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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 35.djvu/693

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669
ORIGIN OF THE RIGHTS OF PROPERTY.

most virulent or the most dangerous. Since the beginning of the world there has existed a practical conspiracy against it which is not likely soon to cease. War, slavery, imposture, oppressive imposts, monopolies, privileges, commercial frauds, colonies, right to employment, right to credit, right to assistance, right to instruction, progressive taxation imposed in direct or inverse proportion to our power of bearing it, are so many battering-rams directed against the tottering edifice; and if the truth must come out, would you tell me whether there are many men in France, even among those who think themselves conservative, who do not, in one form or another, lend a hand to this work of destruction?"

In America, at the present time, this interminable war on the instinct and institution of private property has taken on all these forms, and many more, which will be treated of in their proper places. The four anarchists, who are at this moment hanging by their necks, were in the van of the procession. When we carefully study the relation of all these doctrines to the antiquated notion of a sacred and absolute right of private property, those who openly deny the right of property in land, as being itself a denial of property in the products of labor, are seen to be far toward the rear. To that study let us now devote our attention; and, in order that it may be a scientific and not a partisan study, we must not let private ownership be to us for the nonce either a fetich or a bugbear. We must analyze it dispassionately, as if it concerned us only as a matter of curiosity, though, in fact, our analysis will show that it is in all respects our chief concern. And we must not neglect to note the economic consequences of its being to us and to our fellow-beings a fetich on the one hand, or on the other a bugbear.

What is property? We have said it is not wealth; but that is not saying what it is. We have said it is ownership, but a synonym is not a definition. What constitutes ownership? What is the exact meaning of the words mine and thine, in the sense of ownership? There is none. Few words are more indefinite in their meaning. There are degrees of mineness and thineness. These apply respectively to different communities at different periods of their history, and to different subjects of property at the same period and in the same community. Thus there have been times and places in which the phrase "my wife" expressed a property relation. The phrase is still everywhere used, but not in the same sense of property. And yet it seems that among us a man has property in his wife's affections, for he has an action for damages against the man who "alienates" them. Yesterday I received a copy of an interesting paper, read before the American Water-Works Association, under the title "Is Water Property?" This question of what is and what is not ownership or property