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Earth-Hunger and Other Essays/Liberty and Property

Liberty and Property

M. de Laveleye says: "Property is the essential complement of liberty. Without property man is not truly free." It will be worth while, taking this dictum as a text, to unravel it and distinguish its elements of truth and falsehood; for it is as pretty a specimen as could well be found of the sort of social philosophy in which confusion of terms and unclearness of thinking set apothegms in circulation which easily pass as the profoundest wisdom, when they are really null, or, still worse, are true or false just as you take them.

The specimen before us may mean either of two things. It may mean that every man has a right to be, and expects to be, a free man, that to be such he must have some property, and that, therefore, the authority which is responsible for securing him his freedom is bound to see to it that he gets some property; or, it may mean that freedom is a thing which every man should seek to win and acquire, that it is not possible to acquire it without property, and that, therefore, every sober, industrious, and socially ambitious man should properly seek to get property. Which of these two does the proposition mean? By its terms it is impossible to decide. It is a proposition which two persons might understand and employ at the same time in the two opposite senses with perfect good faith, and thereby lay the foundation for a "social discussion" of great magnitude, the only fruit of which would be to find out at last how they had misunderstood each other from the beginning. We have seen numerous instances of this kind and it can hardly be disputed that the propositions which admit of such differences of interpretation are extremely mischievous.

If the proposition is taken in the former sense, the notion of a "free man" is taken to be something simple and definite, which can be made the basis of deductions, and upon which obligations of social duty can be constructed, aimed especially at the state, which guarantees liberty as a political right. Property then becomes a right of the individual, in his relation with society or the state. He would not forfeit this right to have property unless he should get some property by his own effort—if he did that he would fall under the "duties of wealth," the first of which, as we learn from current discussion, is to subscribe to or contribute the fund by which the state makes others free.

If the proposition is taken in the latter sense, the notion of a free man cannot be set up a priori. A free man is such a man as results under the limitation of earthly life, when he has individual and social power sufficient to bear up against the difficulties which harass us here. The proposition would then say that no man can do this without property—property would, therefore, be a duty, not a right. A man could not lay claims to it against anybody else; he would be bound to produce it from his own energy, and by the use of his own resources. Property would, therefore, arise in the social organization from the obligation of every man to pay his way in the body of which he is a member, and to carry the burden of others for whom he is responsible—first of all, of his wife and children. It would not arise, as under the first interpretation, from the fact that he needs something which he has not.

According to these two interpretations, the proposition contains neither one nor the other of the two great philosophies which are now in dispute on the social domain. They might, in fact, be defined as affirming, one, that property is a right of him who has it not and a duty of him who has it, looking always simply at the distribution of that which is; the other, that property is a right of him who has it, and a duty of him who has it not, viz., a duty to work and produce some.

We need not stop for any long discussion of the definition of property, for it does not seem to be involved in the issue before us. By property I mean the sum of things which serve the wants of men, and the appropriation of which to individual use and enjoyment is assured by the power of society. Such, also, seems to be the sense in which the word is taken in the passage quoted, so that we are at least free from the constant confusion between property, the metaphysical notion of property, the right of property, and the moral justification of property. The author of this thesis has not, therefore, a balloon at hand, so that when he is beaten on the ground he can take to the clouds. The property which a man needs to make him free is food, clothes, shelter, and fuel to release him from the slavery of want. These are material things, goods, wealth, products of labor and capital, objects of appropriation, sources of exclusive satisfaction to him who consumes them on himself; they are therefore objects of strife, occasions of crime, definitions of meum and tuum, things about which law turns, chief subjects of the moral law, leading facts in the history of civilization, having their origin far back before it was sufficiently developed to leave traces which we can follow. That is what is meant by property when it is said that without property a man cannot be free, no matter which interpretation we give to that proposition.

One of the best mediæval scholars of this century, Guerard, wrote: "Liberty and property entered the hut of the serf together"; "Liberty and property increased together and justified each other"; and he often repeats statements to the same effect. Another scholar, Pigeonneau, has written that in the boroughs which were built up around the seats of bishops, princes, and abbots, commerce created wealth, and wealth created liberty. The history of the Middle Ages, when studied objectively and not romantically, fully sustains these dicta. The history of modern civilization from the ninth and eleventh centuries, about which these writers were speaking, down to the present time, reveals the course by which liberty and property have been developed together; but at the same time it reveals that they have grown together only when property has been secure, and the right of property has been strictly maintained, and that nothing has ever been more fatal to liberty than socialistic abuse of property.

In the view of liberty which I have tried to present, liberty is a conquest. It does not lie at the beginning of history and of the struggle of the human race on this earth; it lies at the end of it, and it is one of the richest and finest fruits of civilization. We should not, therefore, if we gave up civilization, fall back into permanent rest in the primeval state of "natural liberty"; we should, on the contrary, lose liberty, if we lost civilization. It is liberty which is unstable and always in jeopardy, and which can be maintained only by virtue and diligence. The two great means by which men have won liberty in the course of civilization have been property and knowledge; whenever the distribution of property has been arbitrarily interfered with, either because the state became too strong or too weak, liberty has declined. Civilization has not always suffered, because, as in the formation of the great states, under certain circumstances, civilization might win, although liberty was arrested—civilization will win any time at the expense of liberty, if discipline and coercion are necessary to the security of property. Therefore the truth is that liberty and property go together, and sustain each other in a glorious accord, but only in the highest and best civilization which men have yet attained; and to maintain them both together, or to maintain that order of society in which they are consonant and co-operative, is a task which mankind has never yet succeeded in accomplishing save in a most imperfect way.

The serf first obtained chattels and then land in property; on them he won his first power, and that meant his first liberty—meaning thereby his personal liberty. His title to these things, that is, his right to appropriate them to his own exclusive use and enjoyment, and to be sustained by the power of the state in so doing, was his first step in civil liberty. It was by this movement that he ceased to be a serf. This movement has produced the great middle class of modern times; and the elements in it have been property, science, and liberty. The first and chief of these, however, is property; there is no liberty without property, because there is nothing else without property on this earth. How can any one dispute this who will think for a moment that property means food and shelter—the first things necessary that we may exist at all; and that we use the word property rather than wealth or goods when we mean to refer to their appropriation to the exclusive use of individuals? Therefore liberty and property are not inseparable, and if they are separated it is property which is fundamental and permanent, and not liberty.

Hence the proposition which we undertook to examine does not bear analysis well. The dictum that no man can be free without property is entirely true or false as we construe it one way or another. Freedom and property, I say, are not inseparable, and if they are separated, it is liberty and not property which is the adjunct. If they are united, they do not simply coalesce, but their combination belongs to a new and higher order of civilization, calling for new social knowledge and for wisdom to maintain it.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.