Private Property and the Paradox of Opportunity

The property in general is what either belongs to or on something, whether in the tangible world as an entity or in the spiritual world as an aspect or feature of that entity. To borrow a popular phrase from Buddhism, “What is the way?” this is one of the most fundamental questions in all of human endeavor. It is the one fundamental that unites the philosophies of man’s ethics, his religion, his race, and his civilization.

Property rights are the basis of society and its civilizations. Without these rights, the exchange of goods and services will forever be based on force or violence. And, as social beings, we have a tendency toward collectivism (for the common good), therefore, our society tends to value things more highly than private property. Private property, in a civilization, becomes something to be owned, something that can be bartered for, and something that becomes a symbol of status and power. The ownership of property does not actually represent possession or control of the land, but rather the right to use it for certain activities like production, sheltering, earning wages, and so on.

Private property is individual property as it is understood by the people who own it. Property in this sense is individual property held by and to the individuals who hold it. Property in this sense is individual property only inasmuch as the possessions of one individual are distinguishable from the possessions of other individuals. Thus, the possession and control of property by a number of persons does not represent the ownership and control of property by a single person. This is contrary to the common understanding of property as something possessed by, and dominated by, a single person.

It is this private/private property dichotomy that underlies much of the debate over ownership of property in the modern world. Ayn Rand noted the source of tension between individualism and collectivism in her novel “Atlas Shrugged.” The novel focuses on the issue of individual ownership and business ownership. She contends that, in order to properly own property, the individual must be a sole proprietor, meaning that he must individually own and control all of the property while sharing out the responsibility for others’ use of the property. Further, she maintains that in order for a business to be successful, it must be operated by the principle of the will of the individual alone.

Many of today’s more progressive-minded people argue that there is room in the world for both private and public property ownership. The argument goes something like this: Since property is the product of labor, it logically follows that the person who produces the property also benefits from the ownership in a certain way. In addition to this, there is a basic social benefit to having different types of property ownership because it ensures that some resources are evenly distributed among people according to their need and opportunity.

Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on regarding ownership of property in the modern world, it is important to recognize the inherent danger of unchecked private property. The argument is not based on capitalism, but rather on the fact that human beings, as intelligent animals, tend to want to take advantage of other people in order to survive. If there is a sudden scarcity of certain types of property, especially those that are owned by individuals, then the power of the state or capital will be exerted upon the people owning these assets to sell them off to the highest bidder or to engage in violent economic actions such as inflation. When this happens, the true value of private property declines along with everyone else’s standard of living.