Private Property: Keep Out

Callie Benavides Pd. 3

Having lived in the United States my entire life, I have always had many rights and freedoms given to me by both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I had never questioned these rights before until second semester in Macroeconomics. Who would have thought that Macro would be the class to make me question my existence (not me, that’s for sure). One of the things that I began to question was the right to private property. The Declaration of Independence states that we have “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”[1] I always assumed that private property fell along the lines of happiness, but my roots had been shaken. To see whether we as humans have the right to private property, there is no better place to start than with some of the greatest thinkers in the world: Pope Leo XIII, Aristotle, and John Stuart Mill.

In Pope Leo XIII’s great encyclical, Rerum Novarum, he states that “every man has by nature the right to private property as his own.”[2] His reasoning for this is that as human beings that can reason, we have the ability to look beyond the present and to the future. As such, we should be able to “exercise [our] choice not only as matters that regard his present welfare, but also about those which he deems may be for his advantage in time yet to come.”[3] Because we have the ability to look to the future, we must be able to protect our futures. We can do this by owning private property and investing in it by building upon it. With this we ensure ourselves a bright future because we have provided for our future selves. Furthermore Pope Leo XIII states “that which has thus altered and improved the land becomes so truly part of itself as to be in great measure indistinguishable and inseparable from it.”[4] Once we have put work into the land and built upon it, it is forever changed and can never be the same again. It has become a part of our work and should we not enjoy the fruits of our labor?

In the document Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle does not directly address whether human beings have the right to private property or not; however he does talk about happiness in relation to property. He states that the happiness is “the end of all that man does.” He also states that “to live a happy and good life one must fulfill their function in society.”[5] One such function or duty is to provide security for our families and loved ones. A way to do this is to ensure our futures by owning private property. For example, without private property one must hunt or find food everyday; however, if you own private property you are able to farm and provide food for both now and the future. Now I realize that this is kind of archaic so let us think of this in more recent terms. If I own a house, I can invest in it and improve it, share it with whomever I want, and pass it on to whoever I want. This means that I am fulfilling my function in society by protecting my family and giving them something for the future which will in turn make me happy. On the other hand, if I am only allowed to rent property, I cannot do any of these things and I will not be able to fulfill one of my functions in society. Thus, in a roundabout way, owning private property will help lead to my happiness.

John Stuart Mill, author of Utilitarianism, also has some insight as to whether we have a right to private property. In his document he states that “the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”[6] This means that actions that are good and promote your happiness and well-being are good; whereas, actions that cause pain or quite frankly anything other than happiness are bad. Thus if we use private property as a means to achieve happiness, than having private property is justified. Furthermore, if we are using private property to to fulfill our function in society which will lead to our happiness (according to Aristotle), than we have a right to private property.

Thus far we have discussed private property in theory, but we have not seen what private property looks like in practice. In order to get a full view, we must see both sides of the story. So let us take a closer look at two countries; one that gives its citizens the right to private property (The United States of America) and one that does not (North Korea).

In the United States we are given the right to private property as aforementioned. The United States is a capitalist country. A big concept of capitalism is being able to enjoy the fruits of your own labor and benefitting from them. The reason the US has a stable economy (relatively) is because people are able to reap the rewards of the work and thus are internally motivated to do work and maybe even work extra. People who are internally motivated tend to work harder and longer because they are able to see fruits of their labor. Furthermore laissez faire allows good business to succeed and bad business to fail. This promotes business to compete to be the better business which in turn lead workers to attempt to work harder and better than others. This ultimately leads to a thriving economy.

On the other hand, North Korea is a closed society that is communist. This means that the work that you do goes toward everybody and not just yourself. Because of this workers are not internally motivated to work and thus will not try as hard to be their best. Additionally, the state controls the economy. Whereas laissez faire in the US allows good business to succeed and bad business to fail, bad business will remain open as long as the government want them open. Ultimately this leads to weak and underperforming economy.

After looking at the economies of both the United States and North Korea, it is clear to see the benefits of private property. Even after broadening my search to other countries in the world, the divide is still clear to see. For example other communist countries Venezuela and Cuba also have struggling economies. Other countries that practice laissez faire and have capitalist economies such as Japan and Germany are also thriving. In the end for the most part, the countries that allow private properties have thriving economies whereas the countries that do not allow private property have weaker economies.

In conclusion, after looking at the works of Pope Leo XIII, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill and the economies of both North Korea and the United States, it is apparent that we not only have the right to private property but that it is necessary. As I mentioned in the beginning, I always assumed that I had a right to private property but I did not fully understand what that meant. I now realize that owning private property does not simply mean slapping my name on a plot of land and calling it my own. It means being able to work and see the fruits of my labor. It means being able to live a good and happy life. It means being able to protect not only my future but the future of my family. Ultimately being able to own private property is just and is right because it always me to live a happy life and that is something I should never take for granted.

[1] Thomas Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence,” Historic American Documents, Lit2Go    Edition, (1776), May 04, 2016

[2] Pope Leo, XIII. “Rerum Novarum.” May 04, 2016.

[3] Ibid. Leo XIII

[4] Ibid. Leo XIII

[5] Aristotle, and W. D. Ross. The Nichomachean Ethics. London: Oxford University Press, 1959.

[6] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Kitchener: Batoche Books, 2001), 9-35.


[7] “Free Image on Pixabay – Private Property, Sign, Gate.” Free Stock Photo: Private Property, Sign, Gate. May 04, 2016.

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