Natural property Notes for September 13

The question

In my presentation on justice, I said that Hobbes tried to show that there was no such thing as proprietary rights prior to the state. In Hobbes’s lingo, there are no property rights in the state of mere nature. In ours, there are no natural property rights, where “natural rights” are rights that people have independent of the laws and political institutions of any particular state.

Either Max or Derek asked who believed that property rights are natural. I wish that I had answered the question as follows.

Human rights

First, “proprietary” rights include a lot more than property rights. In particular, they include rights to personal security. Remember that what all three proprietary rights — to life, wife, and land — have in common is that everyone has corresponding obligations to respect them. So what we call human rights against murder, torture, and the like are what Hobbes called proprietary rights.

It’s a hallmark of our thinking about human rights that they are prior to the political institution of the state. That’s why a particular state’s laws can be condemned as violating human rights. Or so we think.

So, we believe in something very much like natural proprietary rights.

Property rights

Second, as for the specific case of property rights, the answer to the question “who believed that property rights were natural” is “not many people.” But all of the major thinkers of the time believe that property rights existed prior to political institutions, much like human rights are believed to exist prior to political institutions.

The way the question was framed in the seventeenth-century went like this. “After the flood, God gave the earth to Noah and his descendants. He didn’t chop it up and give some parts to some descendants, he gave it to them all in common. But we don’t own things in common now. Now there is private ownership. How did that come about?”

The answer was that rules for acquiring property rights were agreed to by common consent. So, for example, primogeniture, or first occupancy, was accepted as a way of acquiring property rights in land. Note that they assumed that private ownership was legitimate; they looked for a story about how it arose that vindicated its existence.

In other words, the rules for acquiring property aren’t natural. They were invented by human convention and so they are artificial. But the rules were established prior to the state and property rights existed independent of the state’s authority.

It’s the claim that property rights are independent of the state’s authority that Hobbes opposed. The argument about how there can’t be any property rights in the state of nature is supposed to show that this can’t be the case. It is a wholly original point. The debate in Hobbes’s time was between those who thought that monarchs could tax property only with the consent of the owners, via Parliament, and those who thought that the monarch could raise taxes without Parliamentary consent, but only in extreme emergencies. Even of those who favored an absolute monarchy only went so far as the second position (we’ll talk more about what ‘absolute’ means later).

Hobbes cut right through this political and intellectual debate. He thought he had shown that property rights could not be established without the state and, as a consequence, that the sovereign decides what property rights there are. If so, neither position makes any sense. The sovereign can tax property without having to consult anyone or proving that his hand is forced by an emergency.

This was a big deal then and it still is now. Then, crises in royal finances were a significant cause of the civil war. Roughly, the gentry didn’t want to pay for the cost of running the state and the dispute between Parliament and King over financial (and other matters) escalated to a civil war. Now, it’s quite common to hear echoes of the older debate. The line “it’s your money” is used to elect officials who pledge to cut taxes. It was very effective for George W. Bush, for example, though I don’t expect we’ll hear him say it again. Intellectuals like Cass Sunstein, Stephen Holmes, Thomas Nagel, and Liam Murphy take the Hobbesian line, that there are no property rights prior to the laws. It’s not clear that they’re aware that they’re doing so, however.

Further reading

For historical background, two good books are:

  1. Schlatter, Richard. Private Property : The History of an Idea. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1951. (General)
  2. Sommerville, Johann P. Thomas Hobbes: Political Ideas in Historical Context. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. (Hobbes specifically; look in the index under “property”)

For the contemporary arguments I referred to, see:

  1. Holmes, Stephen, and Cass R. Sunstein. The Cost of Rights : Why Liberty Depends on Taxes. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
  2. Murphy, Liam B., and Thomas Nagel. The Myth of Ownership : Taxes and Justice. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2006.
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