Property as a Condition of Liberty

By Dougherty, Jude P. | Modern Age, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Property as a Condition of Liberty


Dougherty, Jude P., Modern Age


Attitudes with respect to the acquisition, use, and protection of property are but a manifestation of an unexpressed philosophy of human nature. It goes without saying that absent personal property, be it real, intellectual, or monetary, one's scope of action is limited or nonexistent. But there is a deeper aspect to the holding of property that begs to be acknowledged. Ownership is closely tied to one's personal identity. A person is often known by his holdings, by the land that he owns, by the real estate or personal wealth that he has accumulated, and by the use he makes of it. Ownership is often an expression of taste and aspiration, of preferences tied to one's character. Property gives one a sense of independence and enables one to act in a multiplicity of ways otherwise impossible. Recreation, travel, the expansion of social contacts, the support of social and political activity, and the furtherance of one's education become possible. Absent appropriate financial resources, personal acumen is truncated.

If the advantages of property are so evident, how account, in Western societies, for public acquiescence to the myriad government takings, from taxation to currency debasement, that effectively limit personal property and its use? The answer in part is that affirmations of the necessity of personal property usually carry with them an acknowledgment that, from a moral point of view, property carries with it certain obligations to the other. Given that an individual flourishes only within a community, it is universally recognized that a reciprocal relationship is created thereby, one that entails personal responsibility to the whole. This is the moral basis of taxation that goes beyond ordinary public services, for example, roads, utilities, and public parks, to alleviate the lot of the poor or the unfortunate. The concepts "social justice" and "social market economy" build on this moral mandate, as does public policy that seeks to implement objectives demanded in their name.

Discussions of the rights and duties of property owners date to antiquity. Property is so bound to considerations of human nature that the ancients still speak to us across the ages. Aristotle in his criticism of Plato's communal society recognized that private property, from an economic point of view, is more highly productive than communal ownership. Goods owned in common by a large number of people, Aristotle saw, will receive little attention since people will mainly pursue their own self-interest to the neglect of obligations they can pass off to others. Plato had argued that communal ownership--or the leveling of property generally--would be conducive to peace since no one would then be envious of the other. Aristotle responds to the contrary, noting that, in general, living together and sharing in common all that matters is difficult, and most of all with regard to property.' (1) To impose communal property on society, he says, would be to disregard the record of human experience. In any communal effort, human nature being what it is, some people are likely to work less than others and yet claim the same entitlement as those who work harder. Such a situation, Aristotle held, can lead only to discontent and fractional conflict. Aristotle also advances a moral consideration: only private property enables one to practice the virtues of benevolence and philanthropy. Communal ownership would abolish that opportunity.

Plato and Aristotle apart, the most famous treatise on property from antiquity is that of Cicero, who begins with the observation that there is no such thing as private ownership established by nature. "Property becomes private either through long occupancy (as in the case of those who long ago settled in unoccupied territory) or through conquest (as in the case of those who took it in war), or by due process of law, bargain, or purchase, or by allotment. ... Therefore, inasmuch as in each case some of those things which by nature had been common property became the property of individuals, each one should retain possession of that which has fallen to his lot; and if anyone appropriates to himself anything beyond that, he will be violating the laws of human society. …

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