What Is Property?
JULY 01, 1970 by WILLIAM W. BAYES
Mr. Bayes, a Senior Master Sergeant in the U.S.A.F., is enrolled in a master’s degree program in Political Science at the University of Southern Mississippi. The views expressed here are his own and not to be construed as representing the views of the Air Force.
Private property has been the object of attack by socialists ever since the first nonproducer enviously viewed the fruit of the labors of the first producer. Property, like religion, has had ascribed to it all the evils arising out of the hearts of men. The institution of private property, some say, has perpetuated every manner of "social injustice." Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels called for the abolition of private property in the Communist Manifesto. Pierre Joseph Proudhon, a social-theorist contemporary of Marx, declared, "Property is theft!" He conveniently ignored the fact that theft has no meaning if there is no concept of property. Present-day proponents of the welfare state assert, in the name of "social justice," that "human rights are more precious than property rights." The inference one is expected to draw, presumably, is that rights belonging to humans are more important than rights belonging to property — except that the human who owns the property is to be dropped from consideration.
These arguments for "social justice"1 have a common denominator: an appeal to the emotions. Such an appeal is fraudulent. It would be fraudulent even if the unsupported assertions accompanying it were sound. It is fraudulent because it denies that one’s listeners or readers are capable of interpreting a rational argument. If they are not, whatever action they may take in response to the appeal must be non-rational at best and perhaps even dangerous. Such emotional appeals, carried a bit further, have induced mobs to riot, loot, burn, and kill. One who desires to persuade others to accept a belief or to act in a rational manner ought to define his terms so that his listeners or readers will know exactly what he means when he uses those terms. To do else is to ask others to act on the basis of emotional stimulus, rather than on the basis of reason.
Largely by defining my terms I intend to show: (1) that property, far from being theft, is the result of a creative process; (2) that property so created benefits all, especially wage earners; (3) that property rights and human rights are identical; and (4) that such so-called human rights as "economic rights" are neither economical nor are they rights.
Human Rights Are Property Rights
I have said that the type of argument exemplified by the "human rights versus property rights" dichotomy is fraudulent. It is so because it does not define these terms about which it makes bold asseverations. If those who soargue should define these terms, it would appear that logic would compel them to change the relationship of the terms from one of opposition to one of identity: human rights are property rights. In order to demonstrate that this assertion is correct, we must first define the word property:
… 3. Possessions irrespective of their ownership; wealth; goods; specif., a piece of real estate. 4. The exclusive right to possess, enjoy, and dispose of, a thing; ownership;… incorporeal rights, as patents, copyrights, rights of action, etc.,… 5. That to which a person has legal title; thing owned;… anything, or those things collectively, in or to which a man has a right protected by law;..2
Property, then, is the thing owned, such as a material object or an incorporeal right. The above definition also mentions "rights of action." Actually, this right to act is the essence of property. If you doubt this, imagine "owning" a piece of property on the planet Jupiter, where you could not get to it or do anything with it. This view is not generally understood, because many tend to think of property as static.
Let us for a moment envision a supposedly static property, such as a piece of land. Even when an owner of such land seems not to be using it, he is acting. Action is, of course, (or should be) determined by purpose. If the owner is holding the land to sell at a profit, he is using it; he is acting. His holding of the land is not hurting anyone else; rather, the taxes he pays support government functions. If it becomes essential to society that the land be productively used, at least two circumstances will concur: (1) he will be offered a price that will tempt him to sell the land; (2) the local government will raise his property taxes to a level that will discourage his unproductive use of the land while waiting for a higher price.
Either his land is not needed for production or living space by society, in which case its apparent disuse disturbs no one; or the land is needed by society for production or living space, in which case its owner will be motivated by circumstances to use it for production, rent it, or sell it. Whatever decision he makes, he will be acting for his own purposes; and his own purposes will not conflict with the good of society. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the economy abhors disuse of needed resources; nature will see to it that the vacuum is filled atthe first opportunity, and the economy will see to it that needed resources are actively employed. Thus, we see that property always involves a right to act. And we have observed that apparent inaction is a form of action. That is why we speak of the right to property, rather than the right of property. Property, as the thing owned, has no rights. Only humans have rights; and these rights, all involving the right to act, are property.
