For centuries, the propensity to personal ownership has been considered one of the most elementary and natural features of human nature. Criticism of private property is nothing recent, either, but has turned out to be extremely commonplace in modern times: Communism haunts European consciences as the famous specter haunted Hamlet. But it is only the debasement of the original notion of private property that has allowed such an unnatural prejudice to grow into a tenet of (supposedly generous) human wisdom.
There are at least four elementary reasons why private property is intrinsic to men.
The first is that men, like all animals, live off what they consume, and consumption is, if anything, an appropriation. And, because men are deprived of fur and natural weapons but endowed with consciousness, it is a natural instinct for them to enclose a space to which they may safely retreat to cultivate and stock the means for their survival and that of their offspring. It is highly symbolic that Rousseau’s human beings, who, in their original natural state, supposedly lived without owning anything, were also to him solitary, speechless, brutish bums, happy only because nary a thought ever crossed their befuddled minds—hardly animals, unless depraved ones.
Second, inasmuch as freedom is of the essence of man, for any given individual, freedom means on a most elementary level enjoying some kind of independence from material necessity and the will of his fellow men, an ability to support himself as much as possible by his own means. Now, is there really any other means to ensure such basic autarchy than for a man to possess—and defend, if need be—both his own body (a slave is a man who does not) and a place of his own where he is his own master and may safely store whatever is naturally indispensable for his survival? In a welfare state, where everyone expects to be assisted, everyone is doubly deprived of his freedom, for everyone is both dependent on and subjected to all others.
Third, private property is a natural necessity. Only the most naive or devious can indeed ignore this simple truth: What belongs to everyone belongs to no one, whereas by nature one is prone to care for what one owns, which is why communist societies are poverty-stricken. But, conversely, this means private ownership is no mere pleasure: To own is to bear an exclusive responsibility toward one’s possessions.
Fourth, the natural right of the owner to his property may be traced to the work he has put into what he owns. Indeed, I see nothing more natural for a man than to feel he has a right to the product of his own hands, to the land he made his by cultivation. And, by the same logic, a man legitimately owns the tools of his trade, his plow or hammer. And nothing is more natural, either, than for a man to pass on to his heirs the land he has cared for.
Is private property then unrestrictedly natural? The dedication of Saint Benedict’s friars or Plato’s warriors to their cities or to the service of God implied the rejection of all individual private ownership, but their example was only meant as an inspiration—or an exhortation to some detachment—not an obligation for the layman. From Rousseau to Thoreau to Kerouac, others have claimed that to own something is to be enslaved by it. But since one has to eat and sleep, it is unclear whether such an opinion stems from an inclination to sheer parasitism or a propensity to drift aimlessly with only one’s fleeting whims for a compass. Even thieves want to possess things.
Resting the case for the natural character of private property entails one capital, though often overlooked, consequence: Whatever way private property may be considered natural, nature itself seems to set limits on what a man may own by natural right, and on what he is naturally entitled to bequeath. Her standards may not be perfectly precise, but they still make for common sense. As private property may be considered an end in itself only by pathological scrooges, it seems obvious that the size and scope of private property must be essentially subordinate to the ends that justify it. At least four of these ends have just been mentioned. If a man is endowed by nature with an instinct for survival and a propensity to independence, it is reasonable to assume it is legitimate for a man to own what is reasonable enough for him and his dependents to live securely or enjoy some degree of independence—but not that much more. If nature wants a man to own the product of his labor, there is a natural limit to what he may acquire by his honest industry alone. If he is to be the sole master of his possessions, there is a natural limit to what the master’s eye can see, just so many acres his eye can overlook. Beyond a certain proportion, possessions require the delegation of stewardship, and if a man is certainly entitled to the product of his hands, it means conversely he is not entitled without qualification to that of another man’s hands: Whenever the only relationship between employer and employee is the latter’s wages, Aristotle would say the latter is a slave—which means it does not take a Marxist to consider giant industrial trusts and financial speculation unnatural. I have heard—se non è vero è ben trovato—of an old frontier custom by which a man could legitimately own whatever land he could circumscribe by walking from dawn to dusk. True or not, this sums it all up.
What was for centuries a natural institution in Europe is now being progressively turned into a criminal one. Private property, as is constantly asserted nowadays, is incompatible with peace and justice; it is bad per se: “Communists,” says Marx, “may sum up their doctrine in one phrase: abolition of private property.”
I think this rigmarole is actually a classic case of unnatural hatred born of an unnatural passion for ownership, an unfettered libido habendi. Indeed, abolition of private property means, if one cares to read Marx, collective appropriation: The real idea is that a man’s nature is so essentially tied to what he owns that only by owning everything worth owning (which, in Marxist lingo, is first of all “society’s means of production”) may he fully develop his nature. Far from being an ascetic rejection of private property, ideal communism actually betrays a longing for a free-for-all society, a passion for property so acute that it seeks to appropriate whatever may be appropriated (“to each according to his needs”—i.e., desires), as well as, conversely, to let no one appropriate what one cannot have oneself. It must be mentioned that the ground had been cleared, on one hand, by the growth of unashamed acquisitiveness under the banner of laissez faire, laissez passer, and, on the other hand, by the triumph of the democratic principle. Sure enough, the famous Declaration of 1789 warranted the right to private property, but this much escaped public notice: By proclaiming the inalienable right of each citizen to sovereignty, it proclaimed “the right of each individual over his own possessions to be always subordinate to the community’s right over all private possessions,” to quote Rousseau. The result is an endeavor, under the pretense of protecting the right to property, to subordinate individual possessions to the consent of all, which actually means ensuring that everything belongs to everyone. At the root of the democratic creed is—horresco referens—an abhorrence not for property, which each of the faithful ardently desires for himself, but for property in another man’s hands.
But then it becomes dazzlingly clear that such an obsessive thirst for owning must end up fostering mixed and even contradictory feelings about private property. Proclaiming collective appropriation fans the desire to prevent anyone from owning privately. Indefinite acquisitiveness (unfettered greed) inevitably ends up—what with the inequality of talent and opportunities—allowing the wealthier to enslave the poorer on the most profitable terms. (Locke was not wise but hypocritical: The amassing of gold is not an innocent pastime.) Hearing that the right of any individual over his property is subordinate to the right of everyone to everything may be enthralling, but only until each citizen realizes the same is true for all his fellow citizens, at which point the right to own becomes a declaration of war of all against all. All in all, the immoderate desire for property is matched only by the loudness of its public and apparent disavowal: One accounts for the other.
At this point it becomes evident that Marx and his ilk raise the right issue when they claim that no wealth is justified when made by exploiting the work of one’s fellow man—provided one realizes that such an opinion is shared with Aristotle and Saint Thomas alike. Nonetheless, the Marxists are absolutely wrong to think there can be no property that is not born out of unfair exploitation of man by man. It is only in the modern world that the type of property they criticize has taken root. Auri sacra fames: The passion is human, but it has never dominated human souls as thoroughly as today. To understand private property as a natural institution is to understand how it has been turned upside down and radically perverted.
What has happened is that, since the Renaissance, the European soul has undergone a total upheaval, leaving nothing unscathed, including the conception of private property.
To simplify, there was a time when Europeans believed that, deep inside each individual, evil lurked in the shape of a capacity, and even an attraction, for hubris, for transgression of any norms, customs, laws, rules, whatever—and, therefore, that to become a man one had to master one’s passions and whims. But they also believed that such natural norms existed, that there were functions men were born to fulfill and which were part of their nature. In terms of private property such cultural fundamentals drove Europeans to understand that a man was not allowed to dispose of himself and his possessions as he wished, nor to spend his life enjoying himself and toying with what he owned, but to treat his belongings, as well as himself, as entrusted to him to help him fulfill his natural duties—i.e., for purposes transcending his personal pleasure, whether they be the welfare of his family or that of his city. In ancient Athens the rich were supposed to fulfill public functions at their own expense; in the Christian world the lord was supposed to risk his life to protect those dwelling on his fief; and the kings of France may have been sovereign rulers, but only as trustees of their kingdom. Noblesse oblige, or used to.
Such a conception of one’s possessions obviously translated not exclusively but most easily into real-estate terms: a house, a plot of land, a workshop, a particular country, something concrete that would outlast the individual. It resulted in a society whose foundation was essentially rural, whose average citizens were independent small farmers, intent on good stewardship of their possessions so as to pass them on, and aware of the common good of their communities.
What must not be overlooked is the spiritual foundation of such a society. It could not have come into existence unless the average citizen had had the conviction that the world had some unfathomable order which, though dimly perceived, should be regarded in awe, and for the sake of whose harmony he and his possessions were meant to be of some mysterious use. Suum clique tribuere meant that everyone was allotted his place in his village, in his country, in the universe. In short, the sense of ownership was intrinsically religious. Henceforth the hearth was the dwelling place for divinities (the household gods or lares and penates) as well as the boundary stones (also referred to as divinities). Property was literally sacred.
What happened and is still happening in our times becomes crystal clear: The respect for property has dwindled along with the knowledge of its true nature, and this knowledge has dwindled with the loss of faith in the religious nature of the world. When God is dead, there is no legitimate property anymore. The loss of faith is one and the same as the unfettering of the dark forces living inside each man, given free rein by an Enlightenment whose primary belief was not that a man is a reasonable animal, but that each man is his own master, with the result that he appears naturally entitled to favor his passions over his reason (and is only artificially prevented from indulging them). Applied to private property this foolish belief logically ends up setting the individual and his passions above everything else, and in particular above his own possessions. This logically results in at least three closely connected disruptions of the natural order of things.
One is the inversion of the natural relationship between a man and his property: Instead of the owner being somehow indebted to his patrimony, the latter becomes a mere instrument of his whims, the right to use and abuse what he owns. The second is the resulting loss of any rationale that there may be natural limits to whatever one may own: If his possessions are only a tool to implement the individual’s whims, since these are as naturally boundless as the individual’s freedom, his acquisitiveness becomes boundless; one is never rich enough to fulfill all the desires stemming from man’s fancy. And third, the material substratum of property tends naturally to become the exact opposite of what it used to be in a primarily landed society; it becomes something that can be put to any possible use (consumption or earning more) anywhere, any time: namely, money. It is not by mere chance that our societies have become essentially mercantile and service-oriented, as well as more and more devoted to sheer speculation: One makes money more off one’s fellow man than by producing the means of one’s autarchy. The landed and even industrial interests have yielded to the moneyed and financial interests, to use Madison’s words, and surrendered to the leadership of sophists, economists, and calculators, to use Burke’s. And since money does not breed money by itself, the only way to make money with money is to make other people work for the benefit of the moneylender as much as is possible without starving the workers: We are down to a socialistic capitalism in which everyone knows the new private property to be a questionable institution, and financial wealth survives only by concealing itself and actually paying tribute for its precarious survival.
Jefferson—a true Aristotelian by many standards—was right:
[I]t should be provided by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of the land. The small landholders are the most precious part of the state. . . . I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural, and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.
A gloriously conservative (I did not say “neoconservative”) stance, no doubt, but isn’t wisdom always conservative? The question is whether the West will ever want to act upon it: Its decay may be so pronounced as to be irretrievable, unless by an act of God.