Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5: Theories of the Evolution of Property - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
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5: Theories of the Evolution of Property - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Theories of the Evolution of Property
It is an old trick of political innovators to describe that which they seek to realize as Ancient and Natural, as something which has existed from the beginning and which has been lost only through the misfortune of historical development; men, they say, must return to this state of things and revive the Golden Age. Thus natural law explained the rights which it demanded for the individual as inborn, inalienable rights bestowed on him by Nature. This was no question of innovation, but of the restoration of the “eternal rights which shine above, inextinguishable and indestructible as the stars themselves.” In the same way the romantic Utopia of common ownership as an institution of remote antiquity has arisen. Almost all peoples have known this dream. In Ancient Rome it was the legend of the Golden Age of Saturn, described in glowing terms by Virgil, Tibullus, and Ovid, and praised by Seneca.13 Those were the carefree, happy days when none had private property and all prospered in the bounty of a generous Nature.14 Modern Socialism, of course, imagines itself beyond such simplicity and childishness, but its dreams differ little from those of the Imperial Romans.
Liberal doctrine had stressed the important part played in the evolution of civilization by private property in the means of production. Socialism might have contented itself with denying the use of maintaining the institution of ownership any longer, without denying at the same time the usefulness of this ownership in the past. Marxism indeed does this by representing the epochs of simple and of capitalistic production as necessary stages in the development of society. But on the other hand it joins with other socialist doctrines in condemning with a strong display of moral indignation all private property that has appeared in the course of history. Once upon a time there were good times when private property did not exist; good times will come again when private property will not exist.
In order that such a view might appear plausible the young science of Economic History had to provide a foundation of proof. A theory demonstrating the antiquity of the common land system was constructed. There was a time, it was said, when all land had been the common property of all members of the tribe. At first all had used it communally; only later, while the common ownership was still maintained, were the fields distributed to individual members for separate use. But there were new distributions continually, at first every year, then at longer intervals of time. Private property according to this view was a relatively young institution. How it arose was not quite clear. But one had to assume that it had crept in more or less as a habit through omission in re-distributions—that is, if one did not wish to trace it back to illegal acquisition. Thus it was seen that to give private ownership too much credit in the history of civilization was a mistake. It was argued that agriculture had developed under the rule of common ownership with periodic distribution. For a man to till and sow the fields one needs only to guarantee him the produce of his labour, and for this purpose annual possession suffices. We are told that it is false to trace the origin of ownership in land to the occupation of ownerless fields. The unoccupied land was not for a single moment ownerless. Everywhere, in early times as nowadays, man had declared that it belonged to the State or the community; consequently in early times as little as today the seizing of possession could not have taken place.15
From these heights of newly-won historical knowledge it was possible to look down with compassionate amusement at the teachings of liberal social philosophy. People were convinced that private property had been proved an historical-legal category only. It had not existed always, it was nothing more than a not particularly desirable outgrowth of culture, and therefore it could be abolished. Socialists of all kinds, but especially Marxists, were zealous in propagating these ideas. They have brought to the writings of their champions a popularity otherwise denied to researches in Economic History.
But more recent researches have disproved the assumption that common ownership of the agricultural land was an essential stage with all peoples, that it was the primeval form of ownership (“Ureigentum”). They have demonstrated that the Russian Mir arose in modern times under the pressure of serfdom and the head-tax, that the Hauberg co-operatives16 of the Siegen district are not found before the sixteenth century, that the Trier Gehöferschaften17 evolved in the thirteenth, perhaps only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and that the South Slav Zadruga came about through the introduction of the Byzantine system of taxation.18 The earliest German agricultural history has still not been made sufficiently clear; here, in regard to the important questions, unanimous opinion has not been possible. The interpretation of the scanty information given by Caesar and Tacitus presents special difficulties. But in trying to understand them one must never overlook the fact that the conditions of ancient Germany as described by these two writers had this characteristic feature—good arable land was so abundant that the question of land ownership was not yet economically relevant. “Superest ager,” (Arable land abounds.) that is the basic fact of German agrarian conditions at the time of Tacitus.19
In fact, however, it is not necessary to consider the proofs adduced by Economic History, which contradict the doctrine of the “Ureigentum,” in order to see that this doctrine offers no argument against private property in the means of production. Whether or not private property was everywhere preceded by common property is irrelevant when we are forming a judgment as to its historical achievement and its function in the economic constitution of the present and the future. Even if one could demonstrate that common property was once the basis of land law for all nations and that all private property had arisen through illegal acquisition, one would still be far from proving that rational agriculture with intensive cultivation could have developed without private property. Even less permissible would it be to conclude from such premises that private property could or should be abolished.
[13. ]Poehlmann, Geschichte der sozialen Frage und des Sozialismus in der antiken Welt, 2nd ed. (Munich, 1912), vol. 2, pp. 577 ff.
[14. ]“Ipsaque tellus omnia liberius nullo poscente ferebat” (Virgil, Georgica, I, 127 ff.) [“And the land itself provided everything spontaneously with a liberal hand.”]
[15. ]Laveleye, Das Ureigentum, trans. by Bücher from French (Leipzig, 1879), pp. 514 ff.
[16. ]Hauberg cooperatives were associations of workers in lumbering (Hauberg) and tanning enterprises (Pub.).
[17. ]Trier Gehöferschaften (German) were rural hereditary associations dating from the Middle Ages, set up to cultivate the lands lying outside the manorial freeholds and maintained until recently in the vicinity of Trier in southwestern Germany (Pub.).
[18. ]Below, Probleme der Wirtschaftsgeschichte (Tübingen,, 1920), pp. 13 ff.
[19. ]Germania, 26.