Property as Theft: Where Did Private Property Come from?


National Parks are owned by all of us.
National Parks are owned by all of us.

Proudhoun’s assertion that “property is theft” falls apart from the get-go: Unless property existed in the first place, what was stolen and from whom? Look closely and you will see that protection of private property is the sacred engine driving most of our laws. How did this glorification come about and who benefits?

A disquieting question lurks behind Proudhoun’s slogan. Humans have lived for most of their time on earth in tribes[1]. To use round numbers for convenience sake, we have lived in tribes for 90,000 years and in “civilization” for about 10,000 years. The land was held in common by the tribe. They were well-acquainted with the boundaries of their territory and had agreed on many rules for crossing other territories and using the resources found inside the boundaries. The land was not owned in our sense of the word, but rather used by succeeding generations. When English colonists came to tribal nations with their firm concept of property rights, the indigenous people had little idea what they were talking about.

“What is this you call property? It cannot be the earth, for the land is our mother, nourishing all her children, beasts, birds, fish and all men. The woods, the streams, everything on it belongs to everybody and is for the use of all. How can one man say it belongs only to him?” -Massasoit

If humans held tribal territory in common, did they own no private property? There is evidence that humans carried tool kits from place to place; pouches containing flints and shells and personal items. Perhaps these were private property; that is, not shared with other tribe members. Would a neighbor ask to borrow a tool, as neighbors do now? We have no way of knowing.

But the fact that land was not owned by individuals at this stage is indisputable. How did this change? How did we come to the point that individuals can claim small (or vast) blocks of Mother Earth and we all defend to the death their right to do so? In the 18th and 19th century, the Enclosure Movement denied access for the poorer sorts to graze their sheep and cattle on land previously believed to have been held in common.  This resulted in more income for the upper class and extreme hardship for everyone else. The Tragedy of the Commons has been spun not as this theft, but as the terrible state of common land-since no one owns it, the story goes, it is abused. When it becomes private property, it will be developed and properly cared for. Thus usurpation of common resources by private men of means is justified.

This did not happen back in the distant mists of antiquity. The Boston Common was established in 1634 and livestock was grazed there until 1830. Boston Common still exists as a public park, though sheep are nowhere to be seen. National Parks are another example-common land for the entire population to enjoy. Yet even these are threatened by the voracious appetite of the privateers.

How did human society go from common ownership of resources to exclusive rights by a few individuals to specific resources? Very gradually, that’s how. The Irish Brehon Laws describe a fairly egalitarian society with the customary shared use of land. The leader was chosen by the people and could be booted out. His job was to assure the well-being of all the members of the tribe. As in any time and place, some men want more. To get more, he would have to break the laws, reward his inner circle and develop enough force to quell the inevitable complaints of the disenfranchised. By granting exclusive use of land to his enforcers, he guaranteed their loyalty.

This process has continued to the present day. The idea of common land and shared resources is not some modern radical foreign ideology. Instead, it is the way things worked for our ancestors for many millennia. The idea that accumulation of resources by a few individuals is just and fair is the new idea, and one that is questioned almost intuitively by statements such as Proudhon’s. Technically, property is not theft, but our current view of private property started with betrayal of the tribe for the benefit of a few, clever, power-hungry men.

This process also continues.


[1] Bands, tribes, and clans have technical meanings that I am ignoring here for simplicity.

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