improperly and immorally excluding all the rest of the world. Yet each of the other persons in the world has as much right to that property as the man who took it to himself. Hence, property is robbery. It is robbery in the sense that what properly belongs to all has been appropriated by one.

Then he anticipates his critics.

Man, of course, as a living organism, and hence, as a consumer, must have some kind of property which he can call his own or he will perish. Certainly, the man swallowing a bite of food has taken that bite in defiance of any other claim which could be made by anyone else.

A man must sleep and a bed is clearly in order. A man must wear clothing or perish as a result of the inclemency of the elements. If each man has equal claim to all property at all times, then we arrive at a state of constant chaos. No one could have property in his possession long enough to enjoy it or even to use it, and the race would perish.

So Proudhon provides a secondary concept by means of which to make possible the survival of the species: proprietorship.

The theory runs as follows: Property is robbery. But proprietorship is a temporary right applying exclusively to the individual who is USING the property.

Proudhon's somewhat ludicrous example to reveal the differences between property and proprietorship was the difference in relation ship between a man and his wife as opposed to a man and his fiancee. As Proudhon saw it, the relationship between man and wife was a property relationship in which the man owned the woman as a chattel. This, he said, was grossly immoral and we are inclined to agree. But the relationship between a man and a maid prior to matrimony is one in which a sort of exclusiveness pertains, yet no property has been acquired. This is what he meant by proprietorship.

Put another way, a man could sit down and eat a meal and anticipate no rivals. But if the man pushed back his chair and left the table, another man could quickly assume his station and consume the untouched viands. Thus, a man would have a right to USE any property at all. But as soon as he stopped using it, the claim of another would be as good as his.

Thus property distribution would be managed on the basis of NEED. And control of property would relate entirely to its USE.

The father of philosophic anarchy (Proudhon) was keenly concerned with morality. He wanted a "just" system. He could not conceive as just anything that permitted one man to own exclusively property which he might not be using at the moment, while at the same moment another man suffered for want of that very property.

Proudhon's book, "Qu'est-ce que la Propriete?" ("What Is Property ?") became a best seller.

Karl Marx was a profound student of Proudhon's theories. Marx conceived of himself as an anarchist, following in Proudhon's footsteps, until, after a bit, he devised his own theories called "communism" and struck out for himself into an economic political orbit quite at variance with some of the other ideas which Proudhon offered.

Various Property Theories

Philosophers, economists, social theorists, humanitarians, have been much influenced by Proudhon's thoughts.

The French theorist was to go on from his conjectural base to argue, with John Locke, that all men had equal and individual rights; and likewise, with Locke, government which would contravene rights was immoral and improper in all respects.

To Locke, property rights of the individual were sacred and should be upheld by the government. To Proudhon, property rights were nonexistent, and hence the very worst thing that could be said of any government was that it protected property.

Proudhon viewed the world as one in which property ownership would not occur at all were it not for government. Organized political structures Proudhon saw as instruments of privilege designed to make private property possible.

Hence, government was wrong because private property was immoral, and an instance of robbery.

Locke favored the overthrow of governments which refused or failed to protect private property. Proudhon favored the over throw of governments because they sought to protect private property. In other respects, the two men had much in common in their philosophic approach to national and community living.

Locke's thinking became an instrument in the formulation of the American Declaration of Independence.

Proudhon's thinking became an instrument in the formation of both the socialist and the communist movement. Yet both men could have been called anarchists by those who did not study them deeply, since both held that the right of the individual is supreme and against such right no government may properly stand.

Later scholars, and even Adam Smith, who preceded Proudhon, provided an alternate which Proudhon, in time, also accepted. These, including Bentham, Ricardo, Marx and others, asserted that property ownership derived from labor, as did the value of everything that men owned.

Thus, they tended to champion labor as the ne plus ultra in any social fabric, and sought to justify private ownership of property solely on the basis of the labor expended in creating it. The cost of the labor of production was viewed as the fixed value of whatever had been produced.

But again, they were lost when they sought to comprehend land ownership. For it is obvious that men do not create the land on which they live.

Into this impasse came Henry George, a British theorist, who championed the right to private ownership of all property whatever, saving the land. His "single tax" theories, relating to land tenure and use, still have today a most devoted and persistent following.

We have briefly reviewed these early positions respecting property for many of these ideas are still with us. It remained for modern thinkers to break through the Gordian knot of conflicting social and economic theory in respect to property.

Here are questions raised by these thinkers:

1. Does all property derive from the land?

2. Does all property derive from labor?

3. Is it immoral for a man to own something he doesn't use when someone else is suffering because he cannot use it?

4. Is the government correct in seeking to protect private property?

5. Is the government incorrect when it protects private property?

6. Is private property justified in all cases except land ownership?

Property Specifications

Monsieur Proudhon's belief that property is robbery stemmed from the conviction that all property derives from land, that land is not made by man, that property and value descend from labor, that ownership of anything beyond use is immoral; therefore, property as such, when it is held but not used, is robbery.

This is especially true, according to Proudhon, when the property is land or the raw materials derived from land.

Property has nothing whatever to do with robbery. It is true, of course, that property can be taken from someone by stealth or by force and that such would constitute a robbery. But to assume that property, per se, is robbery or the result of robbery, discloses a failure in analysis.

What is property? Why, it is anything at all that is subject to INDIVIDUAL ownership. If the item or thing in question is NOT subject to individual ownership, then it cannot be property. Essentially, the term "private property" denoting ownership by a single individual, is a redundancy.

Does the item of property have to be land, or some tangible object derived from the use of raw materials taken from land ? No, it does not. Although land and its derivatives constitute what is generally accepted as property, other items can also be individually owned.

Ideas are properties. Songs or melodies are properties. Life itself is a property belonging to the one who lives.

James Madison added to our knowledge of property by stating at one time that human rights are properties and among the most valuable assets we will ever have.

An agreement constitutes a property whether it is in writing or not. That is to say that an interest in a contract by any contracting party is property.

Size has nothing whatever to do with individual ownership in a definitive manner. Neither do numbers. A man may own a large chair or a small chair. Also he may own one chair or a hundred chairs. The nature of the ownership does not change with size or numbers.

All items of property have a boundary. Land that is owned must be bounded. The extent of the boundary has no bearing, but the reality of the boundary does. It is essential, in ownership, to be able to draw a line so that one may say, "On this side of this line, my ownership begins. On the other side of the line, I have no interest."

This does not mean that the line must be physically drawn and thus visible to the eye. If a man owns a piece of land, he may or he may not wish to fence it. His ownership does not begin with the fence. It begins at the point where he sets his boundaries, even if he only describes these boundaries to his neighbor, such as indicating that the property line runs in such a direction from the old oak to the stream, then follows the stream so many yards, then turns at right angles to the pile of rocks, etc.

The importance of boundary cannot be overemphasized. For property ownership to exist in fact, the size and extent of the boundary MUST be communicable. It is not enough for a man to specify to himself that he owns such and such. He must be able to convey his idea of boundary to others so they may respect it. If he is vague or neglects this area, then his ownership is bound to be questioned.

Every idea has a specification, an area. It is complete in itself. Though it has no boundary we recognize as physical, still it has an extent. This can be stated and defined. It must be stated and defined for it to be recognized as property.