What is Property?
by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
1840, reprinted IndyPublishing.com
Written by Darrell Anderson.
Despite a reasonable thesis contained within the book, there are several problems in Proudhon’s treatise.
He embraced a strict labor theory of value. Few people today embrace that theory. Although labor is a significant portion in deriving subjective value, the amount of labor contributed toward production is only one element in which value is perceived.
Proudhon argued that the value of land is measured by its product. Possibly. Because value is subjective and always will be, production is only one element that might influence the perceived value of land.
He also argued that value is based upon utility, but utility is again only one element that might be used to determine perceived value.
Proudhon also fell into the trap of reifying ideas. Any time an idea is reified one opens the door to confusion and challenges.
As with many people, Proudhon believed that wealth occurred naturally. Wealth is a human construct — an idea. Wealth is anything tangible derived from labor that satisfies individual happiness. Although natural resources contribute to wealth production, wealth cannot be created without converting resources into a usable form. At best, humans might decide that certain natural resources possess subjective value that contribute to producing wealth, but are not wealth. Although an apple tree produces fruit, notice the apples provide no benefit to humans unless labor is used to harvest the fruit. The fruit might possess perceived value, but is not wealth. In nature that which is, is. There is no such thing as “natural wealth.”
Proudhon argued that a laborer, after receiving remuneration for providing the deliverables of a contract, nonetheless possesses a right of property in what was produced and delivered. Such a statement necessarily contradicts the concept of contracts and the concept of voluntary trade and exchange.
One of the more confusing assertions by Proudhon is that the concept of property implies a “right to increase” (profit). A reductionist approach might lead Proudhon to such a conclusion, but a systems approach reveals that increase is merely one option available with property. The primary reason for producing is consuming, and people always consume what they produce. This so-called “right to increase” is not a natural right nor even a foregone conclusion. Proudhon also offered a nonsensical argument that if one did indeed choose consumption instead of increase, that such an act causes a titleholder to become his or her own debtor. By definition, debt arises when one individual does not immediately receive wealth in an exchange for wealth. If there is no exchange there is no debt. Proudhon tried to out-intellectualize himself and instead only embarrassed himself with such a statement.
Proudhon mistakenly argued that a manufacturer of tools is paid only once, when the tool is exchanged for some other form of wealth. That outcome is only one possibility. A manufacturer need not exchange those products, but instead could lease those tools in exchange for other forms of wealth.
These examples should show what happens when a simple reductionism or dialectic approach is used. Yet, Proudhon, does have an important message to share.
One of the first things any reader of this book must discern is exactly what is Proudhon discussing? The title of his book is rhetorical. That is, Proudhon wanted to articulate some challenges he saw with the concept of property. He raised several thoughtful questions about the concept of property, but failed to provide a reader a clear foundation. He provided a definition of property, and yet, although this definition is generic, Proudhon mostly discussed one particular aspect of property — property titles in land.
Proudhon used an old Roman concept to define property as “the right to use and abuse one’s own within the limits of the law.” He wrote that the “limits of the law” was not a restriction of the concept of property, but merely a boundary within which one titleholder does not interfere with another titleholder. Yet, this definition fails to adequately define the concept of property. His definition instead only defines certain characteristics of property. However, this “right to abuse” is a key element in Proudhon’s distaste for certain aspects of the concept of property.
A contemporary of Proudhon provided a more understandable definition of property. From Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language:
Property: The exclusive right of possessing, enjoying and disposing of a thing; ownership.
Proudhon believed there are two types of property:
Possessions: that which is called property by fact and not mere declaration.
Naked property: that which is called property merely by declaration.
Through this distinction Proudhon thought one could find two principles of law: jus in re, the right in a thing; and jus ad rem, the right to a thing. The former often is referred by some people as possessions and the latter as private property; that is, property titles created by privilege, fiat, agreement, or declaration. In the former the concepts of physical possession, title, and ownership are combined, such as owning a car. The latter is naked property, and might include ownership by fiat declaration, such as land titles possessed by nobility; or by license, such as contracting a lease to use an object owned by another individual.
Proudhon ventured an amusing analogy that a lover is a possessor while a husband is a proprietor. Of course, that statement must be considered in the context of his times and that then, at law women were not considered individuals with full rights. Women then were more or less considered chattel. However, the analogy does offer some thought because a lover voluntarily is provided access to his or her partner’s body and physical possessions while a husband, because of the way social and civil laws were interpreted then was, by mere fiat, declared owner of all a wife owned, including her body. That viewpoint is what some would call a patriarchal model of property.
