The Ethical Right of Property

From The Righteous State
by Severin Christensen

9.—The Ethical Right of Property

To gain the necessary knowledge about the rightful function of the state it becomes rather necessary to make it clear, which is separate property, and which is common property. The term ethical right of property has to be explained as deeply as possible.

As laid out above, the definition of the term rightful property (“each his own”) is the necessary precondition for the exchange principle (“measure for measure”); since even though one has handed over a reasonable reward for a service, transfer would not be fair, if the reward paid, not was one’s rightful property. Both the one, which compensates it, and the one, which needs compensation, must rightfully own the values, which are the objects of this exchange.

As the conditions for rightful separate property turned out to be a personal labour, which in value equates the article, which is asked for, and since even a lot of exchanges cannot establish rightful separate ownership, when this original right of ownership is missing, it follows that some values must exist, of which separate ownership is completely out of the question. This overview will serve as a layout of the ownership conditions:

A. The owner, the subject, the social individual.
B. That, which is owned, the object I Natural values (cannot be turned into separate belongings) 1 The in reality indivisible
2 The divisible
II Produced values (can be turned into separate belongings)

First of all it can be established that one individual never can make the claim to own the person of another human being and the limps and such belonging to it. That each human being is an individual master of his own person already is evident, since the principle of rightful distribution of ownership has as its objective to secure each social individual in society the place as subject in the sentence: I own this or that. It would be totally against this idea, if the subject or part of it all of a sudden could be transformed into object. The first purpose of the regulation of ownership is actually to keep others out of access to the personal individuality. It is assumed that this applies between free and independent beings[1], which consider each other to be suitable for social company. The independent right to rule one’s own person is the obvious condition for this system, and therefore does not need any justification at all.

To this one might object: but both in Ancient and Modern times slaves have been kept, and the greatest philosophers have, as many much later, condoned it. However, this only is due to the fact that these philosophers out of ignorance deny the slaves the ability to be independent subjects. If they could not be considered to belong under the category A, social individuals, it was very easy to put them under B, things, which can belong to someone. Based on our knowledge about the homogeneity of the various races in this matter, the social ability, this sense of justice cannot be upheld.

According to the figure it could look like a person did not own his limps, his arms, legs, eyes, etc., as proper separate belongings. These things have not been the objects of production; should one therefore give up the unlimited use of them? No, but it is incorrect to use the term belonging about these matters; since it reveals a mistake between what a human being is (i.e. what he consists of), and what he can acquire of things surrounding him. In any sentence about ownership there has to be, as noted, a subject and an object: ‘A owns this or that thing!’ Consequently, the listing of limps belonging to A only refers to the definition of A. But ‘belonging to’ is at this point an imprecise use of words and should not lead us to moving A’s parts the side of the object in a real case of ownership.

Of things (B I) which are excluded from being separate belongings, because no one has produced them, one has to distinguish between the wealth of nature, which is abundant in such abundancy therefore seems futile, and that, which only exists in limited amounts. Belonging to the first (B I 1) air and water, to the last (B I 2) the earth.

The reason for giving up a claim for separate ownership of the first-mentioned things, however, cannot be the one, which for time to time has been voiced, that they exist in unlimited measures, since this is obviously not the case. The sea as well as the atmospheric air has their limits just as much as the surface of the earth. That they have not long been obtained comes exclusively from the practical impossibility it is considered to have, together with its minor importance.

There is not the least doubt that if the sea could be separated into lots, at least some fortunate areas, for instance abounded with fish, could be obtained, and prohibitions for all other humans could be issued, taxes deducted etc. One also observes that where it has any significance, and where it is just reasonably possible to do it, the separate right of the individual or the state are extended to include sea territories. Some nations have tried to reserve exclusive right for their own fishers to some areas in the open seas, for instance the seal hunting by the Pacific coastline, the fisheries near Iceland, and Newfoundland, and off the Siberian eastern coast, but in most cases agreements have been reached about only to claim separate ownership to the nearest parts near to the coast. Also within the separate countries the owner of the coast stakes that he apart from the right to the solid ground also has a right to some of the water outside. And here he really according to common law he really can make such a claim; for instance, he can forbid others to fish outside the beach within a certain distance from his lot, when he himself has placed fishing remedies there (the “Eel Weir rights”). Furthermore, one has made attempts to obtain exclusive rights to some parts of the seabed (apart from the rights to the coastline), as it has been claimed that the one putting up pound nets in a certain area and marks the place should have the right to forbid others in the future to put their pound nets at the same spot, i.e. exactly the same which the earth at one time was obtained and based on that made into a stake for separate ownership.

