1.—Life, Liberty, and Property.
If the liberty of the individual, embracing in that idea the equal liberty of all, is accepted as a standard principle, the only measure of rights, and the fulfilment of justice; then, whatever ideas are entertained upon property must harmonize with that leading idea. Any conception of property which traverses it and denies complete individual liberty must be rejected: it is inconsistent with its acceptance.
Talking once with an ardent Socialist, he confessed to me, with innocent candor, that the very first notion in the communistic direction had yet to be acquired by the people.
For, said he,
the idea of individual or private property lies so deep in their minds and is so securely imbedded in their habits of thought, in their very nature, that any conception of property conditions opposed to this seems almost impossible: to effect a change would require a mental revolution more gigantic than has ever been known. And yet without such a change in property ideas no communistic revolution could last a day. ’Twould be simply a dead letter.
How profoundly true!
Recalling this observation brings me to the point to be first noticed: the property idea, as we find it developed today among civilized and progressive people.
Not only is the belief in individual property general, it grows more intense, and is continually embracing a wider range of objects and ideas not previously considered as property at all.
It is unnecessary here to elaborate the rise and development of this idea, nor need we now discuss the question whether private property or common property is the more ancient, especially as so many conflicting theories upon the matter are held by those considered authorities.
Enough is known, beyond dispute, to show that the right of the individual to hold property has been allowed from the remotest times; that as his power of acquiring it and need for it have grown his right has become clearer and more imperative; and that private property develops with human progress. Its recognition advances with advancing civilization: experience, customs, laws, exemplify the fact.
Admitting this truth, the question for us to consider is: Does this tendency of property agree with individual liberty? Does the fact harmonize with our principle?
When an individual in the exercise of his liberty expends his energies in acquiring property without preventing others from so exercising the like liberty, he breaks not the law of individual liberty, he trespasses not on the freedom of others. So that property acquired under such conditions rightfully belongs to him who acquires it.
And research into the earliest known conditions of individual property proves that the limited forms of private property then recognized, as hunting weapons and other implements, clothing such as there was, and huts and habitations, were obtained by the individual without hindering others from becoming possessed of personal property in like manner.
On this condition, observed within the group or tribe, it grew and by slow degrees extended; and, although we shall presently notice other conditions which determined and still more today determine property rights, this remains the primary basis of the right to private property. All extensions of the property idea have their justification in this principle. It is embodied in laws framed with a view to equal rights and justice. It is in accord with prevailing ideas of right and equity. Even the formula used by the Communists,
the product to the producer, entails its recognition.
Though all this is true in the abstract,—which, however, does not insure that, when we come to analyze the practice in regard to the distribution of property, we shall find it so in fact,—yet it is not sufficient warrant for us to establish private property as a right and accept it as we do the right to equal liberty. If we can show the necessity for it as a condition of existence, as part of the law of life, a biological fact which has been established by science, then no more is required of us; its justice and propriety become incontrovertible.
Continuous life is possible only when each individual receives the consequences of his own conduct, when benefits obtained are proportionate to actions performed, when he reaps the advantages of his life maintaining powers, when the good and the evil in his nature each brings its due reward.
Manifestly the possession of property, acquired without violating the liberty of others, is a direct consequence of conduct, the reward of life-sustaining energies.
To deny a man’s right to the fruits of his own exertions is a denial of his right to the use of his faculties, both bodily and mental, and finally of his right to life itself.
Admitting this claim as thus established, and as a necessary consequence of the sovereignty of the individual, we must recognize some truths which naturally follow. A man may acquire property—the term including all forms of wealth—by any method consistent with other men’s equal liberty. He may work for it by direct labor, he may gamble for it by any kind of speculation provided nobody is coerced, he may obtain it by gift or bequest or through unrestricted exchange, and his claim is equally valid, his right equally undeniable.
But he has no just claim to it when procured through the violation of other men’s rights, through the limitation or negation of their equal freedom. The same principle which establishes property rights destroys all arbitrary claims, all law-created rights. It denies all property rights due to legal privilege which is an assault upon individual liberty: to the forcible monopoly of natural resources and opportunities which establish property only through the denial of others’ right to obtain it; to all arbitrarily-enforced burdens, as taxes, rent of land, mines, water, and all natural media: interest—a direct creation of unequal liberty.
Private property may then be stated in terms of equality. It arises out of the equal right of each to complete liberty and life, which is justice.
I have taken up this question of property first in order, and established a definite principle with arguments, I trust, sufficiently clear, though but briefly indicated, and for which I make no claim of originality, because in dealing with the topics that are to follow much discussion will thus be avoided and future arguments be better understood.