The Human Meaning of Property


MT. AIRY, PHILADELPHIA. Before I say something rather abstract about concrete things, a few personal words about what (and who) lies behind these thoughts may be in order.

The photo above is of the front porch that entered my mind when I was invited to contribute to this venture.  It’s the now empty home of my great-grandparents in Williston, Florida, the smallest of the towns I’ve lived in (2297 residents at the turn of the millennium, edging out Monterey, Tennessee by a comfortable margin of 420).  On many happy occasions, four generations of my mother’s family were gathered there, myself being usually the sole representative of the youngest.

They also bequeathed to us the lot they owned across the street, whose single tenant from time out of mind has been the largest live oak tree I’ve ever seen; it needs the whole lot and then some to stretch its arms.  The only rent it paid, aside from the shade and the beautiful prospect (which were certainly adequate), was the delight it must have given them in seeing me, my cousins, and generations of neighborhood children hoisting ourselves up into its low-lying branches and clambering about in its higher ones.

I remember walking down those steps and across the yard into my great-grandfather’s ancient Ford pickup to drive out to the spot in the country where he kept his hogs.  If you weren’t the driver, you could watch the miles of road pass under you through a hole in the wooden floorboard.  Maybe I was intimidated by the big, meaty hogs; I stayed in the truck and watched him while, having some kind of difficulty opening the gate, he nimbly climbed over it.  To a child of ten, that was surely an impressive and memorable feat for a man in his nineties.

About ten years later, after they were dead and I had spent two years in college becoming a question to myself, I passed a bit of time back there quietly putting my soul in order.  I was staying in my grandparents’ little brick house (then also empty) on the other side of town (about a ten minute walk away), but would go sit on the porch swing of the old house when I felt like being meditative in a sheltered part of the open air.

Though my more vivid memory is of my great-grandfather, it is his wife, contributor of a regular column (“Annie Laurie’s What-nots”) to the local paper, whose legacy I take up with this first of what I hope will be regular contributions to this ambiguously localistic gathering place of writers and readers.


The protection of private property from the power of the state is one of the distinctive contributions of the liberal political order to human happiness.  But understanding the contribution of property to happiness requires understanding what the property is that deserves protection.  The meaning of “property” depends inevitably on the understanding of the human person that stands behind any claim made on its behalf.  I want to explore briefly two philosophical accounts (sketches anyway) of what private property is, and of why it is a good that ought to be defended in speech and protected by laws.  One is a view so familiar that it is difficult to escape its hold on our minds when we think about property.  The other is a more classical view that has been articulated by modern defenders in ways that make clear its opposition in principle to the reigning idea of the liberal economic order.

A quick online search of “private property” by the curious turns up prominently the site belonging to The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which tells us:

The right to private property is the social-political principle that adult human beings may not be prohibited or prevented by anyone from acquiring, holding and trading (with willing parties) valued items not already owned by others.

This description of private property expresses succinctly the meaning of the word that derives from “economic liberalism” and the modern market-driven vision of political and social life.  (The author of the article is Tibor Machan, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.)  Four characteristics of this definition deserve attention: 1. It starts from the outset couching property in terms of rights.  2. These rights are characterized negatively, as immunities from interference.  3. That which is protected from interference is described in terms of fluid commodity exchange (“acquiring, holding and trading”).  4. The items exchanged are identified in terms of “value” placed upon them.

Just one step back along this same road of development, we find James Madison’s twofold definition.  For Madison, property means narrowly “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual,” and more broadly, “it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right,” including his own opinions and his faculties of acting (“Property” [National Gazette, March 29 1792]).

Madison’s definition lacks the third characteristic of the IEP definition, the emphasis on acquiring and trading.  This is because Madison’s article dates from the period of his journalistic defense of the Republican agrarian cause against Hamilton’s Federalist vision of a nation of international traders empowered by banks.  Accordingly, in listing external items belonging to his first and narrower definition of property, Madison places “a man’s land” before “merchandize” and “money.”  Madison’s rhetorical reservations in favor of agrarian republicanism are, however, unfortunately doomed by the logic of his conception of property, rights, value and the human person.  He sums this view up in the tidy remark: “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”  Rights are things that, as individuals, we have, rather than primarily conditions that are imputed to us in the act of recognition by others.  They are claimed in the individual’s act of valuing.

The logic of this position is fundamentally grounded on Locke’s view of the human person.  According to Locke, our right to property derives from our investment of our labor to improve something that did not belong to another already (Second Treatise, chapter 5).  This right includes property in our own person – our body and our mental faculties.  Locke’s formulation of our relationship to ourselves in terms of labor-derived property hints at the view of the human person that underlies it, which is the reduction of the person ultimately to the will.  For if it is our labor that makes our bodies our property, and the same goes for our minds, then what is the “self” that initiates and is responsible for this labor, if not the will that makes us stretch our limbs and direct our attention to what is around and inside us?  (Humor me on this point for now; I’ll expand on it another time.)

The will places value on things, initiates the labor that improves their value, and shapes the way we think of them in terms of the right to exercise itself in their disposal.  Locke’s examples, like Madison’s, emphasize agrarian property, but do so solely in terms of the prospect of infinitely increasing yields.  (See Patrick Deneen’s incisive analysis of the economy of “growth.”)  The will imposes its limitless terms on the world, rather than recognizing natural limits to its satisfaction – except the limits that have to be observed and enforced by government to accommodate the existence of other wills seeking their own satisfactions.  These latter limits, seen from the point of view of the person protected by them, are what we call “rights.”  They are thus negative or prohibitive in character, grounded on the valuation imposed on the world by the individual will, and formulated so as to coordinate all the individual and conflicting wills that fall under one system of government and laws.

