I’ve found that the easiest way to describe how I see liber(al)tarianism is to contrast it to libertarianism. I often find myself thinking, “Libertarians have many good points, but I could never be a libertarian because…” So I’m starting on a series of posts about the fundamental philosophical disagreements I have with libertarians. This first one is on property rights.
One of the basic beliefs of libertarianism is that people have the right to “life, liberty, and property.” Why property? Why should ownership of property rank equal to the very right to breathe? I don’t believe it does.
Where did this right to property come from in the first place? Think about the world in which the enlightenment philosophers lived. The economy in those times was primarily agricultural. Most people were farmers. But most farmers didn’t own their land. The land was owned by the upper class, the nobles. People who didn’t own land were lower class. The lower class people worked and part of what they produced they had to give to the nobles who didn’t work. You can imagine a conversation between a peasant farmer and his son who is still too young and naïve to accept the status quo:
“Dad, why do we give 15% of our crops to the Baron? He didn’t help us grow them.”
“He’s the Baron, that’s his right.”
“But why do we have to give them to him? Why don’t other people give their crops to us?”
“The Baron is the son of the previous Baron. He inherited his right to our crops from his father.”
“Did he do anything to deserve it?”
“No, that’s not the way it works. He owns the title to this land. He inherited it, and now he owns it. It’s his right to take a share of the crops we grow on his land.”
Doesn’t seem like a very fair system. Nowadays, we look back at feudalism and wonder, “Why did the lower classes put up with it for so long?”
But at the time there was a new phenomenon emerging called the middle class. These people were not upper class because they worked. They were not supported in leisure by a right to claim a share of what others produced. And yet, they were not lower class because they didn’t have to give a share of what they produced to anyone else. These middle class people were not born into servitude of others who were born into wealth. This is the state that enlightenment philosophers were trying to achieve. They were concerned with freedom and in particular freedom from economic coercion where your only choices are to work for the man or stave.
But the enshrinement of the right to property shows how their thinking was limited by their times. In many nations the lower classes did not have the legal right to own land. Enlightenment philosophers thought that if society would merely remove this legal barrier then everyone would quickly be free. And since most people were farmers, merely owning enough land so that you could grow enough food to feed your family truly did give you economic autonomy. When they said the word property they meant land, and in particular productive cropland that would free you from economic coercion by the nobles. I’m sure John Locke would be aghast that his idea of a right to property is guaranteeing the right of shareholders in a real estate investment trust to collect rent from an inheritable title to someone else’s house.
Now that we have 300 years of hindsight, how well does the right to property hold up in the modern world? First, I would say that the right to own property certainly doesn’t guarantee the freedom from economic coercion that enlightenment philosophers thought it would. Many people today feel trapped in the corporate world. Even if they have more than one job to choose from, they don’t feel there’s any alternative to a job at a corporation. And second, the right to property is being used to defend a system that takes on a lot of the characteristics of feudalism. Those with property use it not just to secure their own freedom, but to extract an unearned share of other people’s production.
The true goal is to increase freedom by eliminating economic coercion. Making absentee property ownership a fundamental right does not achieve that goal. That’s not to say that a property ownership system can’t be a useful tool to achieve economic goals, but it’s just a tool, not a fundamental right.