An important element of property is the right to exclude others — the so-called “right to abuse.” That element creates potential for conflict and violence. This particular element of property upset Proudhon, particularly with respect to land ownership. Such exclusion when applied to land could deprive other people of the right to sustain their lives.
To support his thesis, Proudhon wanted to show various contradictions in using the word property, that the word itself is a paradox of sorts. He offered an analogy that property is to robbery as slavery is to murder. A muddled analogy at best.
Even in Proudhon’s day the word property covered both movable and immovable objects, just like today. Thus, for anyone to advocate the abolition of “private property” or that property is robbery often is confusing to many people because often there are no easy ways or words to distinguish various forms of property. Proudhon thought he could distinguish that difference using the words possessions and property. That inadequate choice of words contributes to the challenge of understanding Proudhon’s thesis.
Unfortunately, Proudhon’s famous declaration is illogical and therefore confusing. In declaring that property is robbery he declared that A=B. However, the concept of robbery is meaningless without the concept of property. That isn’t to say that various ways in which the concept of property is used never leads to robbery (or slavery), but he could not decisively declare that property equals robbery. The two concepts are different, with the latter being dependent upon the former. Thus, his famous statement is inconsistent.
That does not mean his thesis is meaningless, only that readers must look harder at what Proudhon was declaring. A reader must continually distinguish between the two types of property Proudhon thought existed — possessions and naked property, and recognize that he believed fiat titles in property is an unsustainable idea that caused much of the social imbalance and disorder he thought existed. Perhaps a better way for Proudhon to have penned his famous declaration would have been the use of property titles created by fiat political privilege is robbery.
Proudhon wanted to differentiate between property titles created by privilege and title created through labor, free association, and voluntary exchange. More specifically, he wanted to differentiate between titles recognized through mere declaration as opposed to those titles where production and usufruct occurred. Proudhon embraced the concept of small-scale ownership in land, that artisans, shopkeepers, and small-scale farmers should be able to own and control the tools, dwellings, and local land necessary to support his or her trade and family. Proudhon also supported the idea of large tracts of land being titled, as long as that land was being used directly to produce something. Thus, despite his well-known statement that property is robbery, Proudhon could not have been advocating a policy of abolishing the concept of property.
However, he rejected the concept of fiat ownership through nobility and political privilege that forced non land owners to rent that land in order to survive. The concept of property necessarily includes an element of exclusion and many people are affected when that element is enforced by fiat declaration. Understanding this critical difference will help readers understand Proudhon’s book and his confusing declaration that property is robbery. Proudhon was not against the concept of property, but was opposed to the so-called “right to abuse” when that “abuse” includes land remaining unused or is titled in a manner that deprives other people the basic right to survive.
Despite this weakness in language, Proudhon was on the right track to attack titles of privilege. To him there was a difference between property titles in fact as opposed to property titles created from mere “legal” decree. Proudhon thought that if justice was to truly prevail for all humans, specifically the right to life and the right to sustain life, then rights of production were jus in re — rights in a thing, whereas rights to the means of production (resources of the earth) were jus ad rem — right to a thing. To possess title to more land than could possibly be used directly, and to exclude others from using that land, was to deny others of the right to life and the right to sustain life. The latter is a form of slavery, and creates standing for conflict and upheaval. Thus, Proudhon wanted to argue against this particular form of property titles.
The great question for Proudhon, like many social reform thinkers, was why did he observe so much sorrow and misery in human life? Why so much poverty? Proudhon thought there was a sense of economic injustice and he thought political titles in land was a root cause. Proudhon was correct to observe a problem in land title distribution, but like so many other 19th century social reformers who attacked the “land problem,” he left readers confused by not carefully defining words and distinguishing concepts. Like many people, Proudhon attacked the symptoms of land title distribution, rather than the root cause that allows that process to exist.
Proudhon often used the word proprietor. Unlike the modern usage which means a business owner, Proudhon used the word narrowly to mean only land owners or landlords. Thus, any reader of his book would do well to mentally say “landlord” or “land owner” whenever reading the word proprietor.
A larger challenge with reading this book is trying to distinguish when Proudhon is discussing the concept of property generically (“possessions” obtained through labor, usufruct, and voluntary exchange) and when he is discussing privileged property titled by mere declaration. With these clarifications, however, one can cull some critical points from Proudhon’s book.
Theft is a human construct, an abstraction. Within nature there is no such concept. Within nature, that which is, is. All of life survives by appropriating resources. Sometimes that appropriation requires conflict and sometimes violence, but most often not. Within many species mutual help is common, although conflict between species also is common. Some animals exercise a degree of territorialism, but the concept of “might makes right” applies with respect to defending that territory. Humans have developed a more complex sense of sociability than other animals, and the concept of property — “mine and thine,” is one way in which humans try to reduce or minimize the potential bloody effects of “might makes right.”
