The Moral Basis Of Property

The Moral Basis Of Property: Such a concept of property is conceivable if we seek to view man as a subject of rights. He has then the right to control things in the degree that such control enables him to be his best self. He can claim, that is, such a share of the national dividend as permits him at least to satisfy these primary material wants, hunger, thirst, the demand for shelter, which, when unsatisfied, prevent the realization of personality.

The claim to such a share, the right to such property as that share implies, is, I believe, most usefully regarded as an individual and exclusive claim. It is not merely the right, as in a Platonic State, to a seat at a communal board. If we have learned anything from the evolution of institutions, it is the lesson that an enforced communism oi habits is always dangerous. To share in a common life ought not to mean that the common life is built to a uniform measure.

It does not mean the eating of identical meals, the wearing of identical clothes, the living in houses distinguishable from each other only by their position in the street. The life we lead must leave room to tie for choice or else it ceases to be life at all. We must find ourselves and we can find ourselves Only by decision between varied possibilities. Our claim to a minimum property must he, therefore, a claim to choose, at that mini mum, the things we desire to satisfy the claim.

That minimum claim is universal. It is the guarantee to the individual that the pressure of social forces Will not leave him helpless and stranded. It is the assurance that he can and a place within its ambit, and that his personality is significant at least in the degree which gives it the chance of substance. But the right is relative to a duty. If I receive it must be in order that I return Society cannot maintain me for the privilege of my existence.

I must pay my way by what i do. I must perform such functions as will produce the amount required for my maintenance. No maxi, that is to say, has a moral right to property except as a return for functions performed. He has no right to live unless he pays for his living. He has no right to live because another has earned what suffices for his maintenance. That alone is morally his which he gains by his personal effort.

There is therefore moral legitimacy in the modern distinction between owning and earning. Those whose property is the result of other men’s effort are parasitic upon society. They enjoy what they have not assisted to produce. They are given the means of avoiding‘a contribution to the total productivity of society.

They have legal rights but because those legal rights are not born of their personal effort, they lack the moral penumbra which entitle them to respect. It is possible , to admire the architect of a great fortune, it is not possible to admire those who live by his achievement. Society literally cannot afford to pay tribute to the degree that inherited wealth exacts it. Even if the owners of such wealth are imbued, like Fox or Pitt or Shaftesbury, with a high sense of social obligation, the virtues of a few do not compensate for the social inertia of the many. Hereditary wealth involves two things :

  • There is a class freed from the legal obligation to labor.
  • So freed, it is able to utilize its leisure in a way that taxes the productive effort of the remaining members of society.

Almost always, as Veblen has shown, it will, in the mass, misuse that leisure. That it may produce a Henry Cavendish does not destroy the fact that society pays extravagantly for his production. It will, in general, be idle and wasteful. It will devote itself to aimless pleasures.

It will make politics a pastime and religion an aesthetic sensation. It may patronize art, but its patronage will destroy the soul of the artist. It may cultivate, letters, but the literature it applauds will be deaf to the real needs of its time. A society which maintains a class which lives by owning can never adequately respect the claims of its humbler members. For the former will dominate its institutions. They will have the privileges which come from the possession of the spending power. They will set the standards of taste.

They will provide the employment for that legal class which, in any State, are almost necessarily dependent upon the rich. They will have immediate access to the sources of political power. They form the habits and ideals of the class which attains wealth by its own effort. Their economic position involves a definite social predominance. They are able, by their prestige, to, set the perspective of the State.

Anyone can verify this account by the study of contemporary social structure. Our Parliament, for instance, is still predominantly aristocratic in texture because a political career involves difficulties for almost all who do not live by owning. Education is still largely determined by the position of one’s parents to go to Eton arid Christ Church is a kind of family habit.

Many of the best regiments in the army are practically a private reserve for the sons of ancient families. All of them show courage in the face of danger but it is not all of them who develop a grasp of military science. Even the diplomatic service is a career access to which lies open only with difficulty to those not born within a fairly narrow circle.

They give to charity the perfume of their presence. Their bazaars and their bridge parties beatified by the occasional presence of some member of the Royal House, serve to remind them that they have a duty to the poor. They maintain their interest in intelligence by a winter in Luxor, they keep alive the national character by their devotion to the fox and the partridge.

They live in London only six months of the year. When they leave for the “Shires,” or the warmth of the Riviera, London is empty, save for the six million odd Londoners who work to keep them alive And a vast journalistic organization is maintained to gratify the populace with pictures of this incredible procession.

