On Moral And Economic Ownership
Against Private Property
by Arthur Richard Harrison
When it comes to the matter of ownership, there are two very different things the term can mean. It’s peculiar that these two are lumped together under the name of ownership, given that the incentives and behaviours they produce are very different.
Let us call these two concepts economic ownership (as opposed to economic stewardship) and moral ownership (as opposed to moral stewardship).
As you are no doubt aware, the owner is the one to whom a thing belongs, while a steward is one who administers property for the owner. What effects do these have on the behaviour of the person who holds these positions?
Let us consider first the hypothetical homo economicus. This is a man who deals only in economic value — money and the equivalents of money. He’s also purely self-interested. The best way to get such a man to take care of a piece of property, to maintain it in good condition, to avoid destroying its long-term value for the sake of short-term profit, is undoubtedly to give him ownership of it. If he is given ownership of it, he expects that he will have it for life, or at least until he should choose to sell it. In other words, he owns the value of the property itself and will thus, ceteris paribus, seek to maximise the same. He will exploit the property for short-term gain, but his exploitation will be limited by the desire to preserve the value of the property so that he can continue to exploit it in the long run.
By contrast, the economic steward — the man who has a lease or similar arrangement — owns, or at least has access to, the use of the property in the short term, but not the value of it. Thus he seeks to exploit it as much as he can as someone else will ultimately pay the price of his devaluation of the property. This, of course, has been extensively covered by Hoppe and so should be old hat to most of my readers.
However, it shouldn’t take long to observe that real men are seldom homo economicus and that there are all manner of other motivations at play in their behaviour — motivations we might even broadly call ‘incentives’ — beyond economic ones. These incentives might be called ‘cultural’ or ‘honour-based’ but I will use the term ‘moral’ for them in the broadest possible sense, that is, so as to include considerations not only of morality per se, but also of the desire to please God or the gods, to be seen as honourable or noble before other men, to be positively remembered by history, etc.
In this context we can see that there is a certain sense of entitlement that comes with moral ownership. This is the sense of entitlement we see in a child whose idea of ‘mine’ is along the lines of ‘the teddy bear is mine and I can tear it to pieces if I want to’ (hat tip to C S Lewis). This incentive to maximum exploitation, or at least this justification for the removal of restraints on exploitation, is inherent in moral ownership and stands in direct opposition to the economic incentive to limited exploitation. Thus the decision between the two will largely depend on the enlightened self-interest — that is, the time preference — of the individual entrusted with this ownership.
By contrast, moral stewardship affords a rather different incentive. Though, economically, the steward has every reason to despoil the property committed to him, nevertheless morally he will likely not see himself as entitled to do so. The conception of the steward from a moral point of view is that he is merely the caretaker of the property, and as such he has a fiduciary responsibility to the real owner to maintain it in good condition. He would be derelict in that duty if he were to ruin the property for his own benefit.
Of course, none of these incentives are 100% effective. Just as a man can be given economic ownership and thus a strong economic incentive to preserve the value of the property thus committed to him, and nevertheless because of his own high time-preference end up laying it waste, so also a man can have impressed upon him all the profoundest ideas of the duty of a steward and, neither fearing God nor regarding man, despoil the property of others and spend the profits on wine and whores.
No conception of property will ever change the fact that man is fallen, and some men are quite bad and/or stupid and if given the opportunity will do bad things. However, on the basis of the ideas outlined above, it would seem that the best chance we could have to ensure that property were taken care of as well as possible would be to combine, somehow, the notions of economic ownership and of moral stewardship.
This combination will seem alien to the modern mind, raised on the numismolatrous dichotomy of capitalism and communism, where the moral and economic notions of ownership are almost universally coincident. This is why the subtitle of this piece is Against Private Property.
But there’s no reason why it must be so, and indeed in traditional, organic societies, it often was not so. In feudal Europe, in particular, a nobleman’s ‘property’, if you want to call it that, was held, most often, from a higher nobleman, who held it from yet another, and so on up to the king. But even the king was considered to hold his land from God and not truly in his own right. This notion is that to which I was appealing when I wrote, as I have several times on Twitter, that I am uncomfortable with the notion of ‘divine right’ kingship, preferring such framings as ‘divine trust’, ‘divine calling’, even ‘divine duty’.
So the notion that all property is ultimately held from God, and that the holder will answer to God for its use or misuse, is one that allows one to have long-term control (perhaps even including the right to sell, though more below on why that particular aspect of ‘property’ might desirably be limited or excluded) — that is, economic ownership — while minimising the ill effects of moral ownership. And in the feudal system, the many fractal layers of hierarchy reaching down from God, through emperors, kings, and dukes, and eventually down to margraves, viscounts, knights, and the peasants who worked their lands, served to reinforce and emphasise this conception of property, to strengthen its influence on the mind.
Let me suggest, however, that the duty understood as emerging from a nobleman’s role as steward of God is not the only sense in which moral stewardship impressed itself on his mind. There was also a concept of the family, stretching out across generations, in which each generation would hold what it had in trust from its ancestors and for its descendants. Those of my readers who watch the ITV period drama Downton Abbey (and I recommend it highly to all of you) will recognise this way of thinking in the character of Lord Grantham, who reminds his daughter Mary in an early episode that he cannot rightfully destroy the dynasty his ancestors have worked hard to build and of which he is the caretaker for his successors by breaking the entailment of the estate to the Earldom of Grantham. This attitude is, of course, far more likely to obtain if the property is entailed — that is, if the succession descends by operation of law within a particular family and the owner is not entitled to sell it off.
Thus we see that in an organic society it is possible — indeed, it is likely and desirable — that there be no such thing as ‘private property’ in the sense moderns typically understand it. Rather, there is some mixture of economic ownership and moral stewardship, which gives everyone a set role to play in the cosmic drama that is human life. Thus is order established on earth, thus can a sense of noblesse oblige be built. Thus is civilisation made, neither in the Utopian madness of communism nor in the atomising, amoral shark tank of capitalism. Thus are bonds of mutual dependence and affection to be made among the members of a society and across class lines. This attitude is what must be recaptured if we are to build a healthy and functional social order.