Yet, as many people will argue, “might makes right” still exists among humans because of the manner in which property boundaries are applied and recognized within political systems.
To Proudhon, justice was not a concept that existed because of law, but that law was merely the clarification and application of justice. Proudhon began his discussion arguing that justice rested upon three principles:
However, through political processes, especially the concept of privileged property titles in land, modern social systems are based upon inverting those three principles to create a system of injustice:
Proudhon discussed several typical reasons people use to justify the concept of property:
Proudhon offered arguments why he thought those claims fail. He also offered ten propositions why he thought the concept of property was impossible. Although each proposition contains a grain of sensibility, his reductionism and dialectic approach created a myopic perspective. A systems approach reveals that his so-called impossibilities are only one possible outcome with the concept of property. Additionally, often the reader is left confused about whether Proudhon is discussing only privileged titles in land or if he is discussing the entire concept of property.
In all, Proudhon offered a valiant effort to describe many inherent social problems, challenges, and inconsistencies with the concept of property. However, the concept of property is not derived from possession, natural right, occupation, or labor. Property is merely a convenient human convention and exists for one reason: to help reduce conflict in human social systems. Thus, many of Proudhon’s arguments are wasted time.
The social injustice Proudhon witnessed is not the so-called various contradictions with the concept of property, but the politicization of the concept — both with land and with legal fictions, specifically the legal fiction of incorporation. The true root cause of social misery and poverty is not the nature of property, or contracts with respect to the relationship of the capitalist and laborer, but how title is created and sustained.
Additionally, one must recognize that in the Industrial Age, capitalization of various production efforts is performed not in respect to past production but with respect to future production. That is, in a barter and trade exchange system, humans must first produce capital before they can use that capital to create additional wealth. The modern concept of banking allows for tremendous leverage in capitalizing any productive effort by first creating currency that will be used to obtain capital. Thus, capitalization is shifted into the future time domain. In a true barter and trade exchange system, such leverage cannot exist. This is a key point that many capitalists, libertarians, and socialists often overlook.
That political privilege creates a monopoly on credit and impedes free association and voluntary exchange.
To agitate the problem of modern capitalization, third parties known as bankers are provided a political privilege to create that currency and charge compounded interest — an exponentially calculated fee for a linear production process. These third parties do not participate directly in the actual labor or producing new wealth, but by political privilege, receive exorbitant fees that necessarily and coercively redirects and redistributes wealth. Capital is a feedback mechanism in the production of wealth, and when distorted by compound interest necessarily distorts the entire aggregate flow of wealth. The bankers and politicians benefit, and everybody else suffers.
Proudhon argued that once all land is titled, then thereafter people can obtain access to land only by conquest, sale, or lease. A primary problem in Proudhon’s time, and today, is that all land is indeed titled; and much of that titling is to the legal fiction of corporations, both business and political. More than 40% of the land in the United States is titled to a political corporation — municipal, state, and federal legal fictions. Additional land is “legally” titled to business corporations. Such inequity necessarily creates an artificial scarcity in land that should not exist. Again, the problem is not the concept of possessing title to land, but the interference of the privileged few in controlling access to land.
Realize that despite his confusing declaration that property is robbery, Proudhon was on the right track. The concept of property is based upon the concept of a right to life, a concept of self, and a concept of having access to the means of production. That right necessarily includes land, although labor and capital are considered additional factors of production. Without access to land, labor and capital are limited. Humans cannot live without ties to the land. Any social, legal, or political process denying access to land necessarily denies the fundamental right to life and survival. The solution is not abolishing property titles in land, but abolishing privileged titles in land. That solution coincides with Proudhon’s belief that small-scale ownership of land is appropriate.
Politics is a process whereby people try to coercively redistribute wealth without direct personal production — to get something for nothing. Political systems exist and thrive for one sole purpose: to create and sustain artificial scarcity. Controlling the currency, credit, and land title distribution, as well as charging exponential compound interest for mere bookkeeping services, are primary ways in which politics are used to benefit the few. Thus, Proudhon’s famous statement that property is robbery should be rewritten to declare that statism is robbery.
That statement more clearly defines the true root cause of the problem and avoids the many discussion challenges created by trying to distinguish between “property” and “possessions.” By design, statism negates free association and voluntary exchange. By identifying true root causes rather than symptoms, and clarifying the defining terms, A equals B.