The Morality of Property

Private property, contrary to two centuries of socialist activism against the idea, is essentially a moral tenet, one of the most universal and naturally occurring of all moral tenets. As such, it is perhaps the single most effective social tether on the monster of coercive violence which lurks just around the corner in all human societies. And while in common perception it is the extremely wealthy and powerful who are most likely to be associated with the phrase “property owner,” in practice the notion of property is at least as important, if not more so, in the lives of those at the other end of the social scale. For “next to nothing” is still more than nothing, but it would most assuredly become truly nothing in an instant without the universal moral restriction entailed by the idea of private property ownership.

What you have earned through the independent exertions of your own body and mind belongs to you; what you have been freely given by another belongs to you; what you have traded for by mutual consent belongs to you. This basic principle, which was implicitly understood and acknowledged in all civilized societies — and precisely to the extent that any society was civilized — until very recently, is, among other things, reason’s ingenious means of protecting the weakest from the strongest. It is a psychological limit which, as long as it is generally accepted, delegitimizes brute force and compels men from the top of the social hierarchy to the bottom to acquiesce, however disappointedly, before one another’s rightful claims. The young child obsessed with his brother’s ball learns to submit reluctantly to principle when his mother reminds him simply, “But it’s not your ball, it’s Johnny’s.” When this principle becomes widely abandoned, whether in the name of irrationalism or of enlightened theory, destructive physical force is left to rule the field with no natural limit but the self-interested calculation of the strong, which is no limit at all.

Whether cynically employed by the hand of a few powerful men, or simply cut loose by the anarchic wantonness of an irrational mob, the principle that “nothing belongs to anyone” (i.e., the rejection of property), once actively embraced or passively accepted in a community, quickly resolves itself, in practice, into “everything belongs to the strongest.” In that condition, the biggest loser will most often not be the ones who seem, on the surface, to be those with the most to lose, but rather the ones with the least, i.e., those whose conditions of life are most remote from the presiding centers of influence or collaborative strength.

In this era of receding liberty, one of the few practical symbols of bygone public civility that may still be found is the kind of tiny, rundown house that one occasionally sees directly abutting a supermarket parking lot or factory — the house that an old woman has lived in for sixty years and which she refused to sell to the big land developers planning that supermarket or factory. The developers may have been a major corporation with billions of dollars, important global investors, and filing cabinets full of government contracts, but when the old widow rejected their offer to buy her house, they had no choice but to build around her — even the wealthiest and most powerfully connected members of the community had no viable recourse in the face of even the meanest citizen’s assertion of her property rights. That house, like the woman living in it, symbolizes so much of what the idea of private property means — and it is a moral idea. Without it, the government or corporate bulldozers would move that old widow out of the way without blinking an eye. For the good of the community, they would say. In the name of progress, they would say. For the old woman’s own good, they would say. All euphemisms for the brute force of thugs. (Donald Trump, as everyone knows, is and always has been a great defender of the private business exploitation of “eminent domain,” the American legal name for this obliteration of private property rights in the interests, or for the convenience, of the wealthy and powerful.)

The moral tenet of property ownership explains why civilized societies have laws limiting the search and seizure of private citizens and their possessions. For if property is understood as not merely a practical fact (“possession”) but a moral idea rooted in the very notion of a free human being, then even the government cannot ignore or override that idea with impunity without setting itself openly at odds with a fundamental moral belief of the society at large. One way or the other, something has to give. For if the state has successfully eschewed all meaningful observance of property ownership as a moral (rather than merely legal) reality, then why should private citizens, having tolerated this from the regime, regard the notion of property with any greater respect than do their rulers? Grabbing what you can, imposing your will as far as possible, sticking it to the other guy before he does it to you — the rules of pre-civilized life, even when applied through the convenient regulatory power of the state — will increasingly become the accepted norm, and thus the most basic premise of civility and mutual respect, namely that your neighbor’s property (his goods, his income, his efforts) are the domain of his practical liberty, will be forsaken. The regime, in its systematic and aggressive violations of the principle of private property, will have implicitly set the tone of ordinary human interaction, as enduring regimes always do.

Therefore, to the extent that we may actually see the erosion of this understanding — namely that the state, like private individuals, must respect the principle of property ownership as a moral tenet — we may be certain that we are witnessing a society’s gradual slide down the river bank, from the sometimes muddy but proven path of civilized coexistence into the eternal abyss of Tartarus. Today, with our long-established and ever-expanding “anti-discrimination” laws, our “redistributive justice” laws, and now our sundry “social distancing” regulations, lockdowns, and other arbitrary mandates, we have already gotten more than our feet wet. Nothing in practical life is more difficult than climbing back up a slippery slope. And without even the will to do so, or the rational understanding of why one ought to do so, the difficult becomes impossible.

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