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February 9, 2017 / Congau

The Right to Property

The universal right to property is a rather curious thing. The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may be universal in the sense that it means the same for all human beings, but the right to property is dependent on what a person happens to own. If he owns nothing, there is no property right to be defended. If he owns a lot, he has in a way a lot more rights than his fellow citizens.

The guaranteed right to every single object a person possesses is also dependent on whether or not they were rightfully acquired in the first place. Presumably no one has the right to stolen goods. But even if an object is bought with the consent of the previous owner, it is necessary that that owner was really entitled to it. And even if he also had gotten it by honest means, it all depends on how the owner before him had acquired it, etc etc.

Of course there is no way to determine the chain of ownership all the way from the present and back to pre-historic time, so in a sense it is impossible to judge if the current owner really has the right to his property, at least if it is to be considered an absolute and inalienable right. The protection of property may be necessary in order to secure a functioning society, but that is a pragmatic arrangement and not a fundamental a priori right.

Moreover, even the states that are the most devoted to the concept of property rights do sometimes confiscate the property of their citizens, usually by imposing taxes, and that could not have been done if they considered the right to be absolute.

Whatever a person owns is in any case linked to a complexity of circumstances and only some of them can be referred back to the person himself. Justice and injustice, theft and honest work, it is all intermingled in the great social fabric and even if one particular owner is completely honest, his material conditions are integrated in social circumstances beyond his control. Chance and injustice are ingredients in anyone’s possessions. (For example, in the rich part of the world we owe some of our riches to exploitation of the poor part.) That doesn’t mean that anyone should be allowed to take away what we have at any time, but it also doesn’t make it a fundamental right.

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