On property

Some meandering thoughts on property, for a rainy Sunday afternoon.

A fifth doctrine, that tendeth to the dissolution of a commonwealth, is, that every private man has an absolute propriety in his goods; such, as excludeth the right of the sovereign.

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651, Chapter XXIX, Of those things that weaken, or tend to the dissolution of a Commonwealth.

Hobbes’ point here is simple. If any individual amasses a great amount of property, then she or he will has a base of power from which she or he can dominate others. That power base is dangerous to the state. Throughout Leviathan, Hobbes argues that in order to escape the state of nature, where life is solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short, there must be an absolute ruler, a leviathan, who can impose law, and ensure that laws are followed. He leaves it open as to whether that leviathan is a single person, or a parliament. The essential characteristic of a leviathan is that he or she or it is untrammeled by the law, and is unthreatened by other power bases within the state. If there are other centres of power, then in time, the state, described in the quote above as a commonwealth, will crumble.

James Harrington wrote against Hobbes’ absolute monarch, and in favour of republican rule, in The Commonwealth of Oceana, published in 1656. He envisaged a parliament and regular elections and rotation of officers. Only propertied men could be citizens and vote, because they were the people who held property and so could withstand the power of government. But property holdings should be limited, so that no one person could accumulate too much power.

An equal commonwealth is such a one as is equal both in the balance or foundation, and in the superstructure; that is to say, in her Agrarian law, and in her rotation.

An equal Agrarian is a perpetual law establishing and preserving the balance of dominion by such a distribution, that no one man or number of men, within the compass of the few of aristocracy, can com to overpower the whole people by their possessions in lands.

As the Agrarian answers to the foundation, so dos rotation to the superstructures.

Equalrotation is equal vicissitude in government, or succession to magistracy confer’d for such convenient terms, enjoying equal vacations, as take in the whole body by parts, succeding others, thro the free election or suffrage of the people.

Source: Oceana

Harrington’s work is fascinating, for his alternative to Hobbes’ absolute monarch is an empire of laws, by which all are governed, including those who make the laws. His writing is however, almost unbearably turgid, so it is unsurprising that he is not much read anymore.

What I find interesting about both extracts is that both writers think that large accumulations of property are dangerous.

But some property is good! I like the reading of Chapter 5: Of Property of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1689), which argues that his main aim was not to justify private property holdings for their own sake, out of some notion of ownership, but to mark out an area of life where the king, or parliament, could not intervene. Private property holdings are a way of limiting the power of government. Even then, Locke sets limits on how much property a person may take: anyone who takes land from the common for his own purposes must leave as much and as good in common for others. Locke did however think that there was limitless land available in the Americas that was not being used, or at the very least, not being used properly.*

So from three different thinkers, one who favoured absolute monarchy where there monarch stood outside the law, one who argued for republican government with the rule of law for all and an elaborate system of checks and balances, and one who argued for limited government and saw private property as a means for achieving limits on government, I read both an acknowledgement of the value of private property, and a warning about limiting the amount of property that any one person can accumulate. Too much property gives too much power.

I wrote about property and power a few months ago in an op-ed for the Dom-Post: Property divide creating second class citizens. Today’s vague meandering thoughts on the same theme started when James Battye, sometime teacher and colleague, now a friend, sent me the quote from Hobbes along with birthday wishes. What an excellent gift – something to think about.


* Just in case, you should read this sentence imagining my voice dripping with irony and sarcasm. Locke’s was a very colonial attitude towards land possession and land use.


3 comments on “On property

  1. Denny says:

    Thanks for doing all the leg-work and then sharing the results of your research. Very interesting

  2. Thank you for making me think. But how does one define “too much” property?

    (more posts like this when you feel so inclined, please? It is a welcome addition to your other topics…)

  3. The Whig Party says:

    Of course there’s little chance Locke’s views on the Americas could have been stopped:

    From the soc.history.what-if FAQ:

    11.b. Could the American Indians have repelled the Europeans?

    No, nor any other people from the Old World who might have discovered the New. Even apart from a considerable technical edge (guns, but also metal working, shipbuilding, etc.), the Europeans had a decisive advantage because of their diseases. Due to their late settlement of the continents and lack of domesticated animals, the native
    Americans lacked any immunity to most Old World diseases, which meant a catastrophic population collapse (definitely higher than 50%, and perhaps more than 90%) in the first generations following contact.
    Deaths on a similar scale will necessarily follow *any* extensive contact between the hemispheres.

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