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Property - The Values Of Property

private ownership system self

As has been seen, the nature of property is complex. The values that bear on property are similarly complex. Indeed as the political theorist Alan Ryan has emphasized, the long history of the debate over the legitimacy of private property can be viewed as a succession of major theorists stressing the benefits or the burdens of this institution. The goods and the bads that these theorists have emphasized can be arranged along three dimensions: the values pertaining to individuals' relation to private property, the values arising from an owner's relation to other persons, and the values generated in a society where private property predominates.

Personal values.

An owner has many advantages because of his relation to what he owns. As Bentham never tired of pointing out, owning property gives one a secure access to resources that may be essential to carrying out one's plans over time. Ownership also allows one to enjoy and preserve items of personal value, such as a mother's wedding ring. A Hegelian point elaborated by the legal theorist Jeremy Waldron is that ownership also improves the owner. As an owner works on his property (for example, paints a picture) his self-awareness increases as he sees his personality reflected in the world, and he comes to develop prudence as he realizes that the changes he makes in his property on one day will determine what he starts work with on the next day.

The critics of private ownership have stressed the corresponding disadvantages. Marxist critics have worried that owners will fetishize what they own and come to believe that ownership of consumer goods can substitute for satisfying personal relationships or deserved self-regard. Nor do Marxists celebrate individuals' externalizing their personalities into the property on which they work, since in a capitalist system these individuals will have to sell the objects to others in order to make a living. Finally, nearly all critics of private property have made the mirror-image point to Bentham's concerning the owner's security. Those who do not own property, they note, can expect to be excluded from what they want and need, which makes their prospects predictably wretched.

Interpersonal values.

The interpersonal benefits of private ownership are many. Property secures for an owner a protected sphere in which he is free to do as he likes. He may protect his privacy by keeping others out, and he may increase intimacy by allowing selected others to enter his private zone. Moreover, as Hegel saw, ownership brings with it social recognition: everyone must acknowledge that the owner's will is decisive over the disposition of the object of ownership. Aristotle also noticed that private ownership increases opportunities for generosity—it would be much harder to give gifts if no one owned anything that could be given.

Yet these benefits also have flip sides. The same rights that bring freedom and privacy can also foster disconnection, loneliness, lack of fellow-feeling, and antisociality. Further, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) bemoaned, private property makes each person dependent on others for not only their material wants but for their very self-conception. In a capitalist system one depends for the satisfaction of one's needs on others who may have no concern for one's welfare, and one comes to evaluate one's self-worth mostly by reference to the property one has accumulated.

Societal values.

Finally, the bitterest battles have been over the societal values attaching to a private property system. On the one hand, private ownership is often superior to common ownership for effective stewardship of resources. ("If everyone owns everything, then no one will take care of anything.") Private property economies encourage each person to work hard to satisfy the wants and needs of others, and so are likely to be more innovative and prosperous. Widespread property ownership is conducive to social stability, since those "with a stake in the society" are less likely to favor revolution or war. And private ownership, as the American economist Milton Friedman (b. 1912) argued, is the best bulwark against the overweening state power that the twentieth century gave so much cause to fear. On the other hand, the pathologies of private ownership systems have been thoroughly documented. Private property economies foster competitive and exploitative relations, in which each sees the other as only a rival or a master, a servant or a dupe. Private property turns intimate relations into commercial relations (as one sees at weddings and Christmas). Markets multiply false needs and a blank consumerism, wasting resources and leading to uncontrolled environmental damage. Furthermore, a private property economy results in inequalities in almost every important aspect of human life, from political power to opportunities for meaningful work and leisure to life expectancy itself.

The complexity of the values surrounding private property has led all modern societies to frame commensurately complex property laws in an effort to capture the benefits of property while avoiding its burdens. For example, the law may allow the owner of a shopping mall to profit from renting space to popular stores but also forbid him to exclude protesters peacefully handing out political pamphlets. The law may allow a homeowner complete freedom of interior decoration but restrict her freedom to paint the exterior in garish colors so as to protect her neighbors' property values. Private property law in every legal system has become an intricate web of regulations, as each society has struggled to balance all of the countervailing values at stake.

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