The Present System Of Property

The Present System Of Property: The root instinct of man is self preservation. Because he must guard himself from danger he has developed an acquisitive faculty which now forms the basis of all Western institutions. The world over, States are divisible into those who, out of that impulse to acquire, possess property which is a safeguard against the wants of the morrow, and those who, lacking that property, are uncertain whether the morrow will give them the means of life.

For from the possession of property there comes that which, above all, man seeks as the means to harmony in the shape of security. The man of property has a stake in the country. He is protected from the fear of starvation. He need not accept the work he does not desire. He can take the leisure in which most men must now find the opportunity of significance.

He can, if he so will, surround himself with that environment which makes of life an artistic thing. He can avoid the grim routine, and become an explorer in that intellectual hinterland where the creative faculties most readily discover their channels of self-expression.

He can protect his children against the dread of want. He can develop in them the tastes which give them also joy in the life creative. He has direct and immediate access-should he desire it to the social heritage of Western civilization.

I do not mean to imply that a man with property will necessarily possess these things, or that the propertyless man is necessarily deprived of them. Those who have security often luxuriate in a life devoid of meaning and those who are poor can sometimes know the rarest things that life can offer.

But the latter are exceptional men, poverty for most and most are condemned to poverty-l-means a life passed amid mean things with but a fleeting moment, like the first hour of love, when the creative impulse receives a full response.

Those who have security may, in fact, live a life as solid and as pointless as the ugly mahogany with which they are surrounded. But at least their existence is freed from the specter of fear.

If they sought, in any general way, to understand the civilization about them, they would be impressed by certain obvious facts. They would discover that the number of those in any community who own property enough to be significant is always small. They would find that such ownership is not necessarily related to the performance of duties or the possession of virtues.

The owner might be the fortunate descendant of a mistress of Charles II, to whom was given a royalty on all coal exported from the Tyne or he might be an outrageous moneylender who lived by extortion upon the unfortunate. He would find that the ownership of property involves the control of capital, and that in a regime of free enterprise the control of capital involves the power to direct the lives of those who depend upon the application of capital to production.

He would discover that the development of industry in the scientific period has made the power of capital greater than  in any previous age, in part because of the greater unit of production, in part because of the more integrated character of social life.

He would discover, in short, that a regime of private property makes the State Very largely an institution dominated by the owners of private property, and that it protects the will and purpose of those owners. In the absence of other considerations, a political system in which rights are built upon property is one in which the propertyless man will have no rights.

There are, of course, mitigating circumstances which have prevented the owners from realizing their rights to the full. The power of combination has enabled the worker to establish certain minimum standards of wages and hours of labor which, however inadequate, do represent a real gain. Humanitarian sentiment has wrung from the owners of property such safeguards as Factory Acts, the prohibition of dangerous materials, and, in a limited way, adulteration.

Education has enabled a few in each generation either to escape from the category of poverty or to utilize their knowledge to press for further concessions. But, fundamentally, the regime of private property, in the background of industrialism, perpetuates the division into rich and poor, and separates the poor from the conditions which make possible their effective citizenship.

The results Of the system may be summarized briefly. Production is carried on wasteful and without adequate plan. The commodities and services necessary to the life of the community are never so distributed as to relate to need or to produce a result which maximizes their social utility.

We build picture palaces when we need houses. We spend on battleships what is wanted for schools. The rich can spend the weekly wage of a workman on a single dinner, while the workman cannot send his Children adequately fed to school. A rich debutante will spend on an evening frock more than the annual income of the workers who have made it.

We have, in fact, both the wrong commodities produced, and those produced distributed without regard to social urgency. We have a large class maintained in parasitic idleness whose tastes demand the application of capital and labor to the satisfaction of wants unrelated to human need. Nor is that class set apart from the rest of the community.

Because it has the power to make demand effective it stimulates the slavish imitation of those who seek to join its ranks. To be rich becomes the measure of merit and the reward of wealth is the ability to set the standards of those who seek to acquire wealth. But those standards are set, not by the satisfaction of moral purpose, but by the satisfaction of the desire to be rich.

Men may begin to acquire property to safeguard their lives from want, but they continue to acquire it because of the distinction which comes from its possession. It satisfies their vanity and their lust for power, it enables them to attune the will of society to their own.

The result is what might be logically expected from such en atmosphere. They produce goods and services, not for use, but to acquire property from their production. They produce not to satisfy useful demands, but demands which can be made to pay. They will ruin natural resources. They Will adulterate commodities.