This “right” that precedes and legitimates government is natural in the sense that the passions of all human beings lead them to lay claim to it.  If we take the will of the individual and extract what is universal in it (or sufficiently universal for practical purposes), this will provide us with the basis for elaborating a reliable system of rights, or a set of exemptions from interference that everyone can sign on to.  Madison quite correctly asserts a reciprocal equivalence between property and rights.  Unfortunately for his republican cause, this equivalence opens the door to the marketization of every aspect of life.

Two authors who have helped me to think of property in different and, I think, less arbitrary terms are Simone Weil and Richard Weaver.  Here are the key passages from their works:

Simone Weil, The Need for Roots

Private property is a vital need of the soul.  The soul is isolated and lost if it is not in the midst of objects that seem to it like extensions of the bodily members.  All persons are irresistibly inclined to think of as their own the things they have made use of continually over time for work, pleasure and the necessities of life….  But where this sense of ownership does not coincide with any legal recognition of property, one is continually in danger of very dangerous deprivations….  The principle of private property is violated when land is worked by agricultural laborers and tenants under the orders of a supervisor and is owned by city-dwellers who reap the profits.  This is because, of all those related to this piece of land, there is not one who isn’t a stranger to it in one way or another….  Between this extreme case and the limit case of a farmer who, together with his family, cultivates land he owns, there are many intermediate degrees in which the need for ownership goes unacknowledged to a greater or lesser extent.

Weil is clear that rights are a product of legal recognition, not its foundation.  (See her extraordinary essay “Human Personality,” available in Two Moral Essays from Pendle Hill.)  But the shaping of these rights ought to be guided by the natural needs of the soul.  She recognizes the psychological fact on which Locke bases his rhetorical argument for natural rights: we feel violated if others do not respect the claim that we feel results from our investment of our labor and love in things.  But she does not attempt to parley it into a theory of rights-claims.

On the contrary, Weil is attempting to recapture an older intuition at the heart of the language of rights as it developed in the middle ages, an intuition that we often speak of in terms of “respect for human dignity,” but that she more adequately analyzes in terms of respecting the human aspiration for the good.  The notion of rights ought to be, and implicitly always is, founded on the recognition of the obligation to such respect.  (See the other extraordinary essay in the same pair, “Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations.”)  Our labor, love and sense of ownership ultimately revolve around and embody our efforts to attain the good in our lives, and our social institutions should be shaped so as to respect that central aspect of our souls and its outward means.  Agrarian family ownership is the complete model for these efforts, because it embodies the fullest integration of the varied goods that nourish a human life.  (See Wendell Berry’s lovely novel Hannah Coulter.)

A similar, but in certain ways richer, statement can be found in Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences:

We say the right of private property … offers nothing in defense of that kind of property brought into being by finance capitalism.  Such property is, on the contrary, a violation of the very notion of proprietas.  This amendment of the institution to suit the uses of commerce and technology has done more to threaten property than anything else yet conceived.  For the abstract property of stocks and bonds, the legal ownership of enterprises never seen, actually destroys the connection between man and his substance without which metaphysical right becomes meaningless.  Property in this sense becomes a fiction useful for exploitation and makes impossible the sanctification of work….  Ownership through stock makes the property an autonomous unit, devoted to abstract ends, and the stockholder’s area of responsibility is narrowed in the same way as is that of the specialized worker….  The moral solution is the distributive ownership of small properties.  These take the form of independent farms, of local businesses, of homes owned by the occupants, where individual responsibility gives significance to prerogative over property.

Weaver’s statement differs in two crucial respects from Weil’s.  He does speak of a “metaphysical right” of property, and he sees the moral significance of responsibility for property in terms of cultivating the human person rather than in terms of psychic and social need.  These two features are both grounded in what one might call Weaver’s Aristotelian vision of the human person as a being whose nature finds fulfillment in the attainment and exercise of virtues.  The responsibility for property that is intimately connected to our life as a person (and this is the meaning of proprietas: what is one’s own and characteristic of oneself) calls upon virtues that render us more complete human beings.  Foremost among these virtues is practical judgment, informed by long-term views of our life as a whole and our relationship to our community.  Thus only property that satisfies this criterion falls under “metaphysical right,” i.e. must be recognized as rightly belonging to our very being and its fulfillment as what it most truly is.  This recognition rests on grounds independent of law, and needs to be appropriately embodied in law.

Weil and Weaver both understand the human person in terms of our pursuit of and orientation toward goods that are good in their own right, not because they are constituted as such by our valuing acts of will.  Our wills, rather, in order to fulfill their aspirations, must learn to recognize and form themselves in the light of the goods that are revealed to them over time as truly fulfilling.  This takes place in the context of rightly measured responsibility for properties that concretely contribute to a good life for ourselves and for those most intimately and immediately bound up with our lives.

Developing or preserving the necessary social and legal institutions to prioritize and sustain this kind of property requires recognizing a distinction between mature judgment about a good human life and the ungoverned primacy of our limitless untutored desires.  But it is precisely such a distinction that is rendered unacceptable by the notion that our willful opinions and our desires for unlimited acquisition fall under the category of property rights.

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