Property rights are not inherent, but granted by the people as a whole

I’ve had property rights on the brain for a while, far longer than my recent Fourth of July post.

Bottom line — only the owner-class, led by the aristocracy (Our Betters), considers property rights god-given. The rest is a sell-job, which most of us have bought.

Here’s Benjamin Franklin on property rights. I’ll let him speak, then I’ll say in modern terms what he means (my emphasis and some reparagraphing throughout):

Benjamin Franklin to Robert Morris, 25 Dec. 1783:

All Property, indeed, except the Savage’s temporary Cabin, his Bow, his Matchcoat, and other little Acquisitions, absolutely necessary for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the Creature of public Convention. Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity and the Uses of it.

All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition.

Think about hunter-gatherer man versus settled-farmer man. For Franklin, the hunter-gatherer notion of property was exemplified by the American Indians (the “Savage”), but he’s really just referring to man as he lived for almost two million years:

Hunting and gathering was presumably the subsistence strategy employed by human societies beginning some 1.8 million years ago, by Homo erectus, and from its appearance some 0.2 million years ago by Homo sapiens.

It remained the only mode of subsistence until the end of the Mesolithic period some 10,000 years ago, and after this was replaced only gradually with the spread of the Neolithic Revolution.

What is personal property for the hunter-gatherer (Franklin’s “Savage”)? It’s what he carries and wears. The rest is common to the community he lives in and with.

And the land? The land, by its nature, is entirely unowned, or better, “owned” by all in common.

Now look at the last bolded sentence in the Franklin quote. The ownership of land is a convention, agreed to by the public, which can be removed by the public at any time for any reason.

To think otherwise gets you into Divine Right of Kings territory — and there is no Divine Right of Property Owners for Franklin. Nor for me. Nor should there be for you.

If you believe in the inherent-ness of property ownership, you believe that once property is acquired (often by conquest and theft) it can never be redistributed.

You believe, in other words, in the Divine Right of the Aristocracy (Our Betters) to run and rule our world. Franklin holds otherwise; me, the same.

Here’s another way to think about it. Every property “right” on earth, if you trace it back far enough, rests on a theft. How can any property “right” be more legitimate than any other? It can’t.

Want more? Here’s Thomas Paine (h/t David Atkins at Digby’s place):

From Agrarian Justice:

Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund prod[uced] in this plan is to issue.

The property owners owe rent to those who do not own property for the privilege of cultivating the land, and taking away the natural ownership that all people have

To create a national fund, out of which there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling [a ton ov money in those days], as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property:

And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age.

Let me translate: The true owners of land are the mass of the people generally. (Same as Franklin’s idea, above.) Individual “owners” of land are actually renters from the public generally, and thus owe rent to the public for the right to squat on it and use it as their own.

Paine proposes that this rent be an annual payment into a national fund, which will then be distributed annually to every “non-owner” (each non-squatting landlord) of the land.

Not a bad plan. Note the common theme — “owners” of anything but the clothes on their back are not owners at all, but squatters, who hold “their” land by agreement of society as a whole.

That “ownership” — not ownership at all — can all be taken away. And frequently is.

When things become too one-sided, of course, it will all be taken away, in one way or another. Most of us prefer the peaceful way.

This is not a threat — I personally do not want to be around if the non-peaceful way of debt forgiveness and wealth redistribution occurs. That way is ugly, bloody, intensely brutal, profoundly inhumane; and it generally takes at least three generations for things to settle out. That’s a lot of lost lifetimes.

France wasn’t a stable republic for 80 years following the original revolution. Russia isn’t one yet.

If America is truly exceptional, blessed by god, here’s his or her chance to prove it. Give us, madame or sir, our needed revolution … without the blood.

Thanks in advance,


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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