They will float dishonest enterprises. They will corrupt legislatures. They will pervert the sources of knowledge. They will, artificially combine to increase the cost of their commodities to the public. They will exploit, sometimes with hideous cruelty, the backward races of mankind. They infect with their poison those who work for the wages they offer. They induce sabotage in its varied forms.

They compel strikes which result in serious damage to the community. And it is the grim irony of the system that the vaster part of those engaged in its promotion have little or no hope of enduring gain from the process they support. They may destroy the quality of political life. They may possess themselves, as in America, of the educational instruments of the community.

They may even pervert religious institutions to the protection of their ideas. They do not, nevertheless, secure a well-ordered State. It remains historically obvious that a community divided into rich and poor is, when the latter are numerous, built upon foundations of sand.

For the basis of the State is envy, and envy is the nurse of faction. A State so divided is compelled to use its instruments to protect the property of the rich from invasion by the poor. It comes to think of order as the final virtue. It neglects its larger aims.

It perverts the equal aid it owes to all in the effort to afford the special advantage required by some. That advantage in the law, for example-may take the form of the fellow-servant doctrine, as in England, or, as in the United States, of the use of the injunction in labor disputes.

It may limit the right to a share in political power to those only possessed of a certain property qualification. It may model its constitution so as to limit the power to criticism the existing regime or to prevent the passage of statutes which limit the power of property.

It may keep the non-possessing classes deliberately ignorant, as William Windham urged, in 1810, that they be kept ignorant. It may, as in Czarist Russia, so fiercely stifle protest that the mass of men is, over a long period, stricken into dumb inertia. It may even confer political power on the masses, and then, by the control of opinion, frustrate the full use of that power to its own needs.

It may, as with Napoleon, seek by military adventure to divert attention from domestic concerns. Yet the State remains divided into rich and poor and men, after a period,refuse to suffer quietly. Then revolution supervenes to alter the balance in the State.

The system, indeed, is prolific in self-stratification Sometimes the defense is psychological in character. Men in general, it is said, need an incentive to labor The power to acquire property is such an incentive. It makes them work, and, in their working, the good of the community is involved. But there are two primary difficulties here.

Labor only involves the good of the community if what is produced is related to that good and secures good in being dis distributed. Those who traffic in harmful drugs may work and acquire large fortunes but what they produce is not for the good of the community.

If, moreover, I am per-eminently successful in my business, the fortune I acquire may actually inhibit my descendants from working at all and the power to acquire property may defeat more incentives than it creates. The  mere fact that there is a property instinct does not go to prove, that the present method of response to its demands is anything more than one of the ways in which it may be answered. The present method is a problem for analysis, not a solution of the problem.

Sometimes the justification has been ethical. Property, it has been argued, is the return made to the individual for effort. The builder of a railway, the inventor of a safety-razor, the discoverer of a patent medicine,have all worked  hard, and their fortune is the result.

But, obviously, certain additional factors must be considered. The fortunes of many who labor unceasingly never become other than insignificant. Property then becomes the reward for ability , the argument that it is the reward for abstinence has long been abandoned as too shameless  any save the ignorant.

But, obviously again it is the reward only for that particular kind of ability which consists in the capacity to make profit and that altogether evades the problem of the value of such ability to society, and the type of effort in which it is desirable that profit should be made.

Or, it is urged, property is the nurse of virtues essential to society love of one’s family, generosity, inventiveness. energy. But if this is true it argues that the majority of mankind is unable to satisfy the impulses essential to social well-being.

That is untrue, fox these virtues have been present in persons who have never amassed property at an No one can be generous in the way that Mr. Rockefeller has been generous unless he has the property of Mr. Rockefeller, but society has to weigh against the ability so to be generous the cost of arriving at the point where the generosity is possible.

Professor Huxley never amassed a fortune, but his energy was outstanding even in a vigorous age. The inventiveness of men like Newton and Clerk Maxwell and Laplace was not the outcome of an attempt to satisfy their property-instinct. Love of one’s family cannot be the basis of the yearning for property in the mind of any who know the lives of the poor.

Sometimes, as with Lord Hugh Cecil, any attempt at an ethical basis is abandoned altogether, and property becomes simply the result of supplying effective demand. That is a view without utility for social theory. For we must obviously consider whether the demand ought to have been effective, and the results which occur when it is supplied.

