Property Rights: The Root of Freedom

Property Rights: The Root of Freedom

Summarizing The Commonwealth of Oceana, James Harrington’s controversial mid-17th century work of political theory, Daniel Webster wrote that “power naturally and necessarily follows property.” A free society, Harrington argued, requires that property may be owned and alienated by all citizens, and accordingly, that property ownership be not confined either to one “sole landlord” or a few. His ability to own property free from the old fetters of feudal society is the common man’s bulwark against the determined encroachments of the total state; that is, private property provides the individual with a sphere of autonomy into which tyrannical state power cannot reach.

A man’s home, as the saying goes, is his castle. For socialists and even many progressives, however, private property is an obstacle to be overcome, the source of the capitalist’s power to exploit, a privilege that must yield to broader social justice concerns. Because their philosophy treats private property as inherently anti-social, their conception of the good polity requires proactive state limitation of individual property rights. The question naturally arises whether we should accept the premise that strong protections for individual property must divide us from one another and promote economic injustice. Classical liberals and libertarians submit that just the opposite is true: Genuine social cooperation and community are fundamentally impossible without private property.

If the left’s criticism of private-property libertarianism is that, today, property is unjustly concentrated in the circles of the rich and politically connected, then this is in principle no failing of private property itself. Widespread ownership of property was and is the ideal of classical liberalism and libertarianism, a result to be attained not through planning and redistribution — which will, in practice, always favor incumbents and insiders — but through the operation of voluntary market exchange and proper homesteading.

As John Médaille points out, socialism gathers wealth and property — and thus economic decision-making power — in the hands of the state’s small topmost bureaucratic class, analogous to the Inner Party in Orwell’s 1984. In his book Toward a Truly Free Market, he wrote, “When people hear ‘distribution of property,’ many automatically think, ‘Socialism!’ But nothing could be further from the truth. In a capitalist system, there are few owners of the means of production, but in a socialist system, there is only one, the state.”

Médaille’s book draws a distinction between capitalism as it currently exists — what many free-market conservatives and libertarians would distinguish as crony capitalism — and the ideal of a truly free market, in which property is more widely and evenly distributed.

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