Our property is uniquely ours, and it is sinister to try to suggest otherwise*
Private property is at the heart of so much heated debate, yet the definition is often based on subconscious assumptions.
Much of economics - and of government economic, tax and financial policy concerns property. The stuff that people own appearing in all kinds of guises, explicit and implicit. There are laws concerning the theft of property or the defrauding of property. There are rules about the treatment of intellectual property. There are constraints on the use of property, such as equalities legislation. There are debates about the taxation of property, such as wealth taxes, and the distribution (or redistribution) of property. The list is long.
But, although we discuss it all the time, it's much rarer for us to ponder what property is. It is all too easy (and too common) to make assumptions about what property really is in ways which subconsciously colour our economic or political debates.
As with most old ideas, there are many theories of property, but most of them fall into three camps. A few see property as arising from 'first possession'; if you come across something first, it's yours. That idea was quite popular in the past in defining national territories; whichever country landed first and raised a flag was regarded (at least by some) as the legitimate owner. For example, the first recorded landing on the Falkland Islands was in 1690 by the English captain John Strong, and the English (and latterly British) have claimed the Islands ever since. Again, in 1955, Scott, peel, Fraser and Fisher landed on Rockall to claim it for the British Empire.
As a theory of national boundaries, first possession is still seen as relevant. But it isn't terribly popular as a theory of private property these days, as it has some unattractive implications. For example, if you were walking in a wood and a flower had just bloomed for the first time, would the fact that you had discovered it make it yours? Or suppose you discover some new proof in logic or mathematics - do you own the theorem? If you were the first discoverer of someone's genetic code, would you own it? Of course, it could be argued that an idea created, such as a song, is different from an idea discovered, such as uncovering the genetic code of a rate.
A much more popular theory of property is that it arises fundamentally from the ability to enforce a property right; something is yours if you can keep it. According to this idea, many, if not all, forms of property are thus the creation of states. Indeed, some would argue that states exist precisely in order to create and enforce property rights. They allocate, for example, rights to cars, housing, education, work, televisions, broadband spectrum, patents, local government contracts.
If you believe that property is only created and allocated by states, you are likely to believe that there is a legitimate policy question of whether property (wealth) is allocated appropriately and usefully. You might argue, for example, that an unequal distribution of property could be socially useful, in providing incentives for hard work or creativity or engagement in specific socially valuable projects. But you might claim there was a limit to such inequality, that at some point inequality is not 'socially useful' any more and if inequality goes beyond that point we might debate how property should be 'redistributed'.
Another view is that at least some forms of property arise as an extension of work. The thought here is that we begin by owning our work, that our skills and effort are fundamentally and morally ours. They would be ours even if no state existed at all, which is why it would be wrong to enslave us into forced labour.
Now consider the following: suppose a man hacked a piece of silver from the rocks, then crafted it himself into a locket, on the back of which he wrote 'To my darling wife'. Assuming he does not sell it (for indeed, he can sell his labour or its fruits) that locket is morally his or his wife's, even if it is stolen, even if the thief is the King who confiscates it by force, saying he needs it to give to someone else who has no silver. The locket is property that is privately owned morally (not simply legally) as an extension of the man's moral ownership of his work.
Some of those who advocate the state-created property rights view would deny that labour can be seen as truly private. They might say that our health and skills are the product of the education system, the health service, a peaceful society and many other things which arise from the state. It is no coincidence that in many communist countries, in which even state-created private property rights were denied, private labour rights were also denied.
But if we believe that we are self-owned autonomous people, not simply the property of the state, and should be able to go to other countries if we like and to perform the work we want, then one implication is that our work can produce property which, once it is ours, is profoundly ours. It is an expression of our skills and effort and belongs to us just as much (and for the same reasons) as our skills and effort belong to us. And like our skills and effort, we can sell it or gift it to others - it then becomes theirs.
The freedom to trade such property is an extension of our freedom to work. Rules such as equalities legislation are rather akin to the commandeering of our property or our persons for a social purpose (such as if we were to comandeer a taxi to help chase a getaway criminal). That is easy enough to defend when temporary, but can it legitimately be permanent?
That means that much of what we call property - including our car, TV, clothes, furniture, or share portfolio - can be seen as morally ours in a way that is independent of the state. In my view, it follows from this that even to have an opinion about how such property is distributed is improper, indeed sinister. The point about the 'wealth redistribution' debate is not that wealth redistribution is not 'needed', it is that there is no morally legitimate question about the distribution of wealth, any more than about the distribution of skill or effort.
Yet not everything we call 'wealth' or 'property' takes this produced-by-work form. I don't mean inherited wealth, for that may have been produced by work and then gifted to heirs, I mean things such as broadband spectrum, land, or government contracts which cannot even in principle be created or improved by work. Broadband spectrum is indeed clearly something that can only be possessed and protected, and that states intrinsically allocate. The same applies to land or government contracts.
So it seems that, once we reflect upon what property is, we can form a much clearer view about what forms of intellectual discovery can be regarded as creating property. We can have a legitimate debate about the distribution of property, but only provided we focus that debate upon those forms of property that the state itself creates. If we are so collectivist that we believe that even everyone's work belongs to the state, then perhaps all property can be seen as state-created and discussions about the distribution of all wealth are legitimate. But otherwise we should recognise that property exists privately and morally, as an extension of our work and self-ownership.
*by Andrew Linico, Fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs (from the Telegraph, 25/6/2014)
See also: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/property/newhomes/3303619/Not-all-property-is-theft.html