Private property

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Proprietas Privata (PP) British period marker in San Martin, St. Paul's Bay, Malta Niches and reliefs in Wardija 02.jpg
Proprietas Privata (PP) British period marker in San Martin, St. Paul's Bay, Malta

Private property is a legal designation for the ownership of property by non-governmental legal entities. [1] Private property is distinguishable from public property, which is owned by a state entity; and from collective (or cooperative) property, which is owned by a group of non-governmental entities. [2] [3] Private property can be either personal property (consumption goods) or capital goods. Private property is a legal concept defined and enforced by a country's political system. [4]

Property, in the abstract, is what belongs to or with something, whether as an attribute or as a component of said thing. In the context of this article, it is one or more components, whether physical or incorporeal, of a person's estate; or so belonging to, as in being owned by, a person or jointly a group of people or a legal entity like a corporation or even a society. Depending on the nature of the property, an owner of property has the right to consume, alter, share, redefine, rent, mortgage, pawn, sell, exchange, transfer, give away or destroy it, or to exclude others from doing these things, as well as to perhaps abandon it; whereas regardless of the nature of the property, the owner thereof has the right to properly use it, or at the very least exclusively keep it.

Public property is property that is dedicated to public use and is a subset of state property. The term may be used either to describe the use to which the property is put, or to describe the character of its ownership. This is in contrast to private property, owned by an individual person or artificial entities that represent the financial interests of persons, such as corporations. State ownership, also called public ownership, government ownership or state property, are property interests that are vested in the state, rather than an individual or communities.

Collective ownership is the ownership of means of production by all members of a group for the benefit of all its members. The breadth or narrowness of the group can range from a whole society to a set of coworkers in a particular enterprise. In the latter (narrower) sense the term is distinguished from common ownership and the commons, which implies open-access, the holding of assets in common, and the negation of ownership as such.



Gate with a private property sign PrivatePropertySign.jpg
Gate with a private property sign

Ideas about and discussion of private property date back at least as far as Plato. [5] Prior to the 18th century, English speakers generally used the word "property" in reference to land ownership. In England, "property" did not have a legal definition until the 17th century. [6] [7] Private property as commercial property was invented[ by whom? ] with the great European trading companies of the 17th century. [8]

In real estate, a landed property or landed estate is a property that generates income for the owner without the owner having to do the actual work of the estate. In medieval Western Europe, there were two competing systems of landed property, on one hand manoralism, inherited from the Roman villa system, where a large estate is owned by the Lord of the Manor and leased to tenants, and on the other hand the family farm or Hof owned by and heritable within a commoner family, inherited from Germanic law.

The issue of the enclosure of agricultural land in England, especially as debated in the 17th and 18th centuries, accompanied efforts in philosophy and political thought—by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), James Harrington (1611–1677) and John Locke (1632–1704), for example—to address the phenomenon of property ownership. [9]

Enclosure was the legal process in England of consolidating (enclosing) small landholdings into larger farms since the 13th century. Once enclosed, use of the land became restricted to the owner, and it ceased to be common land for communal use. In England and Wales the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farming in open fields. Under enclosure, such land is fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners. The process of enclosure began to be a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons had become largely restricted to rough pasture in mountainous areas and to relatively small parts of the lowlands.

England Country in north-west Europe, part of the United Kingdom

England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Wales to the west and Scotland to the north-northwest. The Irish Sea lies west of England and the Celtic Sea lies to the southwest. England is separated from continental Europe by the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south. The country covers five-eighths of the island of Great Britain, which lies in the North Atlantic, and includes over 100 smaller islands, such as the Isles of Scilly and the Isle of Wight.

Thomas Hobbes 17th-century English philosopher

Thomas Hobbes, in some older texts Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury, was an English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy. Hobbes is best known for his 1651 book Leviathan, which expounded an influential formulation of social contract theory. In addition to political philosophy, Hobbes also contributed to a diverse array of other fields, including history, jurisprudence, geometry, the physics of gases, theology, ethics, and general philosophy.

In arguing against supporters of absolute monarchy, John Locke conceptualized property as a "natural right" that God had not bestowed exclusively on the monarchy. Influenced by the rise of mercantilism, Locke argued that private property was antecedent to and thus independent of government. Locke distinguished between "common property", by which he meant open-access property; and property in consumer goods and producer-goods, the latter of which referred to land. His chief argument for property in land was improved land management and cultivation over common open-access land. Locke developed a normative theory of property rights based on labor, which stated that property is a natural result of labor improving upon nature; and thus by virtue of labor expenditure, the laborer becomes entitled to its produce. [10]

Mercantilism economic policy emphasizing exports

Mercantilism is a national economic policy that is designed to maximize the exports of a nation. Mercantilism was dominant in modernized parts of Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries before falling into decline, although some commentators argue that it is still practiced in the economies of industrializing countries in the form of economic interventionism.

In the 18th century, during the Industrial Revolution, the moral philosopher and economist Adam Smith (1723–1790), in contrast to Locke, drew a distinction between the "right to property" as an acquired right and natural rights. Smith confined natural rights to "liberty and life". Smith also drew attention to the relationship between employee and employer and identified that property and civil government were dependent upon each other, recognizing that "the state of property must always vary with the form of government". Smith further argued that civil government could not exist without property, as government's main function was to safeguard property ownership. [10]

Industrial Revolution Mid-20th-to-early-21th-century period; First Industrial Revolution evolved into the Second Industrial Revolution in the transition years between 1840 and 1870

The Industrial Revolution, now also known as the First Industrial Revolution, was the transition to new manufacturing processes in Europe and the US, in the period from about 1760 to sometime between 1820 and 1840. This transition included going from hand production methods to machines, new chemical manufacturing and iron production processes, the increasing use of steam power and water power, the development of machine tools and the rise of the mechanized factory system. The Industrial Revolution also led to an unprecedented rise in the rate of population growth.

Adam Smith 18th-century Scottish moral philosopher and political economist

Adam Smith was a Scottish economist, philosopher and author as well as a moral philosopher, a pioneer of political economy and a key figure during the Scottish Enlightenment, also known as ''The Father of Economics'' or ''The Father of Capitalism''. Smith wrote two classic works, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). The latter, often abbreviated as The Wealth of Nations, is considered his magnum opus and the first modern work of economics. In his work, Adam Smith introduced his theory of absolute advantage.

In the 19th century, the economist and philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) provided an influential analysis of the development and history of property formations and their relationship to the technical productive forces of a given period. Marx's conception of private property has proven influential for many subsequent economic theories and for anarchist, communist and socialist political movements, and led to the widespread association of private property with capitalism.

Karl Marx Revolutionary socialist

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist and socialist revolutionary.

Productive forces

Productive forces, productive powers, or forces of production is a central idea in Marxism and historical materialism.

Anarchism is an anti-authoritarian political philosophy that advocates self-governed societies based on voluntary, cooperative institutions and the rejection of hierarchies those societies view as unjust. These institutions are often described as stateless societies, although several authors have defined them more specifically as distinct institutions based on non-hierarchical or free associations. Anarchism holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary and harmful.


Factories and corporations are also considered private property Hallesche Maschinenfabrik.jpg