Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/September 1889/Origin of the Rights of Property

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IN the joint enterprise of making a living, human beings not only potentiate but they also stimulate one another. The power and the stimulus are often combined, just as some foods furnish at the same time nutrition and stimulation to the human body. Sometimes we may distinguish between the two elements. It is so in the case of property. Wealth is power. Property is a stimulant. In order to make this distinction clear, we draw another. We must explain the difference in meaning between wealth and property. This will not be a hard task. Property is ownership, and wealth is the thing owned. Wealth is a thing, property a right to it. Wealth is mine and thine, property mineness and thineness. True, we often confuse the terms, and speak of the thing itself as property; especially do we speak of a body of real estate as a piece of property. This is justified by usage and by the dictionaries. For the present, however, I should like to confine the term to its original meaning. In this I shall follow Macleod, who says:

"When we understand the true meaning of the word property, it will throw a blaze of light over the whole science of economics, and clear up difficulties to which the word wealth has given rise; in fact, the meaning of the word property is the key to all economics.

"Most persons, when they hear the word property, think of some material things, such as lands, houses, money, corn, cattle, etc. But that is not the true and original meaning of the word property.

"Property, in its true and original meaning, is not any material substance, but the absolute right to something."

It is in the same sense that the socialists use the word. When they demand the abolition of property they do not mean the abolition of lands, houses, etc. They are as anxious as anybody that wealth shall be increased. But they want it to be ours, not mine or thine. Wealth which belongs to the whole people is not property in the economic sense of the term. It is conceivable, though not practically ascertainable, that property might be totally abolished without any diminution of wealth. So property may be increased without any increase of wealth. There would be just as much land-surface on the earth if nobody owned a rood of it. There were as many negroes after as before the abolition of property in man. The abolition proclamation did not obliterate a single acre of land, a house, a shred of clothing, or a mouthful of food. But it did obliterate a vast amount of property; so does a commercial panic. "And yet," says Prof. Newcomb, using the panic of 1837 as an illustration, "if we look at the case from a common-sense point of view, we shall see that no wealth was destroyed. There were just as many suits of clothes in the country the day after the crisis as there were before, and they were just as well fitted for wearing. The mills and factories were all in as good order, the farms as fertile, and the crops as large after the supposed hurricane as before. The houses remained standing, the wood was in the wood-sheds ready for burning, and the food in the larder ready for cooking, just as it had been left. In a word, every appliance for the continued enjoyment of the fruits of labor remained as perfect as it ever was."

Prof. F. A. Walker, in calling attention to the distinction between wealth and property, says that "the neglect of this distinction has caused great confusion." But he soon dismisses the subject with the remark that "we might say that 'property' is not a word with which the political economist has anything to do. It is legal, not economical, in its significance." I can not concur in that opinion. I think the socialistic theory, which relates primarily to the institution of property, is an economic theory, as truly as monometalism, or free trade, or Malthusianism. The whole subject of distribution, to which Prof. Walker devotes a hundred pages, and which is certainly one of the most important in this or any other science, is a question of whose shall be the wealth produced; that is, it is a question of the distribution of property in the wealth, rather than of the wealth itself. Whether two fishermen jointly carve out a partnership boat, or whether one furnishes the capital and the other the labor, the boat is not "distributed"; but the ownership of it is, and presumably according to economic principles. So there may often be distribution of property more or less than commensurate with the distribution of wealth; and it is the distribution of property which, in fact, most concerns the economist.

A great deal has been written about this subject of private property. The world is filling with people, and it is filling with good things which these people like and want. Shall the people as a body own the goods in a lump, or shall the ownership and enjoyment of the goods be divided among the human beings in proportion to the ability of each to get hold of them by hard work, or skillful work, or monopoly, or trickery, or any good or bad superiority which helps to constitute him one of the "fittest" and most likely to survive in such a contest? Shall even the planet itself, crowding with the less fit, be parceled out among these good and bad "fittest"? Can there be a more momentous question than this? Can there be one which more deeply concerns the economist as such? On the very day on which I write, four men are to hang for committing murder in answer to this question. The mere presence in the community of a considerable and clamorous element which denies the right of property has its grave economic effects, and hence is a matter of great moment to the economist. Hanging four men, or a hundred men, will not silence that element.

