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

Herbert Spencer

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.

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.