Column by Cristian Gherasim.
Exclusive to STR
The communist regime was quick to define property as something indestructibly linked to an abstract entity: the people. Everything belonged to the people, and people’s property came to explicitly deny the right to individual property. Belonging to everyone, communist property was in fact owned by no one.
After the fall of communism, Central and Eastern European countries became acquainted with new expressions like private property and intellectual property. It may seem mundane, but this was a total shift of paradigm for those that had thrown off the shackles of nearly a half century of communist rule. But there was a drawback. This new terminology lacked any liberal content. The very idea of property was once again grossly distorted. It created among the citizens of these new democracies the unnerving feeling that something or someone was acting against them. For a better understanding of how things played out during the early ‘90s in these newly independent countries, it should be noted that those who swept to power were second rank Communist Party officials. Lacking any pro-market affinities, the neo-communist leaders had no problem playing the “national interest” card. Now, as always, the owners became state enemies, especially those reclaiming their possessions that had been seized by the communist regime. They were scapegoats for the terrible economic situation that communists and neo-communists created. If fact, private property came to be defined as depriving property. Most of the people were tricked into thinking that owners are those who deprive them of certain goods and establish a monopoly over their use. They saw no social role for property rights, nor any public use for them. The consequences of this collective hatred against private property are easy to spot: rich people are treated like criminals, owners are envied and money always sparks suspicion.
Such a phenomenon is not peculiar to this part of Europe alone. It can be found wherever anti-liberal ideologies exist. Noting the trap laid by those who tried to profit from a smear campaign against property rights, Friedrich Hayek proposed that the classic private property be turned into plural property. This new choice of words has the advantage that it emphasizes the social and political role of property rights. This is precisely what many people fail to understand: not only is private property better than collective ownership, it also rests as the foundation of social existence. Without it, individual interests are denied and common well-being is unattainable. Again, general welfare is best served when people, by themselves, satisfy their needs. This is mostly done by the use of free commerce where people trade goods they produce and hold against things they might need. It’s as simple as that. But what happens if you owe nothing? Well, you will no longer trade and you will most definitely rely on the state to care for your needs. And that’s no good. Not because the state might act malevolently, but because it’s impossible to determine what each human being desires and requires most. Let the owners act for themselves.
There are also the political considerations deriving from plural property that have to be taken into account: a world governed by property rights is a world defendable against any abuse of power. If you take out private property, you are left with no defensive line against absolute state control. A clampdown on individual freedom may come in the form of property seizure. People without property rights lose their individuality and freedom. They will have to do as they are told. After all, someone else owns them now.
For liberals, property is a distinctly individual attribute. Notwithstanding its collective impact, property must deal with individuals alone. There’s no we in property. From Locke to Mises, property has been seen as an extension of the human body. And the body goes to the making of goods. Individuals as single owners of their bodies are fully entitled to hold all the goods they, or I should say their bodies, produce. This creates what J.S. Mill called the private sphere. Here, the individual enjoys full authority, unhampered by interventions from governmental or other institutions. It’s what keeps him safe from individual or state-sponsored abuses.
The description of property as the extension of the human body can also be found, surprisingly, in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the most relentless critics of liberalism. When he came to explaining the origin of the Social Contract, he pointed out that this pact was mostly designed for the rich. It was because rich people, Rousseau argued, were more vulnerable than the poor due to the fact their bodies extend far more than those of the poor.
One of the philosophers with the greatest impact on the idea of property was John Locke. Besides his depiction of property as the extension of the human body, he also denoted its source, which liberals today avoid invoking, fearing they’ll be mistaken for Marxists. This fear is absolutely ridiculous and should be abandoned without further ado. It should be unequivocally stated that the origin of property is human labor. We’re not talking about the abstract portrayal of labor envisaged by Marxist apologists, which holds no individual or social utility whatsoever. We’re talking of the self-imposed individual effort required to become a property owner. You have to work in order to be independent; you need to work in order to be successful: this is the fundamental political message of liberalism.
I’m telling you this as a national of one the post-communist countries mentioned above, stricken by the unacceptable anti-liberal prejudices found in today’s Eastern European societies. Many years after the fall of communism there is still a huge gap between what politicians say and do, and what really defines liberal ideals and causes. Self-proclaimed free-market enthusiasts, these politicians have nothing to do with liberalism, free markets and an open society. They despise labor, conduct smear campaigns against property owners and, if need be, stifle and muzzle the free expression of people. They are no more than new-age apparatchiks. Citizens should be aware of this and never underestimate the individual and social utility of private property, bearing in mind that common ownership means no one has an incentive to care.