The Principles of Political Economy

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter VI


§2. Let us ask, then, on what grounds it can be argued that individuals have an inalienable right to private property, which must avail always and everywhere against all considerations of equity or expediency that may be urged in favour of Socialistic schemes?

The most received positive answer to this question is, I think, that which treats the full right of private property---including the right of freely disposing of it by exchange or otherwise---as an indispensable element of the right to Liberty. What a Just social order (it is said) secures to individuals is Equal Freedom; whatever inequalities in the enjoyment of the material means of happiness may actually result from the exercise of this Freedom are perhaps to be deplored and voluntarily alleviated, but certainly not to be forcibly prevented by the action of Government. This Equal Freedom, then, is held to include the liberty of securing to oneself and transferring to others the sole use of any material things not hitherto appropriated.

Against this interpretation of Social Justice considerations have often been urged which may be summed up in the following dilemma. If, on the one hand, we mean by Freedom simply the antithesis of physical coercion, it does not appear that the most perfect realisation of the `Freedom of each so far as compatible with the Freedom of all others' would include the establishment of private property at all: it would be strictly limited to protection of the individual from interference while actually using any portion of material wealth, in the same way as he would be now protected while using roads, commons, &c. If, on the other hand, we extend the notion of Equal Freedom to include equal opportunity for gratifying desires, then it does not appear how Equality of Freedom can be realised so far as any appropriation is allowed which renders things of the kind appropriated unattainable, or more difficult of attainment, by others. But, if this be granted, since land is a commodity of this kind---at least in all but very thinly peopled societies---and since most other property has come from appropriated land, the supposed basis of the right of private property can give but very little support to the institution in an advanced stage of social progress.

Similar difficulties arise if, instead of the more general ``realisation of Freedom'', the special principle that ``every man has a right to the produce of his labour'' is proposed as fundamental. Human labour is obviously not the cause of the matter of any material product, but only of its form; therefore if a man is to have right of property in the product be must have already been allowed to appropriate the material; and this preliminary appropriation will require justification. To say that he has laboured in seeking it is a manifest straining of the principle that we are considering; since, as was before said, land, the grand primary material or natural instrument of that agricultural and extractive labour which is the prerequisite of all other productive work, is not something which a man would have to labour seriously in seeking, if appropriation in land had not already been allowed. And at any rate the first finder's labour cannot give him a right to diminish the opportunities of other seekers. The only mode of defending private property, on the basis of this principle, which seems to me at all tenable, is to maintain that this inevitable diminution of opportunities is adequately compensated; that the appropriation by first comers of the `spontaneous gifts of nature' is not substantially unfair to those who come after, because though they find the land and its produce appropriated, they are placed, in a better position than they would be in if there had been no appropriation. And this is, I think, true if we consider these later comers in the aggregate: it seems to me clear that existing labour, taken in the aggregate, gains more by the results of previous labour, which it finds accumulated, then it loses by the appropriation of the land; especially since a considerable portion of the utility of the land itself must be included among these accumulated results.

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