There is a demand for slaves in Abyssinia but most men will, I think, agree that response to the demand ought never to be allowed. There is a demand for obscene literature but few would , respect those who trafficked in it. There is a demand for prostitutes, but the law has a definite answer to those who live by satisfying it. Lord Hugh Cecil’s theory merely identifies good with the existing order by the simple process of admitting that in no other way can it be proved morally adequate.

A historical argument is also put forward. The progressive societies, it is said, are those built upon the regime of private property, the backward societies are, in general, those founded upon a collectivist basis of some kind. There is, I think, an important truth in this view.

Societies built on private property have gone farther towards the control of their environment than societies of a collectivist type and they have been able to achieve a greater margin of freedom for individual personality than collectivist forms of social organization.

This does not mean, at least necessarily, that individualist societies attain a greater degree of happiness than is possible under alternative forms, we know too little of the mentality of backward peoples to generalize so far But it does mean that Western civilization is far less subject to the tyranny of Nature than is true, say, in Me amnesia or India before the British conquest.

But the historical argument is fallacious if it regards the regime of private property as a simple and unchanging thing The history of private property is, above all, the record of the most varied limitations upon the use of the powers it implies.

Property in slaves was valid in Greece and Rome , it is no longer valid to-day. In England there is great freedom of testamentary disposition in France inheritance is regulated with much stringency. Until the Married Woman’s Property Act, the unity of person between husband and wife gave the former complete control of his wife possessions to-day that control is dependent upon her pleasure.

The power of eminent domain may offer a not ungenerous compensation to the owner of private property, but its essence is that the State may annex Naboth’s Vineyard on reasonable terms. The Public Health Acts do not allow me to build as I like on my own land. I must satisfy a local authority and conform to regulations centrally controlled:

The regime of private property indeed, means that a man may do as he wills with his own, only to the point that the civil law permits him to will and though the ambit of that will is,in all Conscience, vast enough, the history of the rights of property is most largely the record of its circumscription.

It would not, indeed, be untrue to say that the historical argument means no more than that each man, adequately placed, is the best judge of his own interest, and that the society is most likely to prosper in which he finds room fer the expression of his interest. But this is to shift the debate to the problem of adequacy, and that, in its turn, raises the whole issue of the rights which should inhere in property.

At no period have those rights been generally absolute. Political and religious philosophy is most largely the attempt to evolve maxims of control which will at least minimize the dangers which arise from a distinction between mine and thine. It Was the sense of those dangers which led Plato to reject the notion of private property.

A similar perception underlies the insistence in the New Testament and the Fathers of the early Church upon the idea of Stewardship. That idea, indeed, was never fully applied and its reinterpretation in the course of medieval history left it but little more than an emphasis upon responsibility which was never given the substance of active control. For the Church compromised With the world It accepted charity as the substitute for right. It assuaged symptoms instead of attacking causes.

The explanation, doubtless, is obvious enough. Granted its delicate of beginnings, a Church Which sought to attack the economic system of the time would have perished ignominiously and by the time it had itself become a source of strength, it had discovered enough persons eager to purchase salvation at the expense of their possessions, to make it rooted in the implications of private property. The central test is the persecution of the Spiritual Franciscans. By that act the Church made it obvious that beyond charity, it had no message to the disinherited.

The avenue to the modern attitude lay through Puritanism. The decay of corporate authority in the Roman Church, the emphasis upon the internal life a man leads, made the problem of his possessions relatively insignificant. Puritanism taught men to rely upon themselves.

It implied, especially in the perspective of religious persecution a distrust of all regulation made by the State It provided a facile transition to an attitude which could argue that the ownership of wealth was a sign of grace, and poverty an index to God’s disfavor.

Puritanism, doubtless, had a keen sense of the dangers of property. Its rigorous attack on wasteful expenditure, its urgency, as with Richard Baxter, that wealth be not used to oppress the poor, are evidence that it was not uncritically individualist. But individualist it could not help being by its essential nature, and it tended to conceive of a State as a body of men moved by self-interest to whom, in the absence of barriers, success came as the reward of effort.

Their views met the new philosophy of politics of which Hobbes was the most striking exponent. From him down to Adam Smith, however various the institutional expression it received,interesting became the key to social organization.

The object of the State became the attainment of liberty in the sense of a clear path for the exertion of individual will. The commonwealth said Locke, exists to promote civil interest, and civil interest I call life,liberty, inviolability of Body, and the , possession of such outward things as Money, Lands, Houses, . Furniture, and the like.

There is no sense here of the individual sharing in the benefits of a moral order made by him in co-operation with his fellows. The common good is identified with the individual good, and whatever promotes the latter promotes the former also. But individual good depends upon each man for its achievement, the State has no function save to secure to the victors their spoils of conquest.

This view was reinforced by the hedonistic psychology which lay at the root of utilitarianism. The Industrial Revolution in brief, arrived at a period when, predominantly, a simple teleological optimism made the rights of property-and they were broadly unlimited rights the cornerstone of social security.

Protests against this doctrine there he of course, been. At the height of Puritan power Winstanley and the agrarian communists had come to urge their belief in the iniquity of private property. Mably arid Morelly had, under the influence of Rousseau’s early views, insisted on the moral necessity of a communistic scheme. But the gradations of society were too firmly fixed for their argument to be taken seriously.

It needed the combined power of the revolution in industry, and the revolution in France to make the thesis of individualism untenable. The one gave birth to economic socialism, the other to a view of rights conceived in terms of personality. Their conjuncture meant the erosion of any view of rights which made property the foundation of the State.

That is the meaning of views like those of Saint Simon and Fourier in France, of Hall and Thompson, of Bray and Owen in England. Property became conceived as a product less of individual exertion than of the total forces society. The collapse of feudalism and the accession of the middle classes to power deprived the governing classes of the sanctity they had seemed to possess.

For the French Revolution, perhaps only half-consciously, added to the desire for liberty the demand for equality and however equality be interpreted, it involves a revision of the individualist theory of property. The preservation of the existing order, as that was beatified in the work of the classical economists, became impossible when to preserve it meant to crown the existing inequalities. The stage began to be cleared for novel conceptions.

That, in truth, is the real meaning of the annus mirabilis of 1848. Marx and Engels, Proudhon and Louis Blane, were, in their various ways, demanding that organization replace the anarchy of their time Organization involved readjustment, and readjustment meant a recognition of rights.

The social order of Western Europe became slowly to adjust itself to new claims. The State which had begun the nineteenth century in the terms of laissez faire began, as the twentieth century came into view, to search for a basis upon which it could compromise with socialism And by socialism was meant the devotion of the productivity of the State to the fulfillment of the natural rights of men. So the taxation of the modern State was built upon the assumption that assessment must he graduated by ability to pay, Its franchise was wellnigh universal.

It offered free education-if of a low standard-to the people. It began to insure against the hazards of sickness and unemployment. It made things like the provision of houses and pensions in old age a matter of corporate concern. It is difficult to interpret these changes except upon the view that the concept of property was undergoing a change. Men could still be rich, but the State was admitting its obligation to mitigate the inequalities of social Opportunity.

That effort was proceeding when the war of 1914 threw all social systems into confusion. What has everywhere emerged from its results is an immense increase in the operations of the State. To sustain the injured fabric of society was an enterprise far vaster than in 1914, and far more ,costly, it involved, as in the protection of the householder against the landlord, great inroads upon what had previously been regarded as the normal rights of property. But the perspective of those Operations was above all set by the changed scale of social conceptions. Men who had been asked to die for the State demanded also that they be able to live in it.

Men who were told that they were important in war insisted that they were significant in peace. Private enterprise was challenged on the ground that it involved a preponderating share in the results of industry to those who did not labour for their production.

Private ownership was asked to explain what contribution is made relative to the return it secured. Property as a basis of rights, it was argued, was obviously unsatisfactory. For all property depends upon the sustenance of society, and its rights are therefore socially created. But rights socially created are relative to social needs.

These are the needs of individual persons, and, in the modern State, the majority do not satisfy their needs. The wider, moreover, the rights of property, the less equal is the incidence of legislative benefit, and the less close is the relation between property and service.

Property as a right to control things to the exclusion of other persons raised in acute form the problems

  1. Of what things ought to be left to individual control especially in such matters, like electric power, as are vital to the life of the Community and
  2. What amount of things a man can be permitted to control without, by the power such control involves, injuring the chance of equal access to the needs of citizenship.

Beyond all, there was the demand for a philosophic theory of property which made the defense of private ownership morally possible. The need was the more urgent because the rapid growth of revolutionary communism had challenged at its root the whole structure of existing civilization.

Russia in the twentieth century was, it was immediately seen, likely to be as significant as France in the nineteenth. As the latter had implied the equalization of political privilege, so the first foreshadowed the equalization of economic privilege. The central issue of the generation was to discover a concept of property which satisfied the moral sense of men.

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