The Philosophical Foundations of Property Rights

By Bry Willis

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

Woody Guthrie


“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society…” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Proudhon’s critique of rentier property, though focussed on such rights, can be extended to private property in general. To claim land as one’s own is an act that has, throughout history, deprived future generations. Owning land is not only a matter of possession, but a matter of power and exclusion. It is an ownership maintained through violence, be it explicit or implicit. Rousseau’s words, satirical yet ironic, ring true even today. His warning against the horrors and misfortunes that stemmed from property ownership carries a weighty message. He regards the act of claiming land as founded on naïvety, condemning those who sought to deceive others into believing in the falsehood of private ownership.

“Property is theft!” — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Then we have Locke, whose claims of rights to life, liberty, and property are unfounded. Though pronounced with conviction during the Age of Enlightenment, these so-called ‘rights’ are but relics of a time long past. Locke’s convincing rhetoric only served to exploit the inherent selfishness in humanity. In the days when land was abundant, people paid little heed to property ownership. Kings and lords ruled, violently claiming land as their own. Today, governments control these lands, doling them out to individuals under the façade of deeds and property rights. All lands are claimed, and the only way to secure them is through participation in an exploitative capitalist system or by seizing and holding them through violence.

The Tenuous Nature of Intellectual and Communal Property

The idea of intellectual property is even more precarious than that of private property. In essence, intellectual property represents a sort of land grab; most of it is derived and synthesised, often without crediting original sources. It frequently involves regurgitated and repackaged concepts. Legal systems, being precedent-based, often favour existing laws, making them difficult to overcome. And since property owners often wield political power, they act unabashedly in their self-interest to maintain ownership and power, even seeking to bequeath property as generational wealth. Communal ownership is no less problematic. While it may seem a fairer approach, it remains exclusionary. We must think beyond the immediate, providing an equal voice for future generations. This means that property should not be owned by private citizens, governments, countries, or nations.

“To own something is no longer something to share; it is to exclude.” Legal maxim

National borders further complicate the issue. No human should be prevented from occupying land, yet distinguishing between property and possession raises another philosophical challenge. While one may feel a strong entitlement to retain possession, why is this so? This dilemma is often rationalised by civility and courtesy, but the issue is complex and beyond the scope of this article. Possession is relatively temporary, while property is intended to be permanent, at least on a human scale. Ronald Coase’s approach, focussed on property rights and environmental concerns, falls short and fits only within a Capitalist framework.

Power, Inequality, and the Illusion of Property Rights

Ansel Adams

History is rife with examples of kings and conquerors taking land wholesale. This pattern continues today, with the state employing its monopoly on violence to ensure property rights are maintained. Yet, the state retains the right to seize property through eminent domain or other means, implicitly threatening legal sanctions up to and including imprisonment and loss of freedoms.

“Landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed.” — Karl Marx

Property rights, predominantly allocated to those with the means to acquire and hold them, perpetuate inequality across generations. The myth persists that the person with the most money can put property to its best use for the “greater good.” However, this is a fundamentally flawed assumption. Drawing on the work of John Rawls, we might consider rebalancing property ownership periodically. This could mirror nationalisation schemes, though extant property owners would likely object.

Modern instances of property rights being manipulated abound, as laws and regulations are shaped by those in power to protect their interests. Yet, morals, morality, and ethics remain arbitrary human constructs, maintained by precedence and comfort zones. Many without property cling to the illusion that they may someday join the ranks of property owners. This mirrors the quote often misattributed to John Steinbeck, highlighting how even those without property view themselves as potential owners.

Reimagining Property Rights for a Fairer Future

Ansel Adams

Reimagining property rights requires radical thinking and a departure from established norms. It’s not merely a matter of redistributing wealth, but deconstructing the very concept of ownership. Considering the views of thinkers like Thomas Paine, who advocated for a citizens’ dividend funded by landowners, we might seek alternative means of distributing land and resources. Paine’s proposals in “Agrarian Justice” foreshadowed ideas that continue to resonate today.

“Men did not make the earth… It is the value of the improvement only, and not the earth itself, that is individual property.” — Thomas Paine

In a world of finite resources, the notion of communal stewardship offers a way forward. However, this approach must extend beyond traditional notions of ownership, recognising the rights and needs of future generations. This might require a radical rethinking of national borders and exclusionary practices.

“The earth is given as a common stock for man to labour and live on.” — Thomas Jefferson

Through a careful blending of historical and contemporary thought, guided by a moral compass aligned with justice and equity, we may yet redefine property in a way that respects the shared heritage of humanity.

Conclusion: A World Beyond Property

Ansel Adams

The concept of property ownership has become so ingrained in modern society that challenging it may seem an insurmountable task. Yet the voices of Proudhon, Rousseau, Paine, and others remind us that these constructs are not immutable. They were forged in specific historical contexts and can be reimagined for a fairer future.

“The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” — Thomas Paine

The questioning of property rights is more than a theoretical exercise; it’s a moral imperative. By examining the origins and implications of private ownership, we uncover deep-seated inequities and a system that perpetuates social stratification. To move beyond the constraints of traditional property norms, we must engage with radical ideas and be willing to redefine what ownership means in a global context. This necessitates a willingness to question the status quo and to imagine a world where possession is temporary, and stewardship is valued over ownership.

“Freedom is the man that will turn the world upside down.” — Gerrard Winstanley

This article has been an exploration, an invitation to join a conversation that seeks to redefine our relationship with the world and each other. The path is fraught with challenges, but the promise of a more equitable and compassionate world awaits those brave enough to walk it.


  1. Proudhon, P.-J. (1840). What Is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government. [Original French Title: Qu’est-ce que la propriété?]
  2. Rousseau, J.-J. (1755). Discourse on Inequality. [Original French Title: Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes]
  3. Locke, J. (1689). Two Treatises of Government.
  4. Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. [Original French Title: Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison]
  5. Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice.
  6. Coase, R. H. (1960). “The Problem of Social Cost.” Journal of Law and Economics, 3, 1-44.
  7. Steinbeck, J. (Misattributed quote, possibly paraphrased from other sources).

Bry Willis

Bry is a writer, philosopher, and all-American intellectual in the Rocky Mountain, non-conformist tradition. He loves the truth, but dislikes people who sit tall in the saddle and ride roughshod over others.

Bry has the hard, accomplished edge of the self-taught. He has never been afraid to tackle difficult issues that matter. He is a heterodox economist and progressive thinker, and an anarcho-syndicalist in the spirit of Sacco and Vanzetti.

Igtheist beliefs? Check! Buddhism? Yep! Conscientious Objector? Absolutely! Beyond the pen, he’s a musician, strumming chords that resonate with rebellion. Check out his music! There’s more to this human than meets the eye.

Dive, dive, dive into his world, and you’ll get the unfiltered, uncensored, ripeness of Bry, ‘parfaitement mûr’.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: