Fevered speculation and philosophical fantasy are the features that mark out theories of the origins of property. It has led to a whole branch of judicial, philosophical and political theories posited against an abstract otherworld that never existed beyond the pages of enlightenment philosophers. Such works are of value to the history of ideas, so long as they are nothing to do with history itself.
The briefest review is needed of theories of the origins of property, dealing only with the key influences.
For Thomas Hobbes in the mid 17th Century originates in territoriality and the need to defend it, with the ‘strongest power in the land’ necessary to defend the status of ownership. The assumption is of a war of ‘all against all’ – which he calls a ‘State of Nature’ and sovereignty arising from a ‘social contract’ for protection.
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; … no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Leviathan Chapter XIII
We tend to see Hobbes ideas through the prism of those who later attacked him. Those for example who disagreed that man was naturally aggressive and violent, such as Rousseau. Or in more contemporary times, those who argued, correctly, that this was never an accurate portrayal of early societies.
Life in early agricultural societies, before strict division of individual landownership, may have been short, and poor, but it was not solitary, nasty or brutish. Early communities suffered from lack of technology, not lack of a state which would simply have extracted agricultural surplus, forced labour, or forcibly removed labour for armies of construction of public works. The creation of a State for such groups would have been seen as a clear historical regression.
We shall look at this ideas when we come on to theories of the origin of the state in more detail, but suffice it to state that it cannot be seen anywhere as anything other that than either imposed, from outside or forced by defending from external groups – it is not a ‘rational’ act – the ‘social contract’ is a protection racket.
Seeing sovereignty this way, we can gain a different understanding of Hobbes. Not as a justifier of total absolutism, but describing the origins of power at times of war, for him seen through the lens of the English Civil War, and the rational conditions under which this was to be understood.
Rousseau’s theory of the social contract advanced from Hobbes by correctly placing the origins of property in historical time and by acts of accumulation by dispossession.
The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.
Rousseau has often been misrepresented as seeing in primitive man a goodness, a ‘noble savage’, a term he never used. Rather for him civil society creates goodness or badness.
Despite the diametrically opposite conclusions on the legitimacy of political power of Hobbes and Rousseau there is a strong common theme, of property ownership seized or enforced by power. The ‘State of Nature’ was also both a hypothesis of the historical origins of property and a philosophical; abstract to justify either current power arrangements or to challenge their legitimately.
Proudhon famously stated that ‘property is theft, property is freedom’ – indeed all property arrangements have this dual form. We have looked at the first part, but the second part was emphasised by writers who held to what is known as the ‘Homesteading principle’ also known as the ‘labour theory of property’ – Jefferson was a noted exponent but the original and most famous exigis comes from John Locke in his Second treatise of government
Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property
This was subject to what, after Nozick, we know as the Lockean Proviso – that though individuals have a right to acquire private property from nature, that they must leave “enough and as good in common…to others.”
Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough and as good left, and more than the yet unprovided could use. So that, in effect, there was never the less left for others because of his enclosure for himself. For he that leaves as much as another can make use of does as good as take nothing at all. Nobody could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst. And the case of land and water, where there is enough of both, is perfectly the same.—Second Treatise of Government, Chapter V, paragraph 33
In this highly influential view economic value comes from mixing labour with nature, and in the extended form of the Homestead Principle, ‘free land’ never before claimed can be appropriated and title claimed. Indeed in several 19th century frontier nations, holding principles of English Common Law different versions of Homestead Acts law required three steps: file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title, then land comes under the homesteader’s ownership.
Ownership of such land, especially in the writings of Jefferson and Blackstone, is seen as a bastion against absolutism, land as freedom from external bondage. An aspiration of all free people escaping slavery and oppressive states.
This principle has two key relations to our study. Firstly the economic product of labour – food, the relationships between land size, location, fertility, labour applied and cost of food. Secondly the margin of cultivation as the geographical extent of capitalist land holding arrangements expand.
The last, and most sophisticated, views of property in this brief survey, come from Comte, Bastiat and Proudhon, who deserve their own section.