Private vs. Public Property

I intend this post to go hand-in-hand with my previous post, Capitalism is NOT the Free Market.  This post speaks directly to the modern confusion over public vs. private property, which leads in turn to the mistaken belief that all wealth — no matter how great — is or even should be private.  The men who founded this nation would disagree with our modern beliefs.  In fact, two of them specifically said that all wealth other than that which exists under Natural Law is public property.  (I wonder how many ‘conservatives’ would still want to side with the founders if they knew about this, or how many ‘Progressives’ would suddenly jump on the founders’ band wagon if they understood why the founders said it?)Let’s start with the quotes:

“A right of property in moveable things is admitted before the establishment of government. A separate property in lands, not till after that establishment. The right to moveables is acknowledged by all the hordes of Indians surrounding us. Yet by no one of them has a separate property in lands been yielded to individuals. He who plants a field keeps possession till he has gathered the produce, after which one has as good a right as another to occupy it. Government must be established and laws provided, before lands can be separately appropriated, and their owner protected in his possession. Till then, the property is in the body of the nation, and they, or their chief as trustee, must grant them to individuals, and determine the conditions of the grant.”

–Thomas Jefferson: Batture at New Orleans, 1812. ME 18:45

“All the property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.”

–Benjamin Franklin, letter to Robert Morris, 25 December 1783, Ref: Franklin Collected Works, Lemay, ed., 1

The men who founded this nation understood the difference between private and public property.  They understood that that which a person could naturally claim, through an application of his labor, was a Natural Right.  But that which depends on an act of government cannot — by definition — be a ‘natural’ right.  It depends on an artificial act: an act of society.  Without the laws which allow for land as property, or the existence of a corporation, neither could exist.  And since both are based in public acts, both remain property of the public which created them.  By extension, this also applies to any and all wealth created through them.  Both Jefferson and Franklin make this clear in the two quotes posted above.

However, none of this means the founders were Socialists or Communists.  They weren’t.  What it means is just what I tried to explain in my previous post: the founders understood that a great accumulation of wealth can only be acquired through a collectivist action.  Either a king or dictator, speaking for the whole of the people, decrees a law, or the people, acting through their representatives, approve legislation which permits such an accumulation of wealth.  But the founders went further.  They stated that, if such an accumulation of wealth is deemed a threat to society, the same society that made it possible also has the authority to dispose of that wealth.  They key, however, is in understanding when society has the authority to abolish that wealth.

The founders tried to apply Natural Law.  They knew that it can benefit society to allow certain things that do not exist under Natural Law, such as patents for ideas and the ‘ownership’ of land.  However, because these things were the creation of society, if they were abused such that they then threatened their creator, their creator had a right to dissolve them.  This does not mean that society has a right to live off the wealth created by its actions.  So long as a person does not use their wealth to threaten society, the law must protect that wealth.  It is only when that wealth becomes a threat that society can then claim the right of self-defense.  This is all Jefferson and Franklin were trying to explain.

Applying this to today’s world, where government and the corporation work together to exclude competition, I suspect both Jefferson and Franklin would be in favor of abolishing the corporate structure — especially since they tightly controlled it in their day.  What’s more, I suspect they would also favor some action against men such as Soros, Buffet and Gates, who use their great wealth to force their will on society outside the legislative process.  Both would strike at the heart of what today’s ‘conservative’ call ‘Capitalism,’ where it is argued that everything a private person owns is and should rightly remain their private property to use as they please.  But then, the founders tried to live according to Natural Law, today, we don’t even recognize it, let alone understand it.


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