No one, I think,could seriously maintain that such a class is of measurable utility to the community, any more than the French noblesse of the eighteenth century could be defended because some few of their members were devoted to high ends. They live lives which are indefensible in ethical terms And their social cost is the greater because their power to spend makes society devote no small part of its effort to satisfying their aimless pleasures.

Nor does their cost stop there. About them is the charm of tradition and those who have by their own effort won a sufficient income are driven by the force of imitation to seek a life similar in substance and aim. The aristocracy recruits itself by alliance with the city.

The grocer of one generation is the peer of the next. The summit of the pyramid is a plutocracy in the mass without function and, in the mass again, with little or no sense of social obligations. There have been, of course, families whose zeal for the well-being of their tenants has been as honorable as it is rare. But the character of society is built upon the rules and not upon the exceptions.

If all men are to have equal access to the social heritage, one class cannot, in the nature of things, be specially placed to secure a double share. That is what occurs when a class is permitted to live by owning. It means not only the denial for them of the need to contribute to society, but also the insistence that society must contribute to their need.

Their position is an accident of parenthood and parenthood, however distinguished, is not entitled to levy a permanent tax on social effort. We do not recognize an obligation permanently to maintain the descendants of Milton it is difficult to realize why, on any arguable principle, we should be obliged permanently to maintain the descendants of Nell Gwynn.

The result of our system of property is, in this regard, unrelated to any principle of justice. It cannot, therefore, be part of any theory of property which seeks to win the moral assent of men.

That is not, of course, to argue that a man is not entitled to provide for his immediate descendants. Obviously enough, no small part of his effort derives from a desire to win security for his children. It seems, therefore, to follow that his children should receive such training and such support as will enable them to enter the battle of life equipped to endure it.

But that does not mean that they should receive such support as enables them to avoid altogether the fact of battle. They, like the average man, must earn their living by the sweat of their brow. They must be given security. He must be able to feel that his death before they are mature does not reduce them to circumstances so narrow that their life is mean and intolerable. That is, of course, the position of most men who die before their children are adult.

Its cruelty does not entitle us to enlarge the numbers of those to whom it applies. Inheritance is always justified where it means the provision of an income for widowhood, on the one hand, and the education of children on the other. But the retention of property beyond that period cannot be justified in moral terms.

Nor, I imagine, would most object to property in those intimate, personal things of which the value is, in the main,  value of sentiment. A man’s books and pictures, the things of which the acquisition bear the impress of his personality, are living memorials too precious to dissipate it is only where they are utilized to form a fund that they become subject to State-scrutiny.

In this aspect, the justification of property begins to emerge. It is entitled to exist where it results from personal effort. It is rational when it is the outcome of function. The property of a doctor, a Sailor, an inventor, a judge, an represent a definite return for definite service. Such property is legitimately the embodiment of rights because it is accompanied by the performance of duties.

It comes from the fact that its possessor has fulfilled a station in society. He has endeavored to pay his way. He has sought to return to society the cost of his maintenance before the years of maturity. He has not been parasite upon the body politic. He has  sought to be a citizen in the sense of pooling his effort in the enrichment of the social whole. He represents a definite addition to the productivity of those who live by what is produced. He is not a mere tax upon the effort of others.

But to argue that property is justified where it is the result of function is, of course, too wide a statement. It involves the analysis of property from two angles. Property, so conceived, implies, first of all, a theory of reward and, secondly, a theory of industrial Organization.

It implies, that is to say, a method whereby we can fix the limits of the rights of property and a means of determining the kind of structure the utilization of property may involve. Is a man, for instance, to obtain by effort that octopus-grasp over the economic life of Germany which the late Herr Stinnes secured? Does effort mean effort in terms of exertion, of effort in terms of capacity ?

Can we discover means whereby to differentiate the price we pay, say, for the effort of a bricklayer and the effort Of a great surgeon ? Can we distinguish between rights of property as such, the possessions, that is to say, which, when translated into money-terms, are available for investment, and the rights of property as the expression of personality ?

If I earn one thousand pounds a year and live, as I think adequately on seven hundred and fifty pounds, what rights attach to me as ,the owner of two hundred and fifty pounds which I annually invest , Am I entitled to a definite and fixed return for the use of a commodity of which I hire out the disposal ? Ought my return to vary with the amount of risk I take in making the type of investment on which I decide?

Am I entitled to embark with my capital upon adventures which, like that of the Mannesmann brothers in Morocco, may involve the destinies of a whole people which cannot hope for profit from my gain ? Obviously, the rights of property do not admit of being fixed in simple terms. The statement of the problem is by its nature complex and a reply which aimed at simplicity would be false to the issue it raised.