This, however, is not the only aspect of the question that concerns us, though most writers seem to have thought so. The orthodox have been content to prove, or perhaps only assert, that the right of property is the greatest of all the stimuli to labor and frugality, just as Proudhon, on the other hand, was content to show that property is robbery. If any distinction has been made as to the comparative validity of titles to different kinds of property, it has usually been thought sufficient to distinguish between owning the earth and owning its products. But it is not so simple a matter as this. Our great danger is not the theoretical denial of the right of property in general. We are daily called upon to defend it against attack in detail. Bastiat saw this half a century ago, when he was in the thick of the hottest battle that has ever raged about the citadel of property. And now that the contest has broken out in that quarter again, and under the inspiration of being interrupted in the midst of this very sentence by a bulletin announcing that the condemned anarchists have just been hanged, it would be easy to write a book from the following text, which is to be found in the eighth chapter of the "Harmonies of Economies":

"A mere theoretical war against property is by no means the most virulent or the most dangerous. Since the beginning of the world there has existed a practical conspiracy against it which is not likely soon to cease. War, slavery, imposture, oppressive imposts, monopolies, privileges, commercial frauds, colonies, right to employment, right to credit, right to assistance, right to instruction, progressive taxation imposed in direct or inverse proportion to our power of bearing it, are so many battering-rams directed against the tottering edifice; and if the truth must come out, would you tell me whether there are many men in France, even among those who think themselves conservative, who do not, in one form or another, lend a hand to this work of destruction?"

In America, at the present time, this interminable war on the instinct and institution of private property has taken on all these forms, and many more, which will be treated of in their proper places. The four anarchists, who are at this moment hanging by their necks, were in the van of the procession. When we carefully study the relation of all these doctrines to the antiquated notion of a sacred and absolute right of private property, those who openly deny the right of property in land, as being itself a denial of property in the products of labor, are seen to be far toward the rear. To that study let us now devote our attention; and, in order that it may be a scientific and not a partisan study, we must not let private ownership be to us for the nonce either a fetich or a bugbear. We must analyze it dispassionately, as if it concerned us only as a matter of curiosity, though, in fact, our analysis will show that it is in all respects our chief concern. And we must not neglect to note the economic consequences of its being to us and to our fellow-beings a fetich on the one hand, or on the other a bugbear.

What is property? We have said it is not wealth; but that is not saying what it is. We have said it is ownership, but a synonym is not a definition. What constitutes ownership? What is the exact meaning of the words mine and thine, in the sense of ownership? There is none. Few words are more indefinite in their meaning. There are degrees of mineness and thineness. These apply respectively to different communities at different periods of their history, and to different subjects of property at the same period and in the same community. Thus there have been times and places in which the phrase "my wife" expressed a property relation. The phrase is still everywhere used, but not in the same sense of property. And yet it seems that among us a man has property in his wife's affections, for he has an action for damages against the man who "alienates" them. Yesterday I received a copy of an interesting paper, read before the American Water-Works Association, under the title "Is Water Property?" This question of what is and what is not ownership or property is one with which the courts of Christendom are engaged in an interminable wrestle. Their anxiety shows that they regard the settlement of that question in any particular case as a great point gained one way or the other.

I have said that property is a right to something. It is rather, as Macleod says, "an aggregate or bundle of rights." This aggregate is not the same for all classes of property. Hence in order to define property we must classify it. Before attempting this, let us inquire how it comes about that there is such an institution existing among men. We can all feel, if we can not formulate, a definition which will suffice for this purpose. I do not exactly know the limits of my property-rights, nor which of the rights that I have to-day may be taken away from me to-morrow, but I am severely conscious of the fact that I am chiefly occupied in a struggle to make that mine to-morrow which is not mine to-day, and I want to. know how I came to be engaged in this struggle; how the universe happens to be divided into the mine and the not-mine; and by what warrant the one is transmuted into the other?

I know of but one economist who introduces the science of political economy by founding it upon the right of property. The late Prof. J, M. Sturtevant begins his text-book of "Economics" in this wise:

"The science we are about to expound is the logical development and application to a special group of phenomena, of a single law of nature, as truly as physical astronomy is the logical development and application to the phenomena of the solar system, of the law of gravitation. The law of nature to which we refer may be thus enunciated:

"Every man owns himself, and all which he produces by the voluntary exertion of his own powers.

"Every science must assume something. Ours must assume that the idea of ownership is perfectly clear and intelligible to every one. It is a simple intuition, which originates in the spontaneous action of every human mind, and is therefore indefinable. It ranks in this respect with the idea of personality of moral obligation and of causation."

This statement of the case must be rejected. Property may be universal among human beings, though this is extremely doubtful. But certainly the idea is not clear and intelligible to every one. It would be nearer the truth to say that it is not yet clear to any one. Even the notion that every man owns himself is not universal. A great many human beings are still owned by masters, and millions more by their kings. The conscripted soldiers of Europe do not own themselves. They are owned by the state. And this ownership by the state, by a king, by a slaveholder, is considered perfectly normal in the communities where it prevails. I have heard it preached from a Northern pulpit that denial to the Southern black of the right of property in himself was a divine institution. The assertion of that right, and of the idea which Prof. Sturtevant calls a "simple intuition, originating in the spontaneous action of every human mind," drove many of the stronger abolitionists into open rejection of the sacred writings of Christianity, which nowhere furnished them a text for their side of the argument. The poorest slave may own something, but he does not own himself.

Neither does every man, in any community, own all the products of his voluntary efforts. Wage-workers never do. They are increasing in proportionate numbers. Hence the second part of the assumed law of nature on which it is proposed to rest the whole science of political economy is less and less true every year, and the whole present progress of civilization is away from it. The belief that it ought to be true is the foundation of the creed of those anarchists who have just been hanged, and of those who mourn them. "Labor produces all the wealth, and labor ought to own it," is their familiar cry. Since few things are produced by the efforts of single-handed men; since, as I have shown in the second paper of this series, nearly all production is by combination—ownership of product by producers, if it is to be universal and complete, must also be in combination, or, as we say, in common. This is the straight read to communism, and the first guideboard on the way is this doctrine that property in anything springs certainly and exclusively from effort expended in its production. Yet it is a doctrine which has often been laid down by the most conservative economists and philosophers. Locke stated it two hundred years ago in these terms: "Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property." McCulloch says,[1] "All have been impressed with the reasonableness of the maxim which teaches that the produce of a man's labor and the work of his hands are exclusively his own."

So Laveleye[2] says that "property in all the fruits of his work must be guaranteed to the worker." Bonamy Price[3] is equally emphatic: "I made it and it is mine, is a sentiment which asserts property in every human soul." Imagine the navvies who build a railroad saying this! And Herbert Spencer[4] even informs us that, "from the beginning, things identified as products of a man's own labor are recognized as his," On the island where Mr. Spencer lives, we might say that almost from the beginning the product, and part of the time both producer and product, have been recognized as belonging to the lord of the manor. At present the bulk of the products belong to the lords of the factories—the "captains of industry"—and nobody but the socialist fails to recognize both the fact and its propriety.

So in the first chapter of Dr. Chapin's recast of Wayland's "Political Economy" we find it stated, as the third of the fundamental principles of the science, that "the exertion of labor establishes a right of property in the fruits of labor, and the idea of exclusive possession is a necessary consequence." And Mark Hopkins, in his "Law of Love" (chapter iii), says that "with no right to the product of his labor, no man would make a tool or a garment, or build a shelter, or raise a crop. There could be no industry and no progress."

Now we must accept or reject the theory supported by this formidable and indefinitely extensible array of authority, because it does or does not conform to the facts; not because it leads to the conclusion that property ought to keep even pace with production in its development toward communism; not because it justifies some in opposing property m land on the ground that land is not a product of labor; not because it leads Prof. Perry and his school into confusion in their effort to prove that property in land is right because the value of land is the product of the labor of its owner. If production confers on the producer the divine or otherwise particularly sacred right of property in the product, I propose to accept the truth as soon as convinced of it, whatever agreeable or disagreeable conclusions it may lead to. I do not know that there is any absolute and infallible criterion of truth or reality. Perhaps "persistence in consciousness" may be one. But, at any rate, I have lived long enough to know that "agreeableness" is not."

The fact known to everybody is that the vast army of those who work for wages or salaries do not acquire the slightest proprietary interest in the particular things with which they "mix their labor." Neither do the transportation companies nor the draymen of the streets. It may be said, in defense of the theory, that their interest is bought off in advance, or that, having sold their labor, it is no longer theirs, but does, in fact, belong to the owner of the product.

