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July, August, September, 1922
THE MORAL STATUS OF PRIVATE PROPERTY.
EW contrasts in human thought and feeling are more
striking than that between the communistic conception of private property as exemplified by the Russian Bolshevists and their American disciples and the individualistic conception of private property as exemplified by the average successful English or American business man. For the communist, private property is the source of our major human ills, the corruption of human nature, the insidious destroyer of the natural social order, an accursed institution built on robbery, maintained by force and motivated by human greed. Hence the communist sees no hope for humanity save in the destruction of the present economic order. His hatred of capitalism and all its ways has become a veritable madness and has driven him to excesses of speech and of act which have destroyed the modicum of sympathy that might have been felt for him, had he been less violent and less oracular.
On the other hand, the successful man of affairs in capitalistic countries has been hardly less extreme in his glorification of private property. Forgetting or ignoring the history of private property and its attributes, he has looked upon the right of property as absolute and unconditional, as a natural right independent of the laws and institutions of society, as something unalterable and inalienable, as inclusive even of the right to destroy and waste. In the extremity of his individualism he has come to feel that anything may become the object of a property-right and that, when once it has taken on that form, it is for all practical purposes sacred and inviolable. Hence all distinctions between different forms of property are for him abolished. Wages, salary, homes, tools, capital actively used by its owner in production, royalties, ground-rents, monopoly-profits, inherited estates—all these forms of property are equally valid and the owners of them have equal rights to the undisturbed enjoyment of them and the protection of them by the State whether those owners are performing any social function by means of their property or not. Property for the extreme individualist has come to mean mere ownership divorced from social obligation, and any movement that questions ownership or would enforce obligation is resented by him as an infringement of his personal rights.
Now, when two classes of men, living in the same community and drawing their mental and moral life from the same cultural sources, come to hold diametrically opposite views on the same subject, we may generally infer that they are not seeking the truth at all but merely maintaining an interest or pushing a propaganda. The attack on private property and the defence of it which I have just cited seem to me cases in point. Men are not thinking at all when they utter such extreme sentiments. They are merely gesticulating and cursing or stamping the foot and uttering ultimatums. The probability is that they have not the same concrete things in view at all when they are cursing and blessing. The kind of property which is especially responsible for the curses of the communist is generally a different kind from that of which the capitalist is especially thinking when he is blessing private property. Plainly our best plan is to turn away from the extremists of both sides, to give up cursing or blessing private property in general and to find out what kinds of concrete private property are worth preserving because of their benefits to their individual owners and to the social group to which these owners belong.
Nothing is more likely to clear up confused thinking on the moral status of private property than a calm survey of the historical process through which our so-called propertyrights have come to be. The writer once heard a cultured gentleman who had been reared in the Roman Catholic church and who had outgrown its creed, say that the moment when he learned that that great institution had had an historical origin, that there were actually vast stretches of time before it even began to be, was for him a moment of wonderful illumination and emancipation. From that hour he could see it in its historical perspective, could compare it with other religious institutions, and could imagine a time in the future when it might be profoundly transformed or even altogether cease to be. History is a great pricker of bubbles, a calm judge of the relative significance of institutions, a steady foe of those who take extreme and violent views of human affairs. To history, therefore, we must turn for our approach to the problem in hand.
According to the historians, private property was entirely unknown in the primitive horde. If they had any property at all, it was communal rather than individual. Any sense of ownership of their hunting grounds that they may have had was rooted in their group-life. They had not yet begun even to think of the private ownership of land, for nothing had yet happened to suggest a value in such ownership.
The feeling of mine and thine probably began with something that touches human life much more intimately than land, namely, ornaments and clothing. With use, these take on something of our own shape and form and come to seem an integral part of our personality. Hence in primitive life they were the first to awaken in man a sense of ownership. The weapons of warfare and the chase cannot have lagged far behind ornaments and clothing. In a world where danger from enemies and wild beasts is always imminent, a man without his weapons is in jeopardy of his life. And since a man's hand and body adapt themselves in time to the feel and swing of the weapons he uses, these weapons of the primitive man came to seem a part of himself and to be recognized as such by others, even to the point of being burned or interred with his dead body. A third almost equally pressing need of primitive man was shelter, but so long as he lived in large caves with his horde the sense of ownership could not attach itself to his dwelling-place. It was probably while he was on the march and compelled to make wigwams and other movable shelters that he came to have a feeling of mine and thine in connection with these necessities; along with the rude home would go also the simple tools and utensils which were needed in the primitive man's house-keeping. Ornaments and clothing, weapons of warfare and the chase, movable shelters, tools and utensils—to these, perhaps, man's acquisitive instinct or his sense of property first attached itself. But they were not specially potent awakeners of it. When one has to carry all his property on his back as he moves from place to place, there is no motive for accumulation or hoarding.
It was the innocent sheep and the placid cow that first aroused that feeling for ownership, that fierce fight for property, which has played so great a part in human history. With the domestication of these animals, private property found a new and powerful motive. They did not need to be carried from place to place like ornaments, clothing, weapons, wigwams, tools and utensils, but could be driven about on their own feet and so their increase in number did not become an embarrassment. The command of their milk and flesh and wool and skin put a great power into the hands of their owner. The care of them in all weathers and seasons, the protection of them from wild beasts and needy men, the providing of pasture and fodder, the superintendence of their breeding called for intelligence, energy, foresight, thrift and sound judgement, and, as these qualities are always rare among men, the fortunate possessors of them, in the early pastoral stage of society, soon dominated their weaker brethren, assigned them to the more lowly duties or enslaved them, and created for the first time in human history the chasm between the rich and the poor that has gone on widening ever since. The sense of property which had before been attached merely to dead things, things that were useless apart from man and incapable of reproducing themselves, now became attached to living creatures which could reproduce themselves and create wealth for their owner without any particular labour on his part. Property-rights were now extended to herds and flocks and slaves and even to wives and children and, we may be sure, as the property-rights were extended, the acquisitive instinct awakened into more vigorous life and occupied a larger place in the field of consciousness.
The owner of flocks and herds was a nomad and had no interest in the private appropriation of land. But with the development of agriculture that interest was soon felt. There was no incentive to tilling and seeding unless one was reasonably sure of reaping his own harvest. Fruit-growing espe