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Proper Property Rights

Cardus Work and Economics Program Director Brian Dijkema reflects on John Robson's latest National Post Column and the link between property, our work, and our humanity.

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Topics: Economics, Business, Markets
Proper Property Rights April 18, 2017  |  By Brian Dijkema
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John Robson has just written as fine and concise a moral defence of property rights as I’ve read in some time. In his National Post column this week, Robson provides a good description of the small “l” liberal approach to property. Most compellingly, he rightly situates the rights attached to property as a bulwark against the misuse of power by those who have it (the rich, those with access to the State) against those who do not (the poor – the proverbial “little guy”).

He notes, “In societies where property rights are trampled, the politically powerful live obscenely well anyway. Only where the rule of law holds sway can even the peasant in his damp hovel not be disturbed or robbed.”

This is true, but not even his main point. The moral thrust of his argument is that “our individuality is inseparable from our ownership of ourselves, our labour and its fruits.” 

The ownership of our property – ourselves – is analogous to other rights with which we are better acquainted. Robson spells it out this way:

Political and property rights are inseparable. We cannot be killed or imprisoned arbitrarily because each of us is the unique, precious possessor of our own body. We have free speech because we own our own tongues, ears and brains and may decide what to say or listen to, though we may neither compel others to speak to nor to heed us. And we are free from arbitrary search and seizure because we own those things we made with our scarce, fleeting time and effort.

The only difficulty with his account is that it tells only half the story. An account of the link between property, our work, and our humanity is incomplete without a conception of the obligations that come with property rights (and other rights, of course) and a moral case for the social nature of our humanity.

It’s commonplace to acknowledge that rights – free speech, association etc. – are not things that are simply possessed. They also come with obligations of proper use. You may choose not to speak, but in certain cases, you have an obligation to speak. And if you do choose to speak, you have an obligation to speak in certain ways. Minimally, this means not screaming “fire!” in a crowded theatre, or making death threats. It also means speaking in ways that further understanding or communication; most of us recognize an obligation to tell the truth, if not the truth in love (Twitter be damned). 

An account of private property needs something similar lest it devolve into the very thing against which Robson writes of: “…governments’ growing habit of treating us as annoying bags of soggy meat clinging pettily to bits of wood, metal and plastic.”

We might ask ourselves why do governments think this way? Could it be that many of us have been habituated into thinking that the social obligations inherent in our private property are met through the organ of the State? Could it be that accounts of property rights that ignore social obligations might themselves contribute to this habituation?

Very few in the small “l” liberal school of thought have an a priori opposition to taxes. All but a very few acknowledge taxes are necessary to pay for the legitimate material expenses of upholding the rule of law and the execution of public justice. But that is where many (most?) of the obligations related to property rights end are believed to end. Because of this, much of the discussion about property rights revolves around the obligations and rights of individual citizens vis-a-vis the State.

But that’s not the only, and perhaps not even the most important, challenge to property today in the West. The larger and more prevalent vice is what we might call the Gollumization of private property. It stems from taking only the kernel of truth in theories of property rights. True, to take someone’s property is, in Robson’s eloquent terms, “to steal the physical incarnation of his dreams (and so) to steal part of his soul, to deny his humanity.” But we must never forget the other half: what it takes to make the kernel grow. 

If a description of the link between property and humanity is left at this – and many liberal writers do leave it at this – you end up sharing with Tolkien’s monstrous Gollum the idea that what is mine is mine; my own; my Precious ! The individuality present in our labour is ours to do with as we please. But to leave it there ends up silently suggesting that the sharing of property with others, the social obligation inherent in property rights, is optional because no one is forcing you to do it at sword point. If the only basis for sharing is coercion, what does that say about our society? What does it say about our humanity?

If the best moral defence of property is that it reflects our humanity, then it should follow that the whole story of that humanity needs to be told. Humans are social creatures. We are born into a world we did not create, we inhabit institutions that are not of our own making, and our property comprises a mixture of those institutions with material that is also not of our own making.  The Christian conception of property affirms property rights. In fact, it provides one of the better moral defences of property rights. It also provides the grounds for the moral obligation to share. Consider these words from St. Basil the Great’s Sermon to the Rich, which remain as true and pointed as when they were delivered circa AD 368:

Naked did you not drop from the womb? Shall you not return again naked to the earth? Where have the things you now possess come from? If you say they just spontaneously appeared, then you are an atheist, not acknowledging the Creator, nor showing any gratitude towards the one who gave them. But if you say that they are from God, declare to us the reason why you received them. Is God unjust, who divided to us the things of this life unequally? Why are you wealthy while that other man is poor?

Liberalism tends to downplay such thick moral accounts, much to its detriment. But surely we can at least try to recognize that, whether you’re an atheist or a Christian, no one can take credit for creating land, rocks, waters or trees, no baby chooses its parents, and that, perhaps we should try to integrate our moral accounts of property to account for this.

Some might disagree with me and say that, no, no such obligation exists. But if so, they can expect more and more creeping of the State into places beyond its ken, and greater difficulty keeping it at bay. 

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Topics: Economics, Business, Markets
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