Who should own what?

John Dunn

  • Property and Political Theory by Alan Ryan
    Blackwell, 198 pp, £15.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 631 13691 6

Human beings are very possessive creatures. It is, no doubt, not one of their more admirable characteristics. No one esteems anyone else simply for being possessive, even if they may envy the power which some accumulate under the goading of their will to possess, or may enjoy and admire the skills which others develop at least partly under the same impulses. To own, to have at one’s disposal, to exercise power over, are all marks of human effectiveness, just as much as the capacity to jump long distances or to sing resonantly in tune or to make compelling political speeches. All human effectiveness is effectiveness in some real social setting, drawn in part from contingent advantages and reflected back in the grudging or effusive acknowledgment of other human beings. Even possessiveness requires at least an imaginary audience. One might save prudently on a desert island, but one could hardly hoard there. However, while ownership itself can be enviable and in some circumstances even impressive, the mere desire to have seems to many today – just as it did to John Locke – a furtive, even incipiently criminal form of lust.

Disputes over property, and over the power which flows from it and flows back into it, are far from being the only major theme (let alone the motor) of human history. But for a number of millennia they have been increasingly thick on the ground. We may confidently expect them to continue as long as organised social life continues. How should we think about such disputes? How are they to be clearly understood? What attitude should we adopt towards them? Only an idiot would anticipate a clear and authoritative answer to these questions. But even the more sophisticated, if they take the trouble to think about it, might find themselves mildly astonished at the sheer disarray and bemusement of the accumulated human effort to find answers for them which are even superficially cogent.

This is the more surprising (or indeed the more shocking) since the world today is wired up very tautly, and very unstably indeed, into opposing systems of mutual menace, systems which amongst their other features possess the capacity between them to terminate human life on earth; and since the imagined occasion for this ludicrous and reckless depth of enmity is a disagreement over the question of how to conceive ownership. (This is certainly the Soviet view of the matter; and, however partial it is as a causal explanation and however grotesque the conception of ownership on which it rests, it is closer to the truth than a bland negation of it, expressed in the idiom of freedom and servitude.) On the less hectic stage of British domestic politics, more practical and immediate political choices likewise revolve around interpretations of ownership, its role in securing growing or diminishing wealth throughout the population and in allocating whatever wealth it does contrive to secure, as privileged rights of action amongst the individual members of this population. Both internationally and domestically these conflicts focus intense feelings. (Observe the mining pickets and the police lines on your television screens: the bricks, the smashed windscreens, and the applause that follows the cavalry charges. Note, a little later in the programme, the charms of daily life in El Salvador.) Ownership is not just a word (property is theft): it is, in all human societies, a set of rules and institutional arrangements which determines the allocation of rights to enjoy and use the natural world and the range of human products. Around its definition and redefinition, its defence, enforcement and subversion, there swirls all the myopic passion of human possessiveness: the hopes and hatreds, the loves and above all the fears which come to bear upon the opportunity to take and confer enjoyment, to provide for needs, to realise desires, to act out fantasies. One important reason why the casuistry of ownership is in such intellectual disorder is the range of the subject-matter which it must seek to bring to order: an intricate and endlessly refashioned external world, saturated with very poorly controlled human emotion, and still haunted by much of the tangled history of beliefs which have accompanied its refashioning.

To ask innocently today, ‘Who should now own what?’ is to raise a miscellany of often sharply contrasting types of question. But it is also to seek to pose a single overwhelming question. At its most ambitious, that is to say, it is to ask how we can hope to bring our sense of value and morality to bear upon the cluttered, busy, baffling world in which we live. Addressed to any single individual who does not happen to be a major political leader, this has always been a question which permits only one honest and realistic answer: very tangentially indeed. But, asked today of a philosopher in the more expansive setting of the Senior Combination Room, it may anticipate a fluent exposition of what ‘we find we feel’ would constitute an attractive design for the human world at large. (The modern name for this proceeding is the ‘method of reflective equilibrium’, though it has some older names also.) But neither of these responses quite captures the sense in which most beneficiaries of a modern Western higher education are likely to intend the question (any, that is, that should choose to ask it at all). It is in fact a political question, asked not about how to exercise a power which few (if any) possess but about what to wish for in the exercise of power and about what sorts of exercise of power to encourage, support or seek to prevent. As a political question it cannot be answered simply by reflecting on what would be ideally desirable, what consummations devoutly to wish. In politics the relations between what is intrinsically desirable and what is practically to be welcomed and fought for are never very stable, since the medium of political action is the wills, beliefs and feelings of others. Politics cannot ever in practice consist of the imposition of individual moral fantasy onto a passive material (blank paper), and the wish that it might do so, however heartfelt, is not in the end a respectable wish. It shows, amongst other things, a profound lack of respect for the reality of other human beings.

What we may be perfectly certain of at present is that no one has much idea of how we could hope to bring our sense of human value to bear upon the full historical reality of the modern world. Between the piffling, the bombastic and the blatantly evasive there is very little in which to place one’s trust in current claims about the right to own. A more homely, if less interesting explanation of this level of incoherence is therefore the professional epistemic scruple – the rational cowardice – of modern intellectuals. (Pick a subject your own size; affect a style which will readily hold up in your customary social milieu.) Alan Ryan’s Property and Political Theory is thus a bolder venture than it may at first appear. There has been a small handful of serious philosophical or historical works on the nature of property rights published in the last few decades: Richard Schlatter’s Private Property: The History of an Idea, C.B. Macpherson’s more incautious The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Robert Nozick’s notorious Anarchy, State and Utopia and Lawrence Becker’s modest text on Property Rights. But none of these has made a concerted attempt to think through the ways in which property rights have been conceived in modern history and to draw a set a reasoned conclusions from this effort. (The most instructive of the four, Anarchy, State and Utopia, derives a set of striking negative conclusions from an unargued and rather evidently absurd set of premises.)

Ryan’s own courage falters at intervals throughout the book, when he senses the scale of the issues which he is attempting to address. But he does in fact sustain throughout a level-headed, lucid and serious approach to the intimidating issues which he treats; and no one interested in modern political theory could fail to benefit from his discussion. The major part of the book considers the understanding of property developed by a range of leading political philosophers: Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, Kant, Hegel, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx. The final chapter, prompted by a tenacious reader of the manuscript, draws the moral of these analyses by explaining why there are so few socialists left in the West today. (It does a little less well with the task of explaining why there are any.) The discussions of individual philosophers are deft, engaging and predominantly convincing. Ryan is a close reader and often a very sensitive interpreter. (His work on John Stuart Mill over the last two decades has set quite new standards by its emphasis on the systematic character of Mill’s preoccupations.) But the tenacious reader was quite right to insist on the need for the closing chapter, since this alone provides the setting within which Ryan’s approach can be understood and judged as a whole. As a whole, it makes a companionable and consistently interesting work, perhaps a little too close in tone to the leader columns of the Guardian. Certainly, when one holds it up to the ear it is hard to catch the rattle of the machine-guns or the whimpers of the starving, and quite easy to hear the rustle of the academic middle class adjusting its moral sensibilities. (But then, since university teachers still belong – just – to the middle class, who else’s moral sensibilities should they presume to adjust?)

Out of the discussions of the individual philosophers emerge two continuing themes: the development of a detached and instrumental conception of the nature, practical merits and disadvantages of different systems of property rights and the more volatile and imaginatively engaging progress of what Ryan calls an ‘expressive’ conception of the significance of property. The first of these is reasonably easy to grasp and its point has always been pretty evident. The second, a richer but decidedly more treacherous range of preoccupations, is far harder to see clearly. The first focuses predominantly on the provision of material goods and the relatively immediate needs and purposes for which human beings require or desire these. Its archetypal thinker, on Ryan’s account, would be Jeremy Bentham, with his readiness to take human possessiveness very much as he finds it (along with just the minimum of penal redirection) and with his firm and eminently realistic emphasis upon the importance of security in the arena of human enjoyments. The second, in Locke and Hegel and most emphatically in Marx, proves to focus preponderantly on the nature of human work and on the significance which human beings attach to this: on its role within their broader imaginative life. While Bentham’s view inclines to the unexactingly hedonist and may reasonably be suspected of leading logically to the louche world of massage parlours and casinos, the expressive view favours a loftier and primmer moral tone and, under over-interpretation, has been known to lead to the labour camp. Ryan’s account of the vicissitudes of the expressive theme is particularly interesting. He brings out very well the pressure towards a comprehensive and would-be authoritative vision of all social relations which this train of thought carries: the impulse to construct society as a complete set of relations in which all act spontaneously and with energy for the better and all somehow see each other (and see themselves) as successfully engaged in just such pursuits. Within this conception the key feature of a system of ownership is the impact which it has upon the ways in which men and women perceive themselves and experience their own lives. Many thinkers have found the serene holism of this picture intensely attractive and it is easy enough to see why. But it is also easy, as Ryan insists to good effect in his final chapter, to be carried away by the charms of the vision and to end up dogmatising brazenly about the imaginative lives of others about whom you in fact know little and understand even less.

Ryan is quite right to stress the need for scepticism in the face of what has proved historically to be a distressingly equivocal and accident-prone style of vision. But in the face of a society which engages to keep several millions of its adult citizens without employment for the imaginable future and which continues to recognise human worth to a large degree through a market in labour, it is hardly a vision which we should at present consider abandoning. Nor indeed, muddle-headed and ingenuous though it frequently appears, is it simply an incoherent range of preoccupations. As a set of practical proposals on how a society could make its members fully at home in the world, it has at all stages been beneath contempt. But as a somewhat fumbling attempt to express a central ideal of social relations (an ideal which no decent society can afford wholly to forget), it retains the greatest urgency. For one thing, it sets out quite well what must be one of the most important dimensions of the fashionable Kantian social ideal of equality of respect – a conception which no one who has thought about it at all hard could pretend to find very clear, but which has a remarkable resonance in contemporary moral thinking.

It is, however, in his handling of the instrumental conception of property rights that the main limitation of Ryan’s book lies. The weakness comes partly from the skimpiness of his historical perspective and partly from the cursoriness with which he chooses to treat purely economic issues. It is odd, for example, that he should elect to say virtually nothing about the principal intellectual progenitors of modern legitimations of capitalist property rights, David Hume and Adam Smith, and at least regrettable that he should ignore entirely the intellectual background to their thinking so powerfully reconstructed recently by Istvan Hont in Wealth and Virtue. We begin with Locke, and with Locke more or less in midair. Even the final chapter, interesting and broadly convincing though it is, fails to bring home the bluntness of the central modern question about property rights.

There definitely is a central modern question about property rights, though it appears to be difficult to discern its centrality from the United States of America. About a century and a half ago, Filippo Michele Buonarroti, inventor of the role of professional revolutionary and aging survivor of the Conspiration des Egaux of 1796, described it well as a conflict between the order of egoism and the order of equality. This was a description offered, of course, on behalf of the order of equality and it is scarcely one that its opponents will be happy to accept. But it catches the queasy fraudulence of both ideological constructions rather nicely, with the order of equality compulsively averting its eyes from the realities of human possessiveness and the order of egoism cheerily condoning the will to have as the motive force of a whole scheme of social life. In its most dramatic (and by far its most historically consequential) guise, the political theory of Marx and his descendants, the order of equality has promised fulsomely to combine the productive effectiveness of capitalism with a humanly fulfilling scheme of social relations and a handsome draught of moral ennoblement on the side. The fact that socialist factories prove in practice little more fulfilling as work sites than capitalist factories is obviously of some importance in relation to these promises. But it is very drastically less important than the fact that a socialist planned economy has proved unable to match the productive efficacy of its capitalist competitors, except in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction. (This is a point which Mr Kinnock should bear in mind, though no doubt it is also, as Michael Stewart has recently suggested in these columns, a point about which Mr Scargill could not care less.)

The instrumental and expressive conceptions of the implications of systems of property rights are not two different and competing views about the same subject. They simply address different aspects of the same reality. What is especially dismaying about the confusion of modern understandings of property rights – the endless recycling of exhausted would-be truisms – is not just the appalling danger that has sprung from their political expression: it is also the erratically extending scope of the fields which we need them to bring under intellectual, and then, History willing, under practical control. Human beings are some distance past such comfortingly manageable questions as who should own British Leyland. Today already we need urgently to be able to see who should own the great common of the oceans, who should own the air, who should own the space around the earth. (It is a puerile confusion to suppose that no one should own any of them. The question is who should be able to use each of them for what purposes, in what ways and on what terms.) To see how to devise an intellectually coherent instrumental conception of modern property rights (and if they are to be rights, moral cogency will be a precondition for intellectual coherence) is a formidable task. It is also one which we have barely begun to address. But altogether more formidable, and dismayingly pressing, is the nakedly political question of how any such conception might be acted out in the world. Alan Ryan’s admirable book forces brusquely upon our attention a range of issues before which even the stoutest nerve might reasonably quail.