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September 22, 2019 / Congau

Is Property Fundamental?

Life, liberty and property – the three fundamentals that a government must protect above all, or so they say those old theoreticians. Well, life is obviously essential since without it, there’s nothing. Liberty must have been there from the beginning since no one can be naturally born into domination or submission. But property?

However one explains the emergence of property, whether through hard work, speculation or petty theft, it was not there originally. The human infant was born into life and freedom, but it was utterly naked. One screamingly arrived in a palace and many others in a peasant’s hut, but none of them had received their belongings from nature and none of them had yet deserved what they got. Why did their property (or lack of it) need protection?

There may be pragmatic reasons why a government would want to guard the goods of its citizens. It might be difficult to run a meaningful business if your gains could disappear at any moment and perhaps the capitalist mode society is the more effective (that’s another debate), but that doesn’t make property fundamental.

Your body is properly yours, but what else? Everything else is external. Some things are more or less vaguely associated with you. The clothes you are wearing at the moment are more directly associated with you than those hanging in your closet. The things you are using belong to you in another sense than the things you keep in a safe. Your children are yours, but you don’t own them, still they are more strongly yours than anything you happen to own. Your country is supposedly yours, but what does that mean? Do you have any claim to it?

What is the meaning of those possessive pronouns “mine” and “yours” anyway? What is ownership? What is property?

The legal system defines “property” for us and whatever the law says, is lawful, but its meaning is arbitrary and not essential.

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