All Commentary
Thursday, January 1, 2004

Property and Prosperity: The Vital Link

Humans Require a Sphere of Authority to Make Meaningful Moral Decisions

Contributing editor Tibor Machan is a professor at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University.

Professor Richard Pipes has written extensively about the connection between property rights and prosperity in the history of Russia. Others, including Peter Bauer and Amartya Sen, have noted the connection in various places around the globe. Without the legal infrastructure that recognizes and protects the right to private property, as well as some other, derivative institutions, such as freedom of contract, prosperity is difficult to foster.

Yet why is there this close connection between the right to private property and prosperity? Why is it so evident in Russia’s history and current economic situation? Why does it have such a noticeable impact on Africa’s economy? And why, also, is it a feature of Europe’s and even America’s economic woes, with interventionist laws and regulations—bearing on the employment and the environment—eating away at private property rights and thus producing unemployment and economic malaise?

What is it about the world and human beings that renders so vital respect and protection for the right to private property?

The main reason for our having the right to private property was clearly indicated by William of Ockham when he characterized natural rights as “the power of right reason.” This means that only when a person has a defined sphere of authority will he have the capacity to make meaningful, concrete moral judgments. We live in a natural world in which our actions have moral significance: are we doing what we ought to do or are we neglecting or even subverting this? To know, there must be a sphere of authority for each of us, including a material sphere in which we may carry out our plans. That is the first reason why private property rights are necessary for human community life: that sphere can be threatened, attacked, and undermined, and so it must be secure.

Of course, just how actual ownership of one thing or another, simple or complex, is to be obtained is itself complicated. John Locke pinned it on our mixing our labor with natural stuff; others have tied it to good judgment or prudence.*

In light of not only the clear moral significance of the right to private property, but also the issue of prosperity, it is worth considering why this right is under widespread attack in the academy. Why do so many prominent people and publishing houses offer theories denying that individuals have the right to private property? Why, for example, would Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy manage to get a slim, shopworn attack on private property rights, The Myth of Ownership, so well published (Oxford University Press), and why would it get such a good reception?

A promising hypothesis is that the right to private property makes possible the individual’s prosperity, and many find that lamentable. Material progress is often deemed materialistic, selfish, commercial, anti- spiritual, and thus contrary to our higher moral purposes. Indeed, the right to private property is a source of individual liberty, something many consider dangerous because in their view it fosters self-indulgence, hedonism, and degradation. Free men and women need not conform to edicts issued by moralists and other self-appointed leaders.

It doesn’t seem to occur to these critics of liberty that without the right to private property it is not possible to choose to pursue those allegedly higher goals. A slave or serf or hostage isn’t at liberty to elect to do whatever is deemed to be his duty.

What’s an Individual?

Furthermore, there is the idea, advanced by so many who weigh in on this topic, that human beings aren’t rights-bearers at all since they aren’t really individuals but species beings. Marx told us, in his famous essay “On the Jewish Question,” that “The human essence is the true collectivity of man.” Auguste Comte said something similar in Catéchisme positiviste. Contemporary communitarians aren’t all that far from this view when they carry on so negatively about individualism.

Organicism or collectivism renders human beings akin to bees in a hive or ants in a colony without personal identity and, thus, without the sovereignty that is required for moral responsibility.

Unless these views are shown to be erroneous, the attacks on the right to private property will continue and even prevail. It simply does not suffice to show that those attacks lead to misery and oppression, for those issuing the attacks argue that misery and oppression—asceticism and obedience—are our proper lot.

The radicalism of private property is yet to be widely grasped—perhaps understandably since in the history of the human race the idea is very new. That’s one reason not to despair. The bad habit of relying on the collective, on chiefs of tribes and heads of states, is difficult to shed. But such bad habits can be overcome, provided there is vigilance, the eternal exercise of which is, of course, the price of liberty.

*My essay “The Right to Private Property,” at www-hoover., deals with the topic in detail.

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.