About the air it would be even more complicated than with the sea to seize specific regions; so when it not as yet has led to a single person claiming a tax from others, for the right to breathe, for instance, it mainly comes from practical problems. And yet there is also a tendency for the landowners to claim a certain level of air above their lot. Until now this right has been considered somewhat harmless, but now, in the day of the pilots, horrific questions begin to emerge in magazines about how far up in the air the rights of the landowners and house-possessors stretch, about the rights of aeroplanes to move around everywhere, or whether private owners can have an injunction laid.

By luck it has turned out that the nature goods mentioned until now because of the practical problem of the matter never has been made the interest of separate ownership, and the current settlement by and large agrees with the ethical principle, which holds that separate ownership can only be defended with an equal amount of labour. But the ethics should not simply rest; since, as noted, it has later been tried to overcome these difficulties and there has been shown strong will in trying to monopolise first this, then that region, both of the air and the sea; the ethics therefore must hold its weapon ready to guard that these natural goods, which it until now by and large, out of physical reasons have been possible to preserve as common goods, also in the future would be respected as such.

Then, how is it with the land (B I 2)? That this natural good could not hold its position as common good lies especially in the fact, that it is so easy to parcel out, and that the advantage of seizing a single part and keep the others out was so great.

To come back from separate ownership to the equal right of all would furthermore contain its special difficulties; since for a long time it could hardly be imagined how to bring this about without an equal sharing of the land itself, it turned out to be as good as possible to parcel it out in equally valuable parts. First after a long time it was discovered that the thing, which all were interested in, not exactly was to gain a part of the land, exactly as big and valuable as the ones belonging to the others, but rather that no one singlehandedly without any limits by laying claim on a share of land would win special advantages and stand in the way of others.

As long as the supply of land practically speaking is unlimited, and no one has the power to claim all that, which he does not directly use, no immediate desire to divide it, fence it in, and guard it, can arise. ‘Mine’ has not yet become a contradiction to ‘Yours’. It is only, when people move so close together, that one can bother another, that to prevent unending fighting it is given thought to make stable borders between the territories.

Many mutual agreements about these borders are drawn, which can be very useful for the current ‘owners’; but it is overlooked that these agreements about the distribution of land, buying and selling of it etc. are unjust towards the last arrived and towards the unborn, the later generations. The people belonging to a later generation are to a large degree born without any heritage; they also have no unowned land to take into possession, since when all land has been seized in this way, the laws all of a sudden cut off and donate to the first arrivals a privilege to that, which they have been lucky enough to occupy.

Such a method of acquiring can of course not be defended morally. Everything which a human being make claims of as a separate belong, he must be able to, according to the principles of an ethical payment presented above, prove to have earned from a personal performance, which holds up the equal value of that, which is earned. But which personal performance is represented in the naked seizure of a piece of land, and – on the other hand – which value, produced by human hand or human spirit can actually be compared to or weighted against the advantage of reigning supreme over a part of the vitally necessary, by no means unlimited natural supply?

That the last arrived can by the land off those, who have seized it, is no cancellation of this injustice, since then they must pay dearly to acquire the right to use the land, which from the outset did not cost anything at all.

From this example one can clearly see, how just it is to maintain that the fair principle does not let justice be done, just because two parties mutually balance labour and payment to their own satisfaction. It must also be done in a way so that each and everyone gets and keeps his, and no third party is treated unfairly. We must know, if it really are their own belongings, the two are dealing with, in other words we need to include the principle of ownership. A transaction is not proper, without the thing, which is handed over, or that, which is used for payment, are not really the rightful separate belongings of the parties. .

What must be understood by rightful separate ownership have we already stressed above. It only includes such things, which were acquired through an identical active labour from the one acquiring it. If a man gives me a piece of land against a sum of money, and the law thereafter condones my ‘right’ to free usage of the land for me and my children, then this acquisition has not been exercised according to the principle of rightful compensation, since the value of the land is invaluable, as it manifests the necessary basis of all life, and since it does not exist in unlimited measures.

This would certainly be proven very bluntly on the day when a trust would be founded for the purpose of buying all land – a not completely unlikely thought at a time, when trusts are able to buy everything, which can be found on earth of one or more for humanity indispensable natural valuables (petroleum, coal etc.). Such a ring would be able to dictate all human being standing outside of it any conceivable condition for simply allowing them to exist. The one, who possesses the land, possesses all of the power, all other valuables pale by comparison.

