The Problem with Property


There are several different and seemingly conflicting explanations of property:

  • Proudhonian
  • Lockean
  • Neolockean
  • Marxian
  • Composite View

Proudhonian

In Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s view the Earth and all its natural resources are to be treated as one gigantic commons, with ownership entirely dependent on possession. Therefore the owner is understood to be whomever is commonly recognised to occupy, possess, or use the asset in question, and their right to said property should be respected in order to avoid conflict. This is usually either referred to as “possession property”, “usufruct“ or “occupancy & use”.

Absenteeism arises is where ownership of property is commonly recognised despite it either being ostensibly vacant, or primarily being occupied, possessed, or used by others.

Abandonment automatically occurs when it generally becomes apparent that property is no longer being used by anyone.

Possession has the benefit of being both simple and intuitive.

Lockean

According to the John Locke’s the Labour Theory of Property (LTP), land is not owned until such time as people begin toiling on it, at which point it is gradually transformed into private property.

Somewhat confusingly Locke referred to unowned land as “the commons”, therefore giving rise to the belief that it’s reasonable enclose the commons into parcels of private property. Locke did however make two provisos around this (not one). The first was that claims would need to be revised should there ever come a time when there was insufficient unallocated commons left for other people to enclose. Locke is unclear as to how this would unfold in practice. The second is around what Locke termed “spoilage” whereby a claim would only remain valid provided the land in question was actually put to use, rather than just being hoarded. Again Locke is completely non-prescriptive regarding this. Both proviso constitute little more than a tacit admission of the weaknesses in his own theory.

The Lockean view also fails to take into account that of the various differing circumstances that may factor into private property.

Neolockean

Also commonly referred to as no-proviso Lockean, this is essentially just a dumbing down of Locke’s Labour Theory of Property, and as the latter name implies it is absent both of Locke’s provisos. Thus the neolockean view eliminates any automatic entitlement to own land, places no limitations whatsoever on the extent of individual ownership, and thereby implies that property can only be disposed of by being traded, gifted, or consciously abandoned.

Anticapitalists argue that neolockean property inevitably gives rise to a class monopoly over land and natural resources, since the absence of any commons or viable but unallocated land would leave those without property no choice but to “earn a living” by labouring for those who own property.

Marxian

Karl Marx sought to distinguish between personal possessions consisting mainly of consumer goods, which he termed “personal property”, and the absentee ownership of capital goods, which he somewhat confusingly termed “private property”. Marx then went on to critique the exploitation that is said to arise structurally when the means of production are privatised.

There’s a problem with Marx’s definition though, in that it gives the impression that the means of production should instead be treated as a commons, effectively rendering all workplaces ‘open access’, which is clearly an unworkable proposition.

Composite View

This is not altogether dissimilar to the Lockean view in that it identifies two main forms of property:

  1. Commons – land or natural resources in common/social ownership that are jointly controlled by all, but which anyone may occupy or use on a non-exclusive basis.
  2. Private Property – the owner determines who may occupy, possess, or use the asset.

It does however introduce five distinct subtypes of private property.

  1. Personal Property – the main occupiers, possessors or users are recognised as being the owners.
  2. Absentee Property – an asset that is either vacant but not abandoned, or predominantly occupied, possessed, or used by others.
  3. State Property – the owner is the state.
  4. Communal Property – an asset owned, and occupied, possessed or used exclusively by a community, where any notion of ownership is contingent on membership of said community, and automatically abandoned without compensation should that membership be discontinued.
  5. Collective Property – a workplace owned & operated exclusively by its workforce, where any notion of ownership is contingent on membership of said workforce, and automatically abandoned without compensation should that association be terminated.

[NOTE – capitalists may reasonably argue that shareholding literally constitutes collective property, but since that’s already encompassed by absentee property let’s not begrudge collectivists a label for their preferred form of ownership!]


While the composite view affords a much more nuanced perspective, it’s also much more complex and harder for people to grasp. More problematic is that it fails to define any abandonment criteria for personal or absentee property.

The Problem

Thus we arrive at the problem with property, in that there exist at least five conflicting yet overlapping interpretations. This is troublesome in any debate where the protagonists refuse to agree on a common terminology, and instead insist on arguing at cross purposes.

The Solution

Rather than attempting to alter the definition of private property, which many people already find confusing, or to divide it into various subtypes, a better approach is to delineate property based on other attributes, and there are non-arbitrary ways of doing this:

  1. Abandonment criteria, where sticky property means ownership is maintained until a conscious decision is made to abandon the property, verses possession property wherein there’s an inherent automatic abandonment criteria.
  2. Abstraction – where intuitive property is primarily occupied, possessed, or used by its owner, verses abstract property that is primarily occupied, possessed, or used by others.

This provides the tools to accurately describe property in terms of how it works rather than the circumstances around it.

Conflicting Outlooks

Anarcho-capitalists believe that it’s somehow possible to peacefully mandate the stickiness of abstract property in the absence of the state, whereas statist capitalists, minarchists, and anticapitalists all refute this notion as being nothing more than wishful thinking.

Communists, collectivists, mutualists, and the various types of individualist anarchist (including market anarchists) believe that possession would be the basis for all property in a stateless society, and that if conflict is to be avoided then the right to possess abstract property would entirely depend on the agreement and cooperation of others. This does not rule out scenarios such as property leasing or financial compensation is lieu of labour , but eliminates any prospect of giving rise to a class monopoly over the means of production.

So who is correct? We hereby respectfully submit Exhibit A for your careful consideration.

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