But this is not the statement of the economists and philosophers we have quoted, and would slur over the laws by which the rate of pay for salaried services is governed. It is much less confusing and more rational to look at the matter as the great majority of people look at it—as all look at it, in fact, until they are influenced by the labor agitators, who base their arguments on the unguarded utterances of the great thinkers quoted above.

It is all as plain as day. What the wage-worker acquires by his work is not a proprietary interest in the thing he has worked on, but a right of action against the person who employed him to work on it. It is not a, jus in re, but a jus in personam. It is a claim against his employer. It is not a claim for any particular chattel or product, but for legal-tender money of a certain total amount. This amount is determined, not, or at any rate not directly, by the value of the thing produced, nor yet by the value that his work added to it, but by the demand and supply of his kind of labor. The legal claim itself is a subject of property. It can be bought and sold. The community stands ready to enforce it, and thus gives it all its value. Property in this claim, or right of action at law is just as truly property as is property in the material product, and it is often more reliable; for it lives on, even though the capitalist's property in his factory and its unsold products is wholly destroyed by fire, or its value partially destroyed by a tumble in the market.

The theory we started out to combat consists, in fact, of four propositions, and we have refuted three of them. We have proved that it is not true that every man owns himself; that it is not true that every man owns his products, or the things with which he has mixed his labor, nor that he gets thereby any proprietary interest in them; and that not the affirmative but the negative of these propositions has been most generally accepted by mankind as the true and natural state of the case. So much for what is. It remains to inquire what ought to be? What would be absolute justice in the matter? Would it be universal private ownership of self and of the products of the labor of one's self? To any such question as this there are three possible answers. There is the answer "Yes," there is the answer "No," and there is the answer that it makes no practical difference what is absolutely just, since absolute justice is unattainable or undesirable. If justice, like perpetual motion, is beyond our reach, the most economical thing to do is to find that out and cease to hope and struggle for it. Meantime economy of motion or of force is an approach toward perpetual motion, and so we may find something, or conclude we want nothing, that will be an approach toward absolute justice.

Now, justice, like property, is an undefined, and quite likely undefinable, term. Our ideas of it change from age to age. It is related to the term and the thing "equality," and this we can all understand. When it is said that two things equal each other, we know exactly what is meant. The proposition that all men ought to be equally rich and happy is perfectly clear. That would be absolute equality. The idea of justice bears about the same relation to equality that the mathematical statement of a proportion does to that of a simple equation. We may say it would be absolute justice for all men to be rich and happy in proportion to their deserts, whatever that last word may mean; perhaps it would mean that they ought to be rich and happy in proportion to the pains of the work they do, perhaps in proportion to its results.

The former seems to me to be the true meaning. If there be such a thing as deserving, it seems to me that the woman who heroically wears herself out as a half-hand deserves more than the man by her side who does a hand's work with ease and pleasure—supposing, of course, that they have both previously made the same heroic efforts to acquire skill and efficiency. Absolute justice, if there were such a thing, would give her several times his wages. But could society afford thus to reward people in proportion to their incurable incompetency? If we say "No," then we decide that absolute justice is undesirable at the present stage of evolution. It can be desirable only under the condition of a perfect equality of gifts; and since this condition is most nearly approached by the lowest savages, we are almost forced to the conclusion that absolute justice is a thing to be avoided rather than courted—at any rate, for the present, and until the course of evolution (or progressive creation) is changed. Such seems to be the real view of everybody, whether he has thought little or much upon the subject; and yet everybody denies it, and claims to be in favor of absolute justice, or the nearest possible approach to it. Nay, and he is sincere in his claim. The difference between what people believe and what they think they believe is always important, but nowhere more so than in this study of political economy.

Any system of private property which bestows its blessings in proportion to efficiency in work and management, is unjust to the man who, with a heroic disposition to do his best, is held down, by circumstances over which he has no control, to a life of hard work and little pay. That those who get the least pay have the most irksome work is notoriously not the exception, but the rule. But this is an injustice which it would be fatal to the very life of society to mend, even if it could be done. We can never estimate relative irksomeness; and, if we could, it would be fatal to put a premium on the incapacity which makes the task irksome. Capacity to work and inclination to work are both important. Both must be developed. Nature's way of doing this was gradually to develop in the human mind the institution of property, as we have it to-day. She planted it there long before any of her creatures ever thought of asking why or how or with what probable result; and she planted it deep, and nurtured its roots to deeper and deeper growth. And she planted by its side a restless longing for something we call justice. Both were, and both still are, blind sentiments, working out Nature's "plans" as involuntarily as do our breathing or loving. Our ideas alike of justice and of the right of private property correspond to the age and community in which we live. They may never coincide. At present they do not, in any mind with which I have come in contact.