If one wants to know which things one can acquire a separate ownership to, one has to stick to the produced goods (B. II); the things, people themselves produce with their brains or their hands. They can be compared, valued against each other; they are not irreparable, because they always could be produced in sufficient amounts, under the condition that one only has his own share of nature’s gifts to work with and produce from. They arise from the labour, which the individual has performed, and their value depends on this. They belong rightfully to their creator, because they actually always have been his. Corresponding to that ingenuity, that ability, which mark them and give them a positive value, is very exact what the individual has given out, has invested in it, just as the negative photo plate corresponds to the positive. The energy and art, which by me are laid down in a work of labour, is fundamentally a just as natural and personal part of me, as the energy and the possibilities of work, which still reside in my brain and my arms. From having been a part of the person, the working energy moves out into the produced articles, and since it from this, from the individual organically separated, form can become an object for exchange, for buying and selling, the moral gets the task to decide, who in the future should be the rightful owner. After the law of compensation it is decided thus, that the one, who can prove to have performed a certain amount of energy, wins the right to a likewise amount. The conditions for separate ownership can thus be defined as: rightful separate ownership in a product can only be achieved as a compensation for a personal performance of the same value as the product.[2]

From this follows: to the same degree as a product can be created from scratch, be reformed, marked by human will and ability, to the same degree it can become a separate possession. There are such products, which can be said to be fully new constructions, intellectual products, for instance. The ink and paper, used on Faust, only has a dwindling value compared to the intellectual content, which is laid down in the material. Such a product is very much suited for separate ownership. The same can be said for a nice piece of music, or a fine painting.

Already by a work of marble-sculpting the unproduced material comes more into focus, by goldsmiths and jewellers even more, and if one thinks about a piece of land with seeds, the proportion is completely unsettled, since here one cannot with any reason maintain that the material has been reformed, that the product is something new created through work; the utmost important thing has been done by the powers of nature, and the land is roughly the same as before, even likely to be of lesser quality. The work, which is invested in this land, might give reason for a share of the output, which comes from the labour itself, but in no way to a privilege to that special advantage, which the possession of the land in itself represents.

So that the land cannot be ‘owned’ (in the same sense of the word, which befalls the articles produced through labour) is a sentence, which evidently is understood from the principle of the equal compensation; it stands or falls with the assumption of this ethical principle, further reasons which can be found for this cannot be given.

But when one ends with the result that the land is commonly owned, and not like the articles produced by work can be turned into separate belongings, one must realise that these two kinds of ‘ownership’ are of different natures. In the first case it can only be common access, since the natural things either cannot be split up or in any case not split up fairly, and since a new member of society cannot be denied an equal share of the commonly owned, but above all, because the natural right in this case is basically different from the right to separate ownership. Separate ownership of a thing can be positively defined through a reference to the equal output, which the individual has delivered; the one, who claims a privilege, must be the one, who positively can present reasons for it. That, which cannot be owned separately, must either belong to no one or be accessible for everyone.

That access is equal for everyone is supported by the negative argument, that no one will be able to present reasons for an ethically supported privilege.

When all political economists speak in support of the right of the society to withhold the full land value for the common good by staking that it contains the values produced by society or products made from the labour from the whole population, they are using a less precise expression. Since the fact that the land value goes up everywhere, where the society grows demographically, does not mean that any new real value has been created, even less that is has been created as a product of labour, which should be granted the right to compensation, which a output of labour can make claim to. Right of separate ownership and collective right to access are not argued in the same way, as shown above. The land of England does not possess more real valuables now than it did at the time of Canute the Great; perhaps even less. The thing that has happened is that each square foot of land has become more and more sought after, the more the population grew; the privilege of the owners of land has therefore increased, and this privilege is reflected in the ever growing prices of the land compared to all other properties; for the same piece of land greater amounts of work and products of work can be bought than before.

When the societies nowadays being to make claims of ethical justice for these privileges, this right can and must be justified thus that the land belongs just as little now as ever before to any individual to a special degree, and that the privileges, which have grown larger and larger – mainly because society has grown larger and larger, less because positive labour – not by any ethical right can belong to any individual.

[1] The exceptions from this, the right of the incapables, will get its specific justification later.

[2] Gifts are individually motivated and therefore they do not fall under the laws of general social exchange.