On Property

We take property for granted. John Locke espoused life, liberty, and property. Rousseau observed that “The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine”, and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society.

But property and its defence is nothing more than some accepted rhetoric. Libertarians presume this to be some inviolable right, and Anarchists and Socialists believe that property—well, private property anyway; real property—is a common good.

I have an issue with ownership of real property, though I don’t have such a strong opinion on possession. In reality, this is more of a practical matter than a defensible philosophical position. It has emotivist roots. As Hobbes noted (or I’ll paraphrase liberally), even animals in his state of nature have possessions, but there is no right to these possessions (which belong to the monarch anyway in society); there is only the ability to try to retain ownership through force.

In practice, this is what society does. Insomuch as the force is more potential than kinetic, allowing the state or community to exercise this force by proxy, it is not dissimilar to our consumption of meat products at arm’s length by sheltering the violent reality by intermediary grocers.

And we shelter ourselves through language. We don’t eat cows and pigs, we eat beef and pork, chateaubriand and bacon.

Returning to property, real property, it’s yours as long as you possess it, but it is not yours from a distance, and it’s not yours to bequeath. If we are to embrace capitalism—which I don’t, but for the sake of argument—, we should allow the property to go to the purpose that will provide the greatest utility. History as a judge demonstrates that it is unlikely to happen to be the someone’s heirs.

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