And yet we must take account of both of them, or lose our reckoning. We shall find among the causes which have contributed to that confusion of ideas regarding the right of property which now confronts and perplexes us, in all our legislation, as well as in our pursuit of theoretical knowledge, the following:

1. That the origin of the right of property is not one, but several. Ownership of self arose in one way, of means of sustenance in another, of land in another, and of fellow-beings in another.

2. That most writers have failed to draw the line between possession maintained by force, or not subject to contest, and ownership which depends absolutely on the recognition by our fellow-beings of our right to the things we call our own. As is remarked by T. E. Cliffe Leslie, in his introduction to Laveleye's "Primitive Property":

"No mere psychological explanation of the origin of property is, I venture to affirm, admissible, though writers of great authority have attempted to discover its germs by that process in the lower animals. A dog, it has been said, shows an elementary proprietary sentiment when he hides a bone, or keeps watch over his master's goods. But property has not its root in the love of possession. All living beings like and desire certain things, and, if Nature has armed them with any weapons, are prone to use them in order to get and keep what they want. What requires explanation is not the want or desire of certain things on the part of individuals, but the fact that other individuals, with similar wants and desires, should leave them in undisturbed possession, or allot to them a share, of such things. It is the conduct of the community, not the inclination of individuals, that needs investigation. The mere desire for particular articles, so far from accounting for settled and peaceful ownership, tends in the opposite direction, namely, to conflict and the right of the strongest. No small amount of error in several departments of social philosophy, and especially in political economy, has arisen from reasoning from the desires of the individual, instead of from the history of the community."

This is one of the profoundest observations ever made on the subject under consideration. The error to which it is an answer is shared by so great an authority as Herbert Spencer, and repeated in his "Principles of Sociology" (section 536).

"The fact referred to in § 292, that even intelligent animals display a sense of proprietorship, negatives the belief propounded by some, that individual property-was not recognized by primitive men. When we see the claim of exclusive possession understood by a dog, so that he fights in defense of his master's clothes if left in charge of them, it becomes impossible to suppose that even in their lowest state men were devoid of those ideas and emotions which initiate private ownership. All that may be fairly assumed is that these ideas and sentiments were at first less developed than they have since become."

And again (section 541), Mr. Spencer says:

"The desire to appropriate, and to keep that which has been appropriated, lies deep, not in human nature only, but in animal nature: being, indeed, a condition to survival."

Nevertheless, individual ownership does not prevail among the social insects, and yet their industry and frugality have been, even from Bible times, held up as a lesson for man. "Go to the ant, thou sluggard," and learn among other things that animals, unlike men, may be aroused to intense and untiring activity and close frugality by purely social instincts, their own sustenance being swallowed up in social sustenance.

In the following passage from the same section, Mr. Spencer reaches, only to drop it, the point insisted on by Mr. Leslie:

"The consciousness that conflict, and consequent injury, may probably result from the endeavor to take that which is held by another, ever tends to establish and strengthen the custom of leaving each in possession of whatever he has obtained by labor; and this custom takes among primitive men the shape of an overtly-admitted claim."

Perhaps this explains also the custom of leaving each in possession of what he obtains without labor. At any rate, the claim to ownership comes to be admitted, and then only is it ownership or property, whether founded on participation in production or, as Lieber ("Property and Labor") insists, on appropriation or what not.


Prof. Joseph Le Conte has suggested that the custom of deducing the relative mortality from different diseases by comparison with the total mortality, instead of the number of persons still living, is liable to lead to erroneous conclusions. Even estimates of general mortality by comparing the total annual deaths with the number of persons at all ages may mislead. Thus the apparent low rate of mortality in San Francisco as compared with Eastern cities arises from the abnormal proportion of adults to children there, and not from general conditions unusually favorable to health. The true coefficient of mortality from cholera infantum is expressed by the ratio of the number of deaths from the disease to the number of persons liable to be attacked by it—or to the number of children under three years of age.
  1. "Principles of Political Economy," chap, ii, section 1.
  2. "Elements of Political Economy," chap, iii, section 9.
  3. "Practical Political Economy," chap. vi.
  4. "Principles of Sociology," section 541.