The Right to One’s Own Life
The fundamental right for any human is the right to his own life. He owns his own life, unless he is a slave. (Even if he is a slave, he has the natural right to his own life, but he is unable to enforce it or claim it.) His life does not belong to any other person or group. The thing owned is his body, and the related right to act, or property right, is the right to live. Now, matter is eternal, but human life is not; life must be sustained by procuring and consuming the means of subsistence. If we agree that man has a right to live, we must agree that man may use his mental and physical faculties to procure those means. Since the means (food, clothing, shelter, and the like) do not usually lie readily at hand, he must find or grow the food, manufacture the clothing, and build the shelter. In short, he must produce.
To produce is to create anything with exchangeable value.3 To create means, of course, to cause to come into existence what did not exist before. In the literal sense, of course, no man can create; he can only alter the form of things which already exist and discover laws which he can use as means to accomplish his ends. But the new form is something which did not exist before, and this is what we call creation. Thus, growing wheat, building a house, manufacturing clothes or automobiles, painting a picture, and providing such services as transportation, education, and legal advice, are all forms of creation. Those which do not involve originality are lower forms of creation, but they are still creation inasmuch as they bring into existence what did not exist before.
Creation vs. Expropriation
This creative aspect of capitalism is in sharp contrast to the expropriative aspects of socialism and the welfare state. Under capitalism, everyone is entitled to engage in free enterprise, must bear his own risks, and is entitled to receive whatever returns his creative enterprise will bring him. Under socialism, a man is not entitled to engage in free enterprise, he receives as a wage whatever the authorities decide to grant him, and he has no opportunity to earn more than a subsistence unless he is a high-ranking member of the bureaucracy. Under the welfare state, a man is entitled to engage in free enterprise, must bear his own risks, but is not entitled to receive whatever returns his creative enterprise will bring him. He finds that he is held responsible for those whose mental and physical faculties have been unused or misused. His returns are eroded by the effects of unfair labor laws and all manner of taxes, including the obviously inequitable progressive income tax. He is, in effect, penalized for his creativeness.
A corollary of the right to produce is the right to keep that which one has created. If one may keep this product, it follows that one may consume it, exchange it for goods or services offered by someone else, sell it, or give it away. He may do all these things because the right of the producer, or creator, is anterior to that of any other person or group. To assert that he does not have a primary right is, in effect, to deny him any right whatever. It is to say that he holds his property by sufferance of anyone (including a government) who is stronger than he, and that it is proper to plunder. But if it is proper to plunder from the producer, then it must, a fortiori, be proper to plunder from one who has himself plundered. It must then follow that only might can make right — one may take from another when one has the might, and one may keep only what one has the might to defend. Unless a person is prepared to accept the "might makes right" philosophy, he must respect another’s right to live, to produce, and to consume, keep, exchange, sell, or give away that which he has produced. These property rights, it is important to remember, are dynamic, not static; they involve the right to act.
A man retains his property rights in any excess of his production over his personal consumption. It is important to remember, in this regard, that a man’s production depends, not only upon his physical strength, but also upon his mental powers, his powers to create: to think, devise, plan, organize, coordinate, and so on. That which is physically performed by an employee is made possible by the producer’s investment of his previously created capital and his managerial expertise. No one else loses anything by reason of such action by the producer, any more than if he had produced only what he could personally consume. It must be remembered that he is producing, not expropriating the products of others.
But wait! While no one else loses, others gain as a result of this production in excess of personal consumption. The producer may create an enterprise employing hundreds, possibly thousands, of persons. These jobs would not have existed without his creative efforts. Nor would the consumers have the benefit of the products this enterprise produces. In pursuing his own self-interest, producing the means for his own subsistence and achieving his own self-fulfillment, he becomes a benefactor of his community.
