In an earlier post history of the idea of property was traced briefly. This one continues the exploration of normative and operational basis for the idea of property. The merit of this pursuit lies in the realm of grappling with several contestations that have emerged in the contemporary society. These contestations are between various classes, ethnic groups, castes (when one looks at India) and races (when one considers US) on the ownership, rights to use and share all conceivable types of resources that can be utilized and benefitted from in the prevailing economic system. Such a blanket description of resources would then include the Marxist idea of ownership of means of production, ownership and use rights of natural resources and to the variety of ownership that has evolved in the knowledge industry.
An exploration as this, serves the wider purpose of opening up a discussion on how might one try to reconcile these wide ranging conceptions of the idea of property and the variety of normative and positivist ideas that come to bear upon the set of institutions that are then built upon such a conception.
Property rights have held an important status in the political agenda in several democratic countries worldwide. It has also come to be marked as an important feature of a capitalist economy. The modern views on property are as divergent as Monsieur Proudhon’s “all property is theft” to contemporary economist like Hernando DeSoto who sees property rights as (perhaps) the only available tool for raising capital stock for the poor to be able to raise enough financial resources in order to fund their development process. The transformation in the idea of property, thus, has been tremendous.
The operation typologies of property as forms of tangible and intangible thing; private property and common property; property as set of rules about ownership, rights and use etc is not dealt with here. This is because these typologies are based on the same foundational thoughts about conception of property that are discussed here.
The Liberal & Neo-Liberal Period
A discussion on the most recent interpretations i.e. in the liberal and neo-liberal idea of property merits significant attention because of its central position in capitalist economies as well as democracies worldwide. While this period has come to be known for its exclusionary and restrictive property regime which is enforced through rule of law, it is also a period in which we see the sharpest description and understanding of property and property rights emerging.
In my assessment, this is also a period in which the gap between idea and practice (of the idea of property) is the smallest. This means that in its larger direction, it is the liberal and neo-liberal period where one can find the idea and practice in consonance. However, it might be good to also note that when in the history of idea of property a consonance between idea and practice is achieved, there also emerges one of the most inequitable societies in terms of income and ownership of resources.
For instance, an idea that held tremendous recognition in twentieth century was that property rights are a key for individuals to be able to make use of their labour and transform that property into productive asset which results in a livelihood. The Indian, Russian and Chinese experiments in land redistribution were attempts in line with that kind of idea. However, each of these countries has had different results in bringing about land redistribution. Its premise that ownership of means of production (land in this case) is a necessary condition for individuals to be able to earn a decent livelihood did not yield consistent results.
More recently, economist Hernando DeSoto’s call for enforceable property rights as a necessary instrument in a capitalist economy, in the hands of the poor also showed variable results. At one point, the large multilateral institutions like the World Bank also favoured DeSoto’s call for enforceable property rights as a tool for poverty alleviation. This was proposed to be done by giving property titles to the poor who own whatever little asset that can be titled. With these titles, it is assumed that they will be able to access capital markets and make use of their property as a hedge. In its implementation in Peru, studies suggest that there hasn’t been recognizable change in the poor people’s economic situation.
Return to Locke
It is useful to see that the liberal period is also marked by a rather elegant theory of entitlements proposed by Robert Nozick. Robert Nozick (1974) argued that a theory of historical entitlement, along Lockean lines, provides both a complete justification of the institution and a set of strict criteria that govern its legitimate distribution. Property rights, according to Nozick, constrain the extent to which we are entitled to act on our intuitions and theories about distributive justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).
It is a framework which emphasizes individual rights and the derivation of political obligation from consent. Nozick holds that the only legitimate state is the minimal state, whose activities are confined to the protection of individuals and their property and to the enforcement of contracts (Scanlon, 1976).
In these times of neo-liberal hegemony , it is imperative that reconciliation between idea and practice is attempted by the institutions which have come to determine every aspect of social, economic and political life of individuals in the society. While it does seem to appear that the idea and practice of property in the neo-liberal period seems in line, however, this has led to highly contestable and inequitable outcomes. This does not seem to be a constructive basis for the future of civilizational progress. Hence, sounding the opening note again, the pursuit of philosophical basis of the idea of property is necessary, especially since the consequences of the neo-liberal interpretation of property is known and felt by most countries worldwide.