Thoughts on Property

by Ben Best

The Meaning of Property

Property denotes a relationship between a human (or a human group) and an object, in a social context. For physical objects, to say that an object is someone's "property" means that the person can manipulate, move or destroy the object in any way that does not encroach on the life and property of another.

A lone person on a deserted island effectively owns the whole island, But for that person, the concept of property is unnecessary or even meaningless because there is no social acknowledgment by others. Similarly, in situations where there is an abundance of available objects -- such as the unaccountably numerous buffalo for Indians and Pioneers -- ownership is of little issue. No one need claim ownership of a particular buffalo. Only when population density rises and a competition of desires for disposal of the same resources occurs, is property important. To feel secure in the belief that one has an owner/property relationship with an object requires an acknowledgment of that relationship by others -- most importantly, the state. Many have imbued the relationship with a religious significance, holding property to be sacred.

Items that have been regarded as property include land, material objects, writings, technical ideas, businesses and other human beings. Rarely it is said that a person "owns" his physical body, but with the abolition of slavery, it is generally assumed. Large bodies of water, air, outer space and most of the earth below the crust are not said to be owned. To be subject to ownership something must have well-defined boundaries and be accessible. There must also be a means by which the object can be designated as being owned -- and a specification of the owner. Property can be owned by individuals, clubs, churches, businesses and governments. Property (such as parks or shopping malls) can be declared "public" in allowing open access for limited uses. Under certain social systems only the state can own land (Georgism) or productive enterprises (Socialism) or any physical object (Communism). Frequently, a "marriage" relationship is deemed to confer property claims to both partners upon both partners.

Some regard ownership as all-or-nothing, whereas others believe that there can be "degrees" of ownership. One can own shares or percentages of a business. The ownership of one's "own" body is said to be limited by the military draft. The ownership of land is said to be limited by taxes and eminent domain. The ownership of business is said to be limited by government regulation.

The Justice of Property

The difference between "meaning" and "justice" is a difference between facts and values -- but it is more than that. Any conception of "justice" implies an appeal to an objective moral standard beyond the values of any individual. Individuals domake judgments about the behavior of others which is regarded as a threat to their own welfare. When there is considerable agreement about such judgments, a legal system becomes possible. The more people agree with these legal standards, the more they regard it as a system of justice. Socially or legally permitted behavior and ownership are called "rights" -- and "justice" consists of the process of dealing satisfactorily with violations of "rights".

The sanctity of one's body against an unprovoked murderous assault is probably the most widely agreed-upon "crime". Where material objects are acknowledged as property, a "criminal" is generally defined as a person who treats the lives and property of others as though they were his/her own property. Such a person is deemed to be ineligible for property to the degree of his/her crimes.

The question of what constitutes a "just" claim to property is thus a matter of social convention and agreement. Property can be acquired by claiming what was previously unowned, by creating what was previously non-existent, by trade, by gift and by theft.

Conventions vary for claiming the previously unowned. Claiming ownership of a vast tract of land by standing on it is frequently inadequate to confer social acknowledgment. Agricultural use can provide clearly defined involvement and boundaries of involvement for establishing land claim. When land was as plentiful as buffalo in North America, this approach was serviceable. Claiming ownership of land on the basis of a lifestyle of hunting for wildlife is more problematic because of the lack of boundaries. If there is more than enough forest and wildlife available, what is the status of the excess -- especially when the excess is not differentiated?

Certain philosophers have argued that mixing labor with the unowned will magically convert it to the owned (without defining what kind or quality of labor per material is necessary). That such "mixing" has led to social acknowledgment of ownership is what matters -- kind and quality of labor having varied from circumstance to circumstance. Others might claim that by mixing labor with land one only deserves the increasein value which results. This increment of value consequent upon labor is what is meant by "creating what was previously non-existent". Here again, social acknowledgment of the claim is what matters.

To those whose pre-eminent standard of justice is "equality", the above claims have no validity. In the extreme, for one person to be materially better off than another is an injustice -- irrespective of how that condition arose. For others, historical conditions are important. Conquests and the divisions of property among high-ranking warriors is regarded as a perpetual injustice. The good fortune of some in making first claims (or having ancestors who made first claims) to choice lands is regarded as unfair. And the perpetuation of this privilege or advantage through the "exploitation" of those who have not had the benefits of property by those who have, seems doubly injust. But inequality of wealth is by no means proof in itself of historical privilege. Vast fortunes have been accumulated through inventions, managerial and financial skills and qualities that encourage large numbers of people to pay money to see, hear or read.

Some say that the state itself can steal, and that taxation is theft. Most, however, feel that taxation is not theft -- particularly in light of the idea that maintaining the institution of private property is only done at cost to the state. Thus, those who accuse the state of stealing are seeking a social acknowledgment of their property without the means to maintain it (a "free lunch") and, moreover, are making private property into a quasi-religious moral absolute.

The Utility of Property

Utility is ultimately a value-judgment. Both the personal and social utility of property can be assessed independently of judgments about how that property originated. For many, the greatest pleasures of life are associated with the use and disposal of objects they own. Ultimately, even eating is not possible without a personal claim to some food. Moreover, a meaningful "freedom" would not be possible without well defined boundaries (even if rented property) which others cannot cross with impunity.

"The public goods problem" (also called "the tragedy of the commons") points to lost social utility when common ownership rather than private property prevails. Suppose that if 100 or less sheep graze on a certain pasturage that the grass will continue to grow, but if more than 100 sheep are on the land, the grass will diminish and ultimately vanish. Suppose the land is owned in common by ten shepherds each of whom have ten sheep. If one shepherds acquires an additional sheep he/she will be 10% better off, but the pasture will be 1% worse off. naturally, it is in the self-interest of each shepherd to increase his/her flock to the detriment of all. In the long run all of the shepherds (everything else being equal) will be better off if each shepherd owns a tenth of the land.

The fact that air is unowned is what makes air pollution a public goods problem. Since air is a public good, it can be polluted without cost to the polluter. If industrialists owned (and had to pay for) the air they polluted, then they would have to weigh costs against benefits. But the insuperable difficulty of privatizing air leaves it in the public domain. This is not to say privatization of land, however, is the final solution to land pollution. If someone pollutes his/her land with toxic waste,he/she need only weigh the costs against the benefits within the span of his/her own lifetime. But the cost to society may be much greater if the land remains toxic for thousands of years. The "invisible hand", in this case, has given society a punch in the nose.

Some egalitarians think justice would be done if all land and capital were seized and redistributed equally. Aside from the massive administration problems (and likely corruption) involved in such a project, within a few years gross inequalities would unquestionably reappear. How often should such redistribution be made? Capital is a productive tool which capitalism tends to place in the hands of those most capable of using it most productively. Depriving those persons of that wealth results in a great economic loss for all. Moreover, for most persons, the possibility of ownership is the greatest incentive for productive effort. Otherwise, persons with twice the ability of their fellow workers will only have incentive to work half as hard.

Thus, attempting to rectify the "injustices" of property of the distant past (according to any proposed moral standard) is most likely to have the tangible present result of greatly reduced productivity.