Remember Proudhon’s dictum: "Property is theft!" We have seen that property is created although it is true that under socialism property is not free from the taint of stolen goods. Proudhon, who presumably had the interests of the poor at heart, could not have meant that nonproducers steal from producers (else he would have fought for property rights), nor that producers steal from other producers (which would have been a proper subject for criminal law, not for social legislation); therefore, he must have meant that producers steal from nonproducers or marginal producers. But, if the nonproducers do not create wealth, and if the marginal producers produce barely the means of subsistence, then they have little that may be stolen from them. (Mind, savings, and tools are the chief ingredients in the production of wealth — not manual labor.)
But property does not consist merely of real and personal possessions. Intangible, or incorporeal, rights which we Americans value as priceless, such as those guaranteed by the Constitution, being things owned and involving the right to act, are property. This means that such rights as the rights to free speech, to worship, to peaceful assembly, and to due process, are all property. If they are property, then the rights involved are essentially property rights. There is no right which is not property, and there is no property which, if not a right in itself, is not a fruit of the exercise of a right. Thus the false polarization of human rights and property rights and the substitution of spurious rights to the property of others, as in the "right" to an education or to a guaranteed annual income, are but further links in the chain of violations of the real human rights, which are all property rights. A human without property rights is without rights.
Our Rights as Property
This view, that rights themselves are property, is a legitimate part of our political heritage. John Locke, from whose writings the Founding Fathers freely drew intellectual inspiration and guidance, asserted that we have property in our persons as well as in our possessions.4 We have property in our life and in our mental and physical faculties. When these faculties are applied, as by mixing one’s labor with nature’s bounty, they create tangible property.
Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that "… government may not violate, directly or indirectly, ‘the property which individuals have in their opinions, their religion, their persons and their faculties… "5
It is interesting to note that many professors who do not share this traditional view of property pay it unwitting tribute when they insist upon "academic freedom." For so-called academic freedom is nothing more than the right (possessed by every free citizen and not merely by academicians) to hold (i.e., to own) opinions and to utter (to use and enjoy and dispose of, as property) those opinions. If they are paid for a speech, an article in a periodical, or a book, they are being paid for the articulate expression of their expert (or, perhaps, merely interesting) opinion. It is absurd to suppose that they should receive payment for something that was not theirs to sell, not their property. The property lies in their opinion which is fortified and given commercial value by their expert background knowledge and their ability to express that opinion clearly and interestingly.
In the case of professorial opinions expressed in the classroom, it should be noted, many writers have emphasized that other property rights than the professor’s own are involved and that these deserve protection also.
Economic Rights Derivative
I have said that so-called economic rights are neither economical nor are they rights. There are no economic rights as such; all rights are political rights. The freedom to engage in any type of enterprise, to produce, to own and control property, to buy and sell on the free market, is derived from the rights to life, liberty, and property, together with the pursuit of happiness, which are stated in the Declaration of Independence as self-evident truths and are hypostatized and secured by the Constitution. When a government guarantees a "right" to an education or parity on farm products or a guaranteed annual income, it is staking a claim on the property of one group of citizens for the sake of another group. In short, it is violating one of the fundamental rights it was instituted to protect.
To the extent that one citizen must labor involuntarily for the benefit of another citizen, he has lost his liberty and has been subjected to involuntary servitude. To the extent that income which the producing citizen would otherwise invest in capital is diverted to the propping up of a nonproducing or marginally producing citizen, that money is wasted. It is spent rather than invested, and it teaches the citizen who receives the dubious benefit to be dependent upon government. Still worse, perhaps, is the fact that the recipient of largesse from an anonymous, monolithic, endlessly wealthy state loses sight of his real benefactor — the producing citizen. Neither that recipient nor the government is concerned about the use to which the producer would have put his money if allowed to keep it. One thing seems certain: he would have invested his money (whether by means of a bank, the stock market, or otherwise) in a capital pool, where it would have been used to create additional wealth.
