Property and the Moral Life

First Published: 2007-05-04

Reprinted with the kind permission of Dr. Richard Ebeling, President of the Foundation for Economic Freedom.

Hayek's bold statement that "Private property is the most important guaranty of freedom" holds true at many levels. Certainly it is private property that allows the individual to be independent from the whims of his government and his fellows. And, as Robert Nozick has elegantly argued, any ahistorical scheme to redistribute property is incompatible with the individual's freedom to dispose of his property as he chooses. But I want to focus in this essay on the ways that the institution of private property forms the necessary background for the freedom that engenders individual moral responsibility.

To understand aright this connection between private property and moral freedom, we must begin with an observation about the nature of freedom: the ascription of freedom to a creature is only meaningful if that creature exists in a more or less fixed environment. Or, put another way, freedom requires limitation. This is because the realm of freedom is the realm of choice, and choices exist only for creatures who are confronted with a reality that does not twist itself into conformity with every human wish. As C.S. Lewis so clearly discerns in his discussion of the problem of evil, any society of free individuals requires a common field of play within which the individuals may interact. For human beings, that field of play is the material world. "But if matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own," Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain. The externality of other people and objects creates the sphere of choice and action that makes moral responsibility possible. The fixity of the human environment means that even in our choices, we never escape limitation. For not only is the range of options always limited, but the very act of choosing is, paradoxically, an act of self-limitation.

In The Myth of Democracy, Tage Lindbom argues that "We live in a subject-object antinomy, and we cannot escape the antinomies of existence. Even freedom of will, freedom of choice, comes to an end, at least from the formal standpoint. We are bound to what we have freely chosen." This means that authentically human freedom is not freedom from commitment, but freedom to commit. And commitment entails responsibility for the consequences of one's choices. The fixed material world is the matrix for the exercise of human freedom.

Survival, Duty, and Self-Development

The institution of private property attaches pieces of the material world to particular moral agents. Private property endows the spatio-temporal actions of individuals with moral significance. This is true in at least three senses. First, private property allows the individual to be responsible for his own survival. Man is both spirit and body, and his physical existence requires certain material conditions to sustain it. The possibility of property places the responsibility for survival squarely on the individual's own shoulders. Put more concretely, the institution of private property allows me to build my own house if I want shelter, to grow my own crops if I want food, and to chop my own wood if I want heat.

Obviously there can be no incentive for anyone to engage in productive labor if the fruits of that labor are liable to be plundered by his less industrious neighbors. Under such circumstances, the concept of exclusive private property ceases to exist meaningfully. The more likely scenario in today's world is that the state will claim the final say to distribute all property so as to achieve some guaranteed social minimum. Such a guarantee, possible only at the expense of private property, destroys the individual's responsibility to meet his own needs. Moral freedom requires choices and consequences through time: I deserve present consequence Y because of my own past action X.

The welfare state creates a radical disjunction between choices and consequences. When the state provides for my material well-being, I am no longer morally free to make choices that determine my future; no matter what I do or don't do, the state will provide for my physical needs. As Richard M. Weaver maintains in Ideas Have Consequences, "no society is healthy which tells its members to take no thought of the morrow because the state underwrites their futures. The ability to cultivate providence, which I would interpret literally as foresight, is an opportunity to develop personal worth." The freedom of responsibility to provide for my own survival can exist only where the respect for private property allows me to do so.

A second way private property promotes moral freedom is by allowing the individual to freely discharge his moral duty to his neighbors. It is an axiom of ethical theory that morally meaningful actions must be performed freely. This condition of freedom would naturally hold for the material duties that men owe to one another: to satisfy whatever duty I may have to help those in need, I must be free to give my property to them. But the welfare state denies property owners the opportunity to exercise this form of moral agency. Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, frankly notes that "Taxation of earnings from labor is on par with forced labor." The welfare state essentially enslaves those who attempt to work for themselves and forcibly redistributes their property along utilitarian lines. In this way, the rape of private property destroys the individual's opportunity to exercise the virtues of charity and beneficence. The private citizen cannot be credited as morally praiseworthy for relinquishing wealth that is coercively seized from him. Freedom is the necessary condition of moral responsibility, and private property is the necessary condition of freedom.

The third way in which private property guarantees moral freedom is by providing the individual with the material media for the full development of his person. Much of the distinctively human work we do, we do with property. According to Weaver, "ownership provides a range of volition through which one can become a complete person." Man could neither write nor sculpt nor perform nor build without the opportunity to own the tools and media that make these activities possible. Private property becomes the material manifestation of realized individual potentials.

