Personal Property vs. Private Property vs. Public Property

What difference is there between so-called PERSONAL PROPERTY and so-called PRIVATE PROPERTY? And why does this question even matter?

It depends on who you ask.  And with those answers comes with them, a whole host of implications about another form of property; so-called PUBLIC PROPERTY.

It turns out that there isn’t a lot of consensus about the distinction between personal and private property among the various types of communist philosophy. So instead of going through and parsing out which is which, for the sake of expediency, I’m going to go with the definitions that are the most essentialist in nature. Meaning not as essential as say, how property is defined in a strictly Libertarian private law society.  And so, for that purpose I’m going to use the definition of property as defined by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. (Albeit ever so convoluted as it is.)

“”There are different kinds of property: 1. Property pure and simple, the dominant and seigniorial (Ultamate) power over a thing; or, as they term it, naked property. 2. Possession. “Possession,” says Duranton, “is a matter of fact, not of right.” Toullier: “Property is a right, a legal power; possession is a fact.” The tenant, the farmer, the commandité, the usufructuary, are possessors; the owner who lets and lends for use, the heir who is to come into possession on the death of a usufructuary, are proprietors. If I may venture the comparison: a lover is a possessor, a husband is a proprietor.”

“This double definition of property — domain and possession — is of the highest importance; and it must be clearly understood, in order to comprehend what is to follow.

From the distinction between possession and property arise two sorts of rights: the jus in re, the right in a thing, the right by which I may reclaim the property which I have acquired, in whatever hands I find it; and the jus ad rem, the right to a thing, which gives me a claim to become a proprietor. Thus the right of the partners to a marriage over each other’s person is the jus in re; that of two who are betrothed is only the jus ad rem. In the first, possession and property are united; the second includes only naked property. With me who, as a laborer, have a right to the possession of the products of Nature and my own industry, — and who, as a proletaire, enjoy none of them, — it is by virtue of the jus ad rem that I demand admittance to the jus in re”

Here, he is making a distinction between the concept of property and the objective fact of possession. Proudhon is right to make this distinction. But what is implied here is that personal property are those scarce resources that are owned by the mere fact that you are in possession of them. You are PHYSICALLY possessing them. And conversely, private property are those land and other scarce resources that are owned by mere decree and are not in physical possession of.

So far, Proudhon has successfully provided a normative free definition of property. However, when looking at his ethical presuppositions, and his over-use of hyperbole throughout the entire book,  things begin to get muddy;

“II. Property, then, being of necessity conceived as existing only in connection with equality, it remains to find out why, in spite of this necessity of logic, equality does not exist.”

Here, he presupposes that property ought to be more equally distributed. And his opus on property here is to make a justification for a system of property rights that would facilitate a more equal distribution of resources. He wrongfully believes that property is only just when it is upheld by “universal consent”, meaning that a claim to a specific resource is justified when that claim is consented to by everyone. He not only believes that universal consent is a necessary prerequisite for FIRST USE rights, but that possession alone is the only burden of proof required in the midst of a dispute, and that non-possessor owners (i.e. absentee owners) cannot fulfill the burden of proof without some state agent acting as a guarantor of that claim. And here he makes the case that state action is the cause of property inequality.

The misconception here is that inequality is artificial. Prouhon, like all communists, starts with that presupposition, and have built ethical and economic theories from there.

That’s the problem. Saying that the source of suffering is inequality is tantamount to saying that preventing a thief from stealing from you is the cause of the thief’s suffering. Or like saying that suffering is caused by a lack of slaves serving your needs. Make no mistake about it, “universal consent” over the exclusive use of scarce resources means ALL scarce resources become PUBLIC PROPERTY.

But that defeats the purpose of property rights. The purpose of property rights is to decide who gets exclusive use to a particular resource, so that disputes over those resources are mitigated and resolved without violence. But if you say that everyone owns everything, then you’re back to square one. That’s exactly what “universal consent” means. “Everyone owns everything”. Or, in terms of what it means in practice; “collected inward, distributed outward”.

Resources are finite. People’s desire for them and ability to obtain them, are subjective and unequal. Inequality and scarcity are the natural condition of life living on a finite planet, all the while having to contend with OTHER people for the same space and resources. Suffering is a natural precondition to life. But instead of accepting that, I suppose it’s easier to find fault with other people who through innumerable ways, are better at minimizing their own suffering than you are. Land, air, water, and other resources are free…until they’re not. And when they’re not, disputes over those resources are inevitable.

So what then? Its not inconceivable to develop a way to minimize the chance of violent resolution of conflict over scarce resources. The easiest solution then, in the case of all disputes, is to give the presumption of exclusive use rights to the current possessor of a resource. UNLESS a non-possessor can prove otherwise. Why? Precisely because if a physical possessor of a thing is always and forever the presumed owner, then someone who has had their property taken from them, through force or quietly in the night, has no peaceful means of getting his property back. Because legally speaking, he has ZERO claim to the property that was taken from him.

But one could hardly call that property rights. And if equality is your goal, if someone can have a legal right to property simply for the fact that they are in physical possession of a thing, I just don’t see the outcome of that being equal distribution. Not everyone can have this understanding. After all, cognitive abilities are unequal, just as all other abilities. This is a non-controversial fact. To make matters worse, sometimes property disputes aren’t that cut and dry, making the need for higher cognitive abilities to solve complex disputes more necessary.

It’s an imperfect world. Having perfect information about the context of a dispute is a lot of the time, just simply not available. So the need for third party arbitration becomes necessary in some cases, but not all. All communist socio-economic philosophy, including Mutalism, are results of an ever increasing centralization of third party arbitration power. Increased arbitration power is simply put, FINAL arbitration power. As illustrated above, physical possession alone cannot be what determines a right to own. There’s a reason why possession is only 9/10ths of the law. If it were to be, there couldn’t be such a thing as theft, as an aggressor against your possessions now having physical possession of what was once in your possession, would now have the right to own.  Legally and ethically speaking, there’s really no distinction between PERSONAL, PUBLIC, and PRIVATE property. Making a distinction here to determine what is legally permissible to own and what isn’t, is making a legal distinction where no objective distinction exists. Which makes conflict more inevitable, which wouldn’t fulfill the purpose of property rights to begin with.

So why then would a final arbiter prefer mushy distinctions? Precisely because only through a provocation of conflict can a final arbiter rule in its own favor, then use its new power to make law, rather than interpret it. Thus, creating a distinction where no objective distinction exists, is the catalyst a communist needs to change the definition of private property, and claim ownership over more and more aspects of your life. History, facts and evidence support this claim. The State is simply an organization that seeks final arbitration power in ever increasing aspects of our lives. And it has used this power to create disputes, rule in its own favor, creating a tragedy of the resources it manages, then using that as a moral justification to either take more in taxes, and expand the size and scope of its jurisdiction.

Stopping this process requires first understanding how we got to this point. And that reversal of this process is more likely to work to everyone’s benefit more than a total collapse. Precisely because what a collapse really means is simply another tragedy of the commons. States never disappear from such tragedies, they only increase in size and scope. Remember that.  And this is why the property ideas of communism, including mutualism and anarcho-communism will always lead to to more state. Not less. The state really isn’t anything at all. The state is just a short-hand way of explaining ACTION. This means that by attacking the state, you’re not really attacking the root. The root is communism. Remove communists, and you remove the state. Thank you.
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IMAGE: Pei Ketron, Flickr, May 23, 2009