Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 P - Property - in society


Property: In society: Property are goods, commodities, land or titles to any of these, like money or legal documents, that allow those who possess these goods etc. to do with them as they please, within the boundaries of the law.

In all modern societies and most known human societies there is at least some version of private property, that involves one's clothes, furniture, personal means of transport etc., and normally far more, in that one can come to acquire many things as property and dispose of them as one pleases, as long as one does not break the law.

In some societies, private property has been restricted. Under communism, all ownership is supposed to be by the community (state, city, tribe); under socialism the means of production - factories and land - are supposed to belong to the community; and some forms of anarchism oppose property altogether ('Property is theft' - Proudhon).

The main problem with communist and socialist approaches to property, that are supposed to be in the interest of the community and most of its members, is that it gives in fact the rulers of the state (city, tribe) the power over all or nearly all goods that are used or produced in the economy.

In effect, this gives very few very great power and at least the factual command over the most important goods and means of production in society. This makes a few in effect very rich and powerful, and most poor and powerless, and without an economical motive or means to improve themselves by working for themselves.

It also introduces two important problems: Since it takes away the motive to improve oneself and one's family by trying to extend one's own possessions, it takes away an important source of economical development. And since it makes the state the effective owner of most products produced in it, the state must find means to distribute commodities and allocate resources, both of which are mostly done by the working of markets in communities where commodities and the means of production are privately owned.

Both problems have turned out to lead to social economies with many problems: Few people are willing to work hard or much for the community if this yields no special benefits for themselves, and it has turned out to be very difficult to distribute commodities fairly and allocate resources productively if this is done by some central authority that does not use a real market, where supply and demand keep each other in balance through competition of private companies.

Hence there are at least four arguments in favor of private property of most things, and against state or communal ownership of them.

First, private property is a protection and to some extent a guarantee of personal freedom, in that it gives one the means to take care of one's own interests, and to protect them against others' interests, and to improve oneself and extend one's possessions by one's own work, for which one has a clear motive if most of the fruits of one's own labor come into one's own possession.

Second, so called communal ownership has turned out to be in fact usually the ownership of the few that lead the community, and besides has shown itself to come with great problems for the production of commodities (since most have nothing to gain personally by their own work, if they are not allowed to own what they produce); the distribution of commodities (since without real markets there is no effective supply and demand to facilitate distribution); and the allocation of resources (since this tends to be done by state planning and not by markets, and this has turned out to be costly and ineffective).

Third, it has turned out that the evils that come with private ownership of the means of production, such as starvation wages or slavery, and exploitation of the working poor by the owning rich, can be mostly controlled and dissolved by legal means: If workers are given the right to organize themselves in trade unions, and wages are regulated by law, and rights for a decent income for all are protected and maintained, many of the evils of early capitalism, that were so important in the rise of socialist ideas and ideals, can be overcome.

Fourth, the combination of private ownership and of mostly free markets, provided also that the weak are legally protected and the wages of workers are decent, has turned out to be a very effective means for the production and distribution of goods, while providing (almost) everyone in the community with a living wage.


See also: Communism, Marxism, Socialism


Smith, Mill

 Original: Nov 4, 2005                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top