Karl Marx famously asserted that property is theft [actually, I'm told the
original of this was Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in 1843 in
What is Property?
– but popular history routinely attributes it to Marx]. As a slogan,
given what I suppose to have been the context in which he wanted it applied, I
can see his point: but, as ever with rhetoric, I find it generally
A rather brutal and pragmatic argument may serve to illustrate my reservations: if I am to cook myself some dinner tonight, I'll be needing some food to cook and some equipment with which to cook it. Without some assurance that my pots, pans, fridge and cooker will still be at home when I return, there is a certain frustrating futility in bothering to go in search of the food. I want some such assurance: herein lies the foundation of property.
Likewise, pre-industrial farmers may, on the longer term, insist not only on being sure of being able to reap the harvest of the lands they work, and being sure of their liberty to do the same next year, but also on being able to place the farm in the hands of their children when they die. As Malthus pointed out at the end of England's pre-industrial era, the human population grows until it over-reaches what its resources can sustain, then crashes: the only thing that restrains this is folk having the sense to limit the number of children they have. Such sense depends on a clear mechanism by which folk can determine how many children it is wise to have. Each farmer knows how many folk the farm can sustain, which provides the information needed (in conjunction with social and cultural context) to make such a determination.
Yet Marx had a point. Somewhere between the Viking era and The Enclosures,
the farmer's payments to a local war-lord (for protection against local
war-lords) became, instead of a tax such as the war-lord's descendants'
overlords exacted, a
rent which the farmer had to pay because the
owned the land. This is particularly visible in
Scotland's history, where the transition from a feudal lord collecting taxes to
a gentleman landlord collecting rents was pushed through, as
in so short a space of time as to inflame the common folk, thereby fuelling
Jacobite rebellions; and the immediate aftermath may be seen documented by the
good Dr. Johnson and his worthy companion Boswell.
One can probably, since the human mind is very good at constructing
arguments that justify the familiar, shoe-horn such a rental system into the
above framework of
I need assurance of control over this in order to
justify the notion that a distant land-lord
owns the farm and the farmer
only has use of it by the good grace of that land-lord. Marx's rhetorical claim
has truth in it (at least) in so far as such a shoe-horn is used bogusly.
Marx beheld the undeniable iniquity of land-lords varying rents arbitrarily
to increase their own revenues. Dr. Johnson's liberal era
progressive land-lords who believed they could make more money
by clearing the land and pasturing sheep on it: which, in fact, proved
unrealistic but provided the (already wealthy enough to live in luxury
elsewhere) land-lord with an excellent game reserve for sporting use. Whole
communities were destroyed to achieve this. Whether the land-lord simply
decreed that his tenants were no longer at liberty to farm his land, or raised
the rent to the level which would reward him as highly as he (wrongly) believed
he would earn from sheep farming, there was no restriction on his right
use his property as he wished. Which, once one has enshrined the
notion of property on a pedestal and ascribed it to one party with an interest
in the land, to the exclusion of all others, is entirely logical.
Again, the Scottish case rewards further study: the actual prior status quo
was far more subtle than the English model of property which was imposed on
Scotland. The feudal lord of the land and his tenants were tied together, and
to their land, by a complex web of mutual obligations. The laird was beholden
to act as guarantor of the tenant's liberties – and entitled to muster his
tenants when that duty required military force. The tenant was beholden to pay
the laird, predominantly in kind and
in accordance with his abilities as
Marx was to put it; the laird was bound in various ways to cater to the needs of
the tenant. The laird had the authority to throw a tenant off a farm: but would
need a good excuse to do so, to obtain the consent of the tenant's neighbours. A
bad laird might, indeed, abuse his position: but his tenants had various
traditional remedies for this, ranging from murder to an appeal, over the
laird's head, to the crown. Although, on paper, feudal systems are regressive
and tyrannical, yet in practice humanity's history has repeatedly shown them as
government of the people, generally with the consent of the governed, by someone
the governed were wont to respect (if only because, when respect and consent
died, the governor's life-expectancy plummeted).
My point here is that a feudal system has a different notion of property from the one imposed on Scotland for the sake of Union with England. The laird did have the authority to take a farm from a farmer: yet the farmer owned the farm. It is easier to persuade (e.g. bribe) one party than many; and more advantageous to win a powerful ally than to make an enemy of him by pursuing the best interests of a mass of folk, especially when some of that mass will remain loyal to him in any case; so it made perfect sense (whether or not it was consciously reasoned through like this) for the English powers-that-were to re-interpret the Scottish feudal system as a land-lord with rent-paying tenants, rather than as a mass of small-holders paying taxes to a local dignitary. The latter, which is within my defence of the farmer's right to own the farm, would have given the crofters tenure and, in practice, restrained the laird's power to vary the taxes (though it might well have failed to prevent the transition from payment in kind to payment in money, which was pivotal).
I would argue that (along with the right to enjoy the direct fruits of one's labour) where
one has a defensible right to claim such control over that thing as to
secure one's ability to make use of that thing. Even then, where it is possible
to share the thing to some degree,
the greatest good of the greatest
number is best served by making provision for such sharing; and where there
are means for securing one's ability to make that use of that thing, yet
allowing others to make use (particularly other uses) of that thing, such means
should be preferred over more restrictive means of securing one's ability to use
In contrast, where
property rights allow one to deprive folk of the
use of some thing, yet the main benefit one obtains by so doing is the ability
to demand payment (possibly in the form of subservience or similar control over
the user) from those who would use it; then, indeed, property is at least
extortion, which I shall not complain at folk calling theft. I would argue that
all forms of
intellectual property come under this heading (and I would
allow that one should be shy of the emotive content of the phrasing: there may,
indeed, be contexts in which a culture may fairly regard
extortion as, if
not actually fair and just, then at least expeditious).