When Is Property Theft ?

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 un-persuasive.

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 war-lord's heirs 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 progressive, 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 applauded 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 to 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 it.

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).

See also

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