The Corruption of Terms
One of the most important means used by the enemies of freedom to bring down our institutions is the corruption of the meanings of words and hence of the concepts for which those words are symbols. These institutions, including that of private property rights, are very dear to the American people and so they must be attacked by indirection. Instead of attacking property rights as here correctly defined and explained, the socialists and other statists use the word property in a diminished sense, although they are careful not to define it. Its meaning is thus attenuated, hedged, and qualified, until it seems to represent merely real and personal property of a considerable magnitude.
The mental image is created of a Croesus on the one hand, living in the lap of luxury with a train of servants at hand to attend to his every want; and of an indigent person on the other hand, probably living in a hovel and working in a sweat-shop, if employed at all, for a mere subsistence. The mental image thus created is meant to arouse our sympathy and to obscure questions as to why one is wealthy and another poor. It is also meant to obscure the fact that, unless wealth honestly gained is protected from confiscation, anything gained by the poor will be equally subject to confiscation; and equality will be achieved only in want and slavery.
Surely, those who say that "human rights are more precious than property rights" cannot mean by property a man’s life or a mere subsistence, such as the food a man eats, the clothes on his back, and the hovel in which he may live. They must, therefore, mean that wealth which a producer has created in excess of his personal consumption. But it has been shown that such wealth comes into being only as a result of a particular producer’s efforts, is not acquired at the expense of nonproducers or the marginal producers, and actually benefits the latter (who receive far more than their manual labor contributes to the product). Thus, the communists, socialists, and other statists set up a diminished idea of property, i.e., great wealth, as a straw man by means of whose defeat they intend to destroy all property rights, which means all rights.
The communists, socialists, and other statists have been aided in this endeavor to corrupt the meanings of words by Americans who do not define their terms and do not insist that others define their terms. I do not imply that such Americans are communists or socialists or have impure motives. I cannot read motives. But I am able to see the effects of certain expressions and acts; it is acts, after all, which are able to injure and destroy, not motivations as such. I merely offer my opinion that those Americans who permit this corrupted idea of property to be foisted upon them make the task of the socialists much easier to accomplish. They are like the home-owner who leaves his house and does not lock his doors and windows to bar the entrance of burglars. They do not guard the doors to their minds by questioning the meanings of words and concepts and the logical structure of arguments. In so doing, they passively allow their minds to be filled with false concepts. Dupes are not always innocent. They are not innocent if they have not tried to protect themselves.
The Poor Stand to Lose Most from Attacks on Property
Preservation of the full meaning of the word property will do much to preserve liberty in this land and perhaps even restore that portion of liberty which has been lost. It will do little good to talk about property rights, unless listeners and speakers construe the word property in the same way. We must insist that those who talk about human rights and property rights define their terms, and we must not deceive our listeners by our use of the word property. If we permit the degradation of this word to mean nothing more than great wealth, we may as well speak no more of property rights; only the wealthy will listen. We need to show the inseparable link between the right to property, even to great wealth, and the rights to life and liberty. We must demonstrate that production is the creation of wealth and that the only expropriators are criminals and unlimited governments. An attack upon private property rights is not merely an attack upon material objects divorced from human owners; it is an attack upon the owners. It is an attack upon production and creativity. It is an attack upon the right to use one’s mental and physical faculties (are you professors and reporters and artists listening?) It is an attack upon one’s right to act. It is an attack upon the right of the propertyless to dream, plan, and work for a brighter day. It is an attack upon one’s right to live — as a free man.
1 The term "social justice" is one that needs to be analyzed. The modifier, the word social, implies that justice is divisible, which it is not. Since governments (which enforce justice) are instituted among men to secure the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, any violation of these rights in the name of "social justice" would deny elemental justice.
2 Webster’s New International Dictionary (Second Edition, Unabridged; Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1950), p. 1984.
3 Britannica World Language Edition of Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1966), Vol. 1, p. 1006.
4 "John Locke," Encyclopaedia Britannica (Chicago, 1966), 14:192.
5 "Civil Liberties," Encyclopaedia Britannica, 5:837.