All Commentary
Monday, December 1, 1997

Property: Key to Self-Determination

Without Full Protection of Property Rights We Are All Poorer

Private property is at the center of the freedom philosophy. It has been said that all human rights are ultimately property rights. It has been said that the right to life is a property right in one’s person. It has been said that without property rights, the right to life is an empty idea. Yet private ownership is an issue that divides people and dictates their positions on many other issues. We can say that the two great competing world views in political theory—individualism and statism—are irreconcilably at odds over the question of property. The conflict is more subtle than it used to be, but it is just as real.

The strictly economic virtue of property is hardly in dispute anymore. The collapse of communism and explicit socialism is interpreted by many people as a victory for private property. Even stalwart socialist economists have conceded this point.

While the economic function of property is now virtually unquestioned, there are political and social aspects to property that deserve attention. Property is vital to privacy. One protects one’s privacy ultimately by invoking private property. (See Tibor Machan’s article in this issue.) Thus, it is important for such things as freedom of religion (and nonreligion). It is required for freedom of the press and speech. Imagine a free press where private individuals could not own paper, presses, and ink. Property is at the center of every issue relating to human liberty.

Imagine a society in which all property was owned collectively. Actually, that is hard to imagine. Ownership refers to the power to use and dispose of things. Collectives as such cannot use and dispose. Only individuals can do so because only individuals can act. When “society” appears to own property, the actual power of use and disposal rests with a group of identifiable government officials. They are the de facto, if not the de jure, owners. Even in a democratic society, in which the people fill political offices by voting, it is misleading to say the people collectively own and control property. The most we can say is that each citizen has a small say in who the de facto owners will be. In contrast, other apparent forms of “collective ownership,” such as a corporation, suffer from no similar conceptual problem, since they are the result of explicit contractual relationships entered into by specific individuals. Moreover, and this is critical, each stockholder, unlike the citizen “owner,” can sell his share of the company whenever he likes.

In a society in which all property was collectively owned, everyone would be, in fact, an employee and tenant of the government. That’s not a comforting thought. Again, the right to cast a vote every four years for the administrators of the public’s property would not make these circumstances any more comforting. Everyone would in a significant sense be at the mercy of the state.

To be sure, in a free-market society, many people also will be employees and tenants. But there are two important differences between that situation and collective ownership. First, in the market there is competition among employers and landlords; that process benefits employees and tenants. Second, a person’s status as an employee or tenant can be temporary. An ambitious person can save or borrow the money to start his own business and to buy his own home. If the market is fully free, the possibilities for transforming oneself from an employee/tenant to an employer/homeowner are maximized.

This consideration, when added to the fact that private property is essential for a free press, free conscience, and privacy, adds up to a rather strong recommendation for property rights: they are crucial to self-determination. Let’s define self-determination as the ability to influence the direction of one’s life in a major way within the context of one’s talents and capabilities. (Obviously, factors outside of anyone’s control may affect one’s life.) It should be obvious that private property is an element without which self-determination is impossible. One will have little say over the direction of one’s life if the state controls all economic life. In the marketplace, however, one has choices—even if one does not own land or a business. Secure ownership of one’s wages and the acquisition through lease of living space provides control over one’s own life that cannot be approached in any collectivist scheme. It is no coincidence that collectivists, while sometimes paying tribute to self-determination, don’t really like when people assert too much power to determine their life course. (See Loren Lomasky’s discussion of autonomy and automobiles in this issue.)

Few people call for full-fledged socialism anymore. Today semi-socialists favor heavy government regulation of property in the name of the environment or social justice or some such reason. But the principle remains. To the extent government regulates the use of private property, it steals the power of self-determination from people. (One example: if the government can wreck your retirement plans by declaring your property a wetland, what has happened to self-determination?) Nominal private property that is regulated by the state does not fully escape the flaws of socialism. Fascism, which is the name of such a system, is more like socialism than it is different. Nazism, that virulent brand of fascism, means national socialism.

If the freedom philosophy is to prevail, advocates of private property will need to make it clear that without full protection of property rights we are all poorer—and not just in the economic sense.

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