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Herbert Spencer on human nature and the right to property (1851)

The English individualist political theorist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) argues in Social Statics (1851) that people have a right to property on the grounds that it is a vital part of their human nature and that it would contradict the “law of equal freedom”:

An argument fatal to the communist theory, is suggested by the fact, that a desire for property is one of the elements of our nature. … And if a propensity to personal acquisition be really a component of man’s constitution, then that cannot be a right form of society which affords it no scope. … it is also true that no change in the state of society will alter its nature and its office. To whatever extent moderated, it must still be a desire for personal acquisition. Whence it follows that a system affording opportunity for its exercise must ever be retained; which means, that the system of private property must be retained; and this presupposes a right of private property, for by right we mean that which harmonizes with the human constitution as divinely ordained.

CHAPTER X. “The right of property”, § 4.

An argument fatal to the communist theory, is suggested by the fact, that a desire for property is one of the elements of our nature. Repeated allusion has been made to the admitted truth, that acquisitiveness is an unreasoning impulse quite distinct from the desires whose gratifications property secures—an impulse that is often obeyed at the expense of those desires. And if a propensity to personal acquisition be really a component of man’s constitution, then that cannot be a right form of society which affords it no scope. Socialists do indeed allege that private appropriation is an abuse of this propensity, whose normal function, they say, is to impel us to accumulate for the benefit of the public at large. But in thus attempting to escape from one difficulty, they do but entangle themselves in another. Such an explanation overlooks the fact that the use and abuse of a faculty (whatever the etymology of the words may imply) differ only in degree; whereas their assumption is, that they differ in kind. Gluttony is an abuse of the desire for food; timidity, an abuse of the feeling which in moderation produces prudence; servility, an abuse of the sentiment that generates respect; obstinacy, of that from which firmness springs: in all of which cases we find that the legitimate manifestations differ from the illegitimate ones, merely in quantity, and not in quality. So also with the instinct of accumulation. It may be quite true that its dictates have been, and still are, followed to an absurd excess; but it is also true that no change in the state of society will alter its nature and its office. To whatever extent moderated, it must still be a desire for personal acquisition. Whence it follows that a system affording opportunity for its exercise must ever be retained; which means, that the system of private property must be retained; and this presupposes a right of private property, for by right we mean that which harmonizes with the human constitution as divinely ordained.

§ 6.

Further argument appears to be unnecessary. We have seen that the right of property is deducible from the law of equal freedom—that it is presupposed by the human constitution—and that its denial involves absurdities.

Were it not that we shall frequently have to refer to the fact hereafter, it would be scarcely needful to show that the taking away another’s property is an infringement of the law of equal freedom, and is therefore wrong. If A appropriate to himself something belonging to B, one of two things must take place: either B does the like to A, or he does not. If A has no property, or if his property is inaccessible to B, B has evidently no opportunity of exercising equal freedom with A, by claiming from him something of like value; and A has therefore assumed a greater share of freedom than he allows B, and has broken the law. If again, A’s property is open to B, and A permits B to use like freedom with himself by taking an equivalent, there is no violation of the law; and the affair practically becomes one of barter. But such a transaction will never take place save in theory; for A has no motive to appropriate B’s property with the intention of letting B take an equivalent: seeing that if he really means to let B have what B thinks an equivalent, he will prefer to make the exchange by consent in the ordinary way. The only case simulating this, is one in which A takes from B a thing that B does not wish to part with; that is, a thing for which A can give B nothing that B thinks an equivalent; and as the amount of gratification which B has in the possession of this thing, is the measure of its value to him, it follows that if A cannot give B a thing which affords B equal gratification, or in other words what he thinks an equivalent, then A has taken from B what affords A satisfaction, but does not return to B what affords B satisfaction; and has therefore broken the law by assuming the greater share of freedom. Wherefore we find it to be a logical deduction from the law of equal freedom, that no man can rightfully take property from another against his will.

About this Quotation:

This quotation is slightly longer than normal because Spencer’s arguments in defence of the right to property are important. He wrote this in 1851 at a time when the philosophy of utilitarianism had largely taken over English political and economic thinking. In the Benthamite and Millian tradition (J.S. Mill had published his Principles of Political Economy three years before in 1848) property was defended on the grounds that it was useful to society and that it should (mostly) be protected unless this was overridden by higher public needs. Spencer is making a last ditch attempt to revive an older tradition based on natural rights and the Kantian principle of universalizability. If Adam Smith was correct, that the “propensity to truck, barter, and exchange” was inherent in human nature, then any attempt to suppress this would ultimately be unsuccessful. Spencer therefore believed that society should recognize as “a right” those things like property “which harmonize with the human constitution.” Furthermore, in a Kantian approach to the problem, he argued that to deny individual property rights led to logical absurdities.

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