The necessary connection between private property and freedom in the realm of Self-development may perhaps most clearly be seen by examining what happens to individual identity when private property is sacrificed to equality. John Rawls regards private property as subordinate to the desires of the least advantaged, and he concludes that both physical property and the individual traits that created the property should be regarded as the common property of the community.

It is certainly true that private property joined to disparate abilities makes inequality inevitable; some men will always be more talented and produce more of human worth than others. Individuality is easily destroyed when the material expression of that individuality through property ceases to be respected. In such a socialist, egalitarian society, the individual is denied the freedom to develop his personhood, because nothing he does can be viewed as truly and exclusively his own. Private property gives man the prerogative to define himself in the material world.

Freedom to Fail

The kinds of freedom made possible by private property obviously do not exhaust the conditions for moral agency. But our interactions with property do represent a substantial part of our responsibility, and our moral lives would be impoverished without the opportunities for choice that private property provides. At this point, I want to make explicit two implications of the relationship between property and moral freedom developed above. First, a painful but necessary part of any freedom is the freedom to fail. Applied to our use of property, moral freedom requires the freedom to be poor, the freedom to be selfish, and the freedom to be undistinguished. If private property were obliterated so that no one could be poor or selfish or undistinguished, no one could properly be said to be free. And what's more, history and scarcity give us every reason to believe that some people not only can fail, but will fail. Failure is the cost of freedom. Second, the kinds of moral freedom I have addressed are linked to concrete, relatively small-scale properties. Massive, abstract, anonymous ownerships of stocks, options, and the like are legal fictions that, whatever their own virtues, weaken the bond between man and the material world, and hence weaken the moral freedom and responsibility that ownership engenders. In the classic Lockean understanding of property, ndividuals create possessions by mixing their labor with the material environment. The reality of global scarcity may give us reason to add to Locke's condition, but the purposeful labor of an individual is still a necessary starting point in understanding how it is that a person comes to be identified, in part, with his property.

When a man turns his money over to a broker who then buys shares of a mutual fund that itself buys shares in a variety of corporations around the world, the man may legally possess the mutual fund shares; but his connection to the businesses in which he is invested is far too weak, and often unwitting, to allow for any substantial moral agency on his part. Indeed, the whole modern notion of a corporation divorces men from responsibility and reduces property to a disembodied and dangerous abstraction. Ghost properties may promote a certain kind of freedom in the broadest libertarian sense, but they are neither necessary nor beneficial to the moral freedom that real property secures.

Lessons from Dostoyevsky

Few spokesmen represent the relationship between property and moral freedom more clearly than the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. The Inquisitor, centerpiece of Ivan Karamazov's poetic brief for atheism, condemns a returned Christ for his failure to feed the weak masses of humanity with the earthly bread they crave. Instead, Christ resisted the devil's temptation to temporal power and left men free to choose-to accept or reject, to obey or flout, to work or starve. So the Inquisitor and his church have stepped in to satisfy the mob's longing for security. Men groan under the agony of freedom and responsibility, and they gladly surrender their freedom and their property to the church in exchange for the most basic material guarantees: "No science will give them bread as long as they remain free, but in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: `Better that you enslave us, but feed us.'"

In the character of the Inquisitor, Dostoyevsky brilliantly prefigures the horrifying connection between humanitarianism and totalitarianism in the twentieth century. When the alleviation of physical suffering is pursued as the highest end of man, his freedom, his property, and often his life are brutally sacrificed on the altar of compassion. The same deontological respect for persons underlies both moral freedom and private property. But as we have seen above, any meaningful respect for persons must allow them to freely and responsibly fail. It is this possibility that Christ allows, and for which he is attacked by the Grand Inquisitor: "Respecting him so much, you behaved as if you had ceased to be compassionate, because you demanded too much from him."

An Abdication of Responsibility

The history of America in recent decades is in large measure the history of a people who, unwilling to bear the responsibility that freedom and choice require, have ceded larger and larger portions of their liberty and property to a national government that promises to provide materially. The recent round of cries for socialized medicine in this country signifies an abdication by many Americans of responsibility for their own lives and welfare. The figure of the Grand Inquisitor shows us the manipulative and dehumanizing face lurking behind the mask of statist humanitarian compassion.

The institution of private property cultivates and protects the moral freedom of the individual person by recognizing his essential dependence on the material world. The limits imposed by this material environment comprise to a large extent the conditions under which human beings make choices, and, thus, the conditions under which human beings exercise moral agency. The sphere of sovereignty that property provides is a sphere necessary to the moral autonomy of the person. Property forms a cushion of independence for each person from the moral intrusiveness of other individuals and the state. It is the fulcrum by which the lone individual makes his moral significance known to the forces that would strip him of his freedom.

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The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.

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