What Is Property?

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is not the only one to ask the question of what is property. Many throughout history have asked that very same question, yet no one has managed to answer the question satisfactorily. At least, that is my conclusion after having read many treatises on property.

John Locke, in the second part of his famous 1690 work Two Treatises of Government, maintained God has created man more or less as a self-owner and through working his mind and body, through labor, he creates new value and has a right to the fruits of that labor. Whenever he mixes that which is unowned (unclaimed) with his own labor he gains a right to the product, be it a cleared field, a harbor, a backyard…

The Lockean concept of property is without question the most universally accepted concept of property, it was both a defense of status quo at the time of writing (at least regarding how property was defined) and is a guideline for governmental definitions of property and the origins thereof. The Lockean property rights theory is the one that has gained most following theoretically or philosophically, and is the one closest to the real world property privilege in state society.

However, the Proudhonian anarchist concept of “possession” rather than property is interesting. Rather than accepting the Lockean “absolute, unrestricted right forever” the possession right is volatile and temporary – it makes a more efficient use of resources possible through not making it temporally exclusive. At the same time, however, the possession concept might (depending on how it is interpreted) work at the direct opposite – through only allowing temporary “occupation” it might discourage or deter investments thereby making the use of resources monstrously inefficient.

The two concepts are fundamentally different and seem to be at two extremes. While the Lockean property concept, often championed by “the right,” distributes rights to property “forever and ever” and “without limits” to how they are used (except for regulation through state coercion) , the Proudhon possession concept is extremely volatile and temporary. Is there no Aristotelian “golden mean” or “middle way” between these concepts?

Such a “middle way” concept of property/possession should be able to abrogate the inherent problems with both extremes: it should not accept the problems of “absolutism” in the Lockean concept, and it should try to compensate the negative effects of a very volatile possession type of ownership.

I tried to establish such a concept in a thesis in political theory (2005) through launching the concept of “use-right” to resources. The use-right is a Lockean concept in the sense that the right is awarded through “mixing one’s labor” with that which is unowned, but it is not a Lockean concept in that it awards ownership only of the fruits of the individual’s labor – not the matter itself. Thus, the right is gained to the function rather than the physical object.

The right is enjoyed for as long as it is not abandoned, which makes it distinctly different from the Lockean concept – as soon as the owner dies or leaves it behind it is “for the taking,” while a Lockean property is owned “forever” if the owner does not award it to someone else upon his/her death. Also, a physical object can be “owned” by a number of people at the same time but for different (non-conflicting) uses, thereby ensuring efficient use of resources. For instance, a piece of land can be used for hiking, mining, bird-watching, berry-picking, etc. as long as any added use does not conflict with the uses already established.

Comments appreciated.