Private Property/Property Rights

Political division in the United States, as elsewhere, is fueled by considerable disagreement about private property and by even more misunderstanding about the nature of those disagreements. In other words, many of us are often wrong about what “they” (pick your “they”) believe on the subject. One simple way to think about the issue imagines one side in favor of property rights and another side against. But what is property in the first place? What exact rights come with possession of which kinds of property? What kind of social supports does a system of property rights need, and how many of those supports require (what some see as) a degree of violation of property rights? These questions do better at revealing where our disagreements lie.


To some economic conservatives the ownership of something by definition means the possession of a very large bundle of rights with regard to that something, as in “I can do anything I want on my land (provided I cause no harm to others)”, and “my salary belongs entirely to me, and the government has no right to take even a small portion of it, no matter for what.” That belief is often combined with the notion that it’s beneficial for everyone (or at least for most of us and for society in general) if those property rights are fully honored, i.e., if taxes are minimal or non-existent. The thinking here is that voluntary exchanges of property (the “free market”) will lead to efficiency, innovation, wealth, and, for the most part, everyone having by right what they have earned; and that voluntary associations dedicated to helping those in need is also preferable to the use of force (taxation) to provide assistance that is distributed through impersonal, often inefficient and unaccountable government agencies.


The world of liberals, progressives, and leftists actually includes widely different views on property and great disagreement, but most bring the assumption that it’s not possible to possess something in the first place unless other people, both individually and collectively, have made that possible, whether by using force in the past to turn communally shared land into plots that can be bought and sold; by creating (and paying for) a legal system of contracts, deeds and the like; or by building roads, bridges, and universities to support “free market” activity. Also most who lean left think that the capitalism of large firms and wage workers would come tumbling down in brutal depressions were it not for a degree of government management and regulation (e.g., using taxes to redistribute a little income downward so workers can buy products). Thus, the liberal thinking goes, the possession of property does not come with all the rights claimed by economic conservatives.


From there it gets more complicated. On the one hand, some anarchists and socialists see property as “theft,” from the people in a collective sense, from the working class, and from all those who went before. Other socialists, liberals, and progressives, on the other hand, do not believe that, and in fact some of these could even be said to be pro-capitalist (they want, to use F.D. Roosevelt’s phrase, to “save capitalism from itself”). Also, even those who see property as theft do not mean that people should not have personal possessions; they are instead attacking the private ownership of the means of production, whereby individual business owners or corporations are legally granted ownership of all the wealth produced by the workers.

These complexities combine with strong feelings. Some, for example, understand private property to be deeply sacred, even the foundation of all liberty and happiness. And that makes for a great deal of misunderstanding. Some liberals, for example, don’t understand the economic theory behind the conservative views and thus consider conservatives to be purely selfish. And many conservatives incorrectly think that nearly everyone on the left wants the government to own everything and everyone.