The Natural Right of Property

Not to be confused with government-created artificial rights.


Filed Under : Property Rights

Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869), the English economics writer I discussed previously, is an enigma — until his philosophy is seen in its entirety. He was an editor at The Economist of London from 1846 to 1855, during the period author Scott Gordon called “the high tide of laissez faire, yet he is considered a Ricardian socialist, was quoted and deferred to by Marx [and] described by Sidney and Beatrice Webb as Marx’s master.” How could any libertarian claim Hodgskin as a mentor?

“The connection will be only be fully appreciated,” Gordon writes, “by those who have learned that the geometry of politics is non-Euclidean; straight lines, when extended, form complete circles, and parallels may meet and even cross.” (The quotes are from Gordon’s “The London Economist and the High Tide of Laissez Faire,” Journal of Political Economy, December 1955.)

The radical edge that Hodgskin gave his laissez-faire advocacy confuses people whose thoughts come in prefabricated boxes. Today if someone sympathizes with labor’s plight, he’s bound to be labeled a collectivist, although earlier radical individualists located the source of that plight not in the market but in the halls of government. This was better understood in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the likes of Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, and Herbert Spencer held the libertarian vanguard.

Hodgskin, very simply, was a natural-law individualist who thought government should grant no privileges to anyone, particularly capitalists, landowners, and clergy, who in his time were the chief beneficiaries of state appropriation and other interference with peaceful market activity. He embraced the “natural right of property” and opposed the “artificial right of property,” which he attributed to the utilitarians’ belief that legislation, not natural law, was the source rights. In other words, land and other objects acquired through original appropriation and honest, voluntary means were legitimate property. All forced and fraudulent means of acquisition yielded illegitimate, artificial property that could only be sustained by government power. He called for the abolition of all forms of the artificial right of property and full flowering of the natural right.

Hodgskin was a passionately consistent adherent of the philosophy of John Locke and the laissez-faire, free-trade Manchester school of Cobden and Bright. His dubious ideas on the labor theory of value (held also by Adam Smith and David Ricardo) and the nature of capital would not withstand the later Austrian school of economics, and he criticized capitalists. But this was always in the context of systematic government intervention, most egregiously the prohibition of unions, or combinations. Laissez faire would eliminate “most of the misery which exists in the world,” he said. He fully appreciated that capitalists were laborers too — possessing the right to their full product like any other laborer. Unlike Marx, he did not believe that the exploitation of labor was inherent in market relations, but rather was the result of departures from the free market. (For an Austrian critique of the labor theory of value, see Robert Murphy’s excellent paper here. [pdf])

As for his alleged Ricardian socialism, Murray Rothbard writes in his history of economic thought, “There is no question that Hodgskin’s ultra labourism influenced Karl Marx, but his extreme labour theory of value does not make him a Ricardian, much less a socialist. In fact, Hodgskin was highly critical of Ricardo and the Ricardian system, denounced Ricardo’s abstract methodology and his theory of rent, and considered himself a Smithian rather than a Ricardian. Smith’s natural law and harmony-of-interest free market doctrine was also more congenial to Hodgskin. …Furthermore, even at his most labourist in the 1820s, Thomas Hodgskin … widened rather than narrowed the definition of ‘labour’. Mental activity is as much ‘labour,’ he pointed out, as muscular exertion…. Not only that: Hodgskin also pointed out cogently that the capitalist is also very often a manager, and therefore also a labourer.’”

This gives context to such Hodgskin statements as: “There is then, I conclude, a natural right of property, founded on the fact that labour is necessary to produce whatever bears the name of wealth.” If socialism means abolition or crippling of the market, Hodgskin was no socialist.

Hodgskin’s intellectual career was something remarkable. He wrote for a general public and even helped run an institute designed to teach free-market economics. His idea of natural economic harmony — absent government intervention — reminds one of his contemporary Frederic Bastiat, who called The Economist “a precious collection of facts, doctrine and experience mutually supporting each other.” Hodgskin’s “philosophical basis was natural law…,” Gordon writes. “He may appear to be an anachronism in the mid-nineteenth century until one reflects upon the fact that this is precisely what laissez faire and the economic harmony doctrine were. They were a reaction against utilitarianism and a return to natural law.”

Observe his independence of thought. When many thinkers of his day were under the sway of Thomas Malthus’s pessimism about the ability of a growing population to feed itself, Hodgskin was sounding like Adam Smith, Julian Simon, Peter Bauer, and Jane Jacobs rolled into one — although he had trouble finding a publisher for his views. “Hodgskin argued that an increase in population provides a larger market which permits a more extensive division of labor to be carried out. Also, large centers of population are a stimulus to the inventive and creative powers of men” (Gordon).

Natural and Artificial

Again in Bastiat-like fashion, Hodgskin finds the right of property in the very nature of man and the world. In his book The Natural and Artificial Right of Property Contrasted (1832), he states:

… I look on a right of property — on the right of individuals, to have and to own, for their own separate and selfish use and enjoyment, the produce of their own industry, with power freely to dispose of the whole of that in the manner most agreeable to themselves, as essential to the welfare and even to the continued existence of society. If, therefore, I did not suppose, with Mr. Locke, that nature establishes such a right — if I were not prepared to shew that she not merely establishes, but also protects and preserves it, so far as never to suffer it to be violated with impunity — I should at once take refuge in Mr. Bentham’s impious theory, and admit that the legislator who established and preserved a right of property, deserved little less adoration than the Divinity himself. Believing, however, that nature establishes such a right, I can neither join those who vituperate it as the source of all our social misery, nor those who claim for the legislator the high honour of being “the author of the finest triumph of humanity over itself.”

In Hodgskin’s view, this natural right is self-sufficient, needing no help from the legislator.

A savage, stronger than the labourer or more cunning, may undoubtedly take the fruit of his industry from him by force or fraud; but antecedently to the use of force or fraud, and antecedently to all legislation, nature bestows on every individual what his labour produces, just as she gives him his own body. She bestows the wish and the power to produce, she couples them with the expectation of enjoying that which is produced, and she confirms in the labourer’s possession, if no wrong be practised, as long as he wishes to possess, whatever he makes or produces. All these are natural circumstances — the existence of any other person than the labourer not being necessary to the full accomplishment of them. The enjoyment is secured by the individual’s own means. No contract, no legislation, is required. Whatever is made by human industry, is naturally appropriated as made, and belongs to the maker. In substance, I would feign hope, there is no difference between this statement and that of Mr. Locke; but I wish to mark, stronger than I think he has done, the fact, that, antecedently to all legislation, and to any possible interference by the legislator, nature establishes a law of appropriation by bestowing, as she creates individuality, the produce of labour on the labourer.

He goes so far to say that the right of property is embedded in the very idea of individuality. The latter would be meaningless without the former.

Mr. Locke says, that every man has a property in his own person; in fact, individuality — which is signified by the word own — cannot be disjoined from the person. Each individual learns his own shape and form, and even the existence of his limbs and body, from seeing and feeling them. These constitute his notion of personal identity, both for himself and others; and it is impossible to conceive — it is in fact a contradiction to say — that a man’s limbs and body do not belong to himself: for the words him, self, and his body, signify the same material thing.

As we learn the existence of our own bodies from seeing and feeling them, and as we see and feel the bodies of others, we have precisely similar grounds for believing in the individuality or identity of other persons, as for believing in our own identity. The ideas expressed by the words mine and thine, as applied to the produce of labour, are simply then an extended form of the ideas of personal identity and individuality.

The idea of property occurs to us naturally and early on as we act in the world. We don’t need the legislator to instruct us in its nature or its intricacies. The individual’s reason is capable of grasping the concept.

As nature gives to labour whatever it produces — as we extend the idea of personal individuality to what is produced by every individual — not merely is a right of property established by nature, we see also that she takes means to make known the existence of that right. It is as impossible for men not to have a notion of a right of property, as it is for them to want [lack] the idea of personal identity…. Ideas of property are truly instinctive, and are acquired by children long before they ever hear of law. If they do not belong to the mind, as the legs and the tongue belong to the body, like the habit of walking or speaking, they are so early acquired, and so continually present to us that they appear innate.

Through production and commerce people would increasingly improve their material condition and the condition of those around them. The hitch is that some wish to prosper not through productive effort but through appropriation of the fruits of other people’s labor. The most efficient way is through the power of government, which has nothing it hasn’t first taken from some producer.

The first and chief violation of the right of property, which pervades and disturbs all the natural relations of ownership, confusing, and perplexing the ideas of all men as to the source of the right of property, and what is their own, of which so many actions stigmatized by the law as crimes, are the necessary consequences, and the natural corrections, — the parent theft from which flow all other thefts, is that of the legislator, who, not being a labourer, can make no disposition of any property whatever, without appropriating what does not naturally belong to him.

That is the source of the artificial right of property.

One of the first objects then of the law, subordinate to the great principle of preserving its unconstrained dominion over our minds and bodies, is to bestow a sufficient revenue on the government. Who can enumerate the statutes imposing and exacting taxes? Who can describe the disgusting servility with which all classes submit to be fleeced by the demands of the tax-gatherer, on all sorts of false pretences, when his demands cannot be fraudulently evaded? Who is acquainted with all the restrictions placed on honest and praiseworthy enterprise; the penalties inflicted on upright and honourable exertions; — what pen is equal to the task of accurately describing all the vexations, and the continual misery, heaped on all the industrious classes of the community, under the pretext that it is necessary to raise a revenue for the government?

This was written in 1832. Hodgskin never experienced the Congress, the Internal Revenue Service, or the U.S. income tax. Would he be surprised if he visited us today?

Nature may annihilate, but she never tortures…. Not so the legislator. He has inflicted on mankind for ages the miseries of revenue laws, — greater than those of pestilence and famine, and sometimes producing both these calamities, without our learning the lesson which nature seems to have intended to teach, viz. the means of avoiding this perpetual calamity. Revenue laws meet us at every turn. They embitter our meals, and disturb our sleep. They excite dishonesty, and check enterprise. They impede division of labour, and create division of interest. They sow strife and enmity amongst townsmen and brethren….

Locke’s commonwealth, says Hodgskin, has not lived up to its theory.

The natural right of property far from being protected, is systematically violated, and both government and law seem to exist chiefly or solely, in order to protect and organize the most efficacious means of protecting the violation….

The important and yet perhaps trite fact to which I wish by these remarks to direct your attention is, that law and governments are intended, and always have been intended, to establish and protect a right of property, different from that which, in common with Mr. Locke, I say is ordained by nature. The right of property created and protected by the law, is the artificial or legal right of property, as contra-distinguished from the natural right of property. It may be the theory that government ought to protect the natural right; in practice, government seems to exist only to violate it.

The more things change…



Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and, and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families.

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November 2014

It's been 40 years since F. A. Hayek received his Nobel Prize. His insights, particularly on the distribution of knowledge and the impossibility of economic planning, remain hugely important today. In this issue, we look back on the influence of his work. Max Borders and Craig Biddle debate whether liberty must be defended from one absolute foundation, further reflections on Scottish secession, and how technology is already changing our world for the better--including how robots, despite the unease they cause, will only accelerate this process.
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