Throughout the world, and in many economic and political systems, private property is a staple of life. Owning your own house, your own land, your own anything seems to be the ultimate freedom- to have something that is completely, indisputably, unabashedly yours. But is it? Capitalists believe it is, while communists and socialists disagree. In fact, communists and socialists think quite the opposite. They see the ownership of private property as a negative prospect, as something enslaving. Capitalists, however, think that owning your own property gives freedom in itself. This introduces the question, who is right? Does owning private property give you liberty, as the capitalists say, or does it take it away, as the communists and socialists say?
Ludwig von Mises, author of Liberty and Property, claims that capitalism and private property most definitely leads to freedom. Simply having the power to be able to buy private property is liberating, he claims, as “the market is a democracy” (1) that everyone should be able to participate in. The economy, instead of being a “hierarchical organization of various enterprises and plans” (1) like socialists and communists believe it is, is a system whose “power is ultimately vested in the hands of the buying public” who “form the immense majority” (1). When one has the power to purchase property, they have the opportunity to invest into this market in the way that they so choose. This gives people the freedom to do as they wish.
Owning private property is a worthy pursuit in the eyes of capitalists. Pope Leo XIII, in his work Rerum Novarum, says that man has the right to “invest his savings” (2) in land, and how he chooses to spend his earned wages should be “completely at his full disposal” (2) as they are wages he earned from his own labor. Owning property is not just a freedom that should be given to mankind from their government, it is a right that every man has. All people have the right to “possess property as [their] own” as it “is one of the chief…distinctions” (2) between humans and animals. He even goes so far as to say that private ownership is in “accordance with the law of nature” because “God has granted the Earth to mankind” (2) so all people should be able to own a piece.
On the other hand, Marx claims that owning private property is practically enslavement for a society. Instead of working hard and accumulating money over time that can be used to purchase land or property, communist and socialist systems claim that having the government own everything, while allowing people to use it is the best course of action. In the Communist Manifesto he claims that people put too much value on owning things, and ownership makes “personal worth into exchange value” (3). People become enslaved to money, and the pursuit of it only leads to people becoming increasingly materialistic and greedy. This eventually leads to class separations and some people becoming richer than ever, while some are poorer than ever. However, if private property is eradicated, this creates a system where everything is “fair” because all people have access to the same resources. While these systems attempt to eradicate poverty by creating one unified social class, they also eradicate the chance of having any freedom at all. In these systems, the people have no choice as they cannot uses their earned wages as they wish because they have no choice in the market as everything is government mandated. However, Socialists claim “freedom is not the supreme good” because it is “not worth having if it implies poverty” (1). However, even when these systems have been put into place, the “the standard of living was incomparably higher in the free countries of the west than in the communist east”. And “In giving away liberty as the price to be paid for the acquisition of prosperity, the Russians made a poor bargain (1). They now have neither one nor the other.” But is the removal of any and all freedoms worth the prominence of class levels?
Cuba, a communist country, has recently allowed their citizens to buy and own property albeit with a few restrictions. Residents are allowed to buy and sell property for the first time in decades. They will be able to set their own prices and move when they like, and it will no longer be regulated by the Cuban government. This “break from decades of socialist housing” (4) will give the people much more mobility and freedom, as where they can live, when they can move, and how much their property will sell for is now all within their control. However, there are still limits on property, as Cuban residents are still not allowed to own more than two homes, “a residence and a vacation property” (4).
This shift in the Cuban market seems to some as an undeniable shift towards capitalism and employing a capitalistic system. After all, they are allowing free trade. However, Cuban officials believe that they are “carefully protecting socialism” (4) and that this is not capitalism. With the ability to freely buy and sell property, comes the reintroduction of prominent class levels emerging. There will be a clear distinction between the rich and the poor, and there could even be a rise in homelessness what with all the displacement that will be occurring (4). However, there will be a distinct freedom surfacing in Cuba- the freedom to buy and sell homes, the freedom to move whenever you want, the freedom to move where you want. This shift in the market seems to be a definite shift towards capitalism and the freedom capitalism promises.
The ability to claim property as our own may seem selfish to many. Certainly, America is one of the most thriving capitalist economies in the world, and many think of Americans as greedy and materialistic. However, they are investing and doing with their money as they wish, because they have the freedom to do so. Communist and socialist economies do not give their citizens the ability to make their own choices, because the government has already made all of their choices for them. There is no way they can advance themselves financially, in the interest of keeping all people equal. However, capitalism affords endless opportunities for advancement, as there is the opportunity to earn more money and generate more private property.
As Pope Leo XIII says, “Private ownership…is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary” (2). While explicitly owning land may not intrinsically make you free, the ability to buy and sell property whenever and where ever you wish is a freedom that stems from Capitalism. While there are flaws in this system such as the appearance of distinct class levels, people at least have a choice in their dealings with the market. Not to mention, this ability to own, buy and sell property, is what many consider a freedom, if not an inherent right. So while owning property may not be the answer to personal and social liberty, the choice and the ability to do so is a succinct freedom.
- Mises, Ludwig. Liberty and Property. Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig Von Mises Institute, Auburn University, 1988.
- “Rerum Novarum: Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor.” Letter from Pope Leo XIII.
- Marx, Karl. “Bourgeois and Proletarians.” In Manifesto of the Communist Party. 1883. Reprint.
- Cave, Damien. “Cuba to Allow Buying and Selling of Property, With Few Restrictions.” The New York Times. November 03, 2011. Accessed May 04, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/world/americas/cubans-can-buy-and-sell-property-government-says.html?_r=1&.
- Private Property Sign. http://www.decalsground.com/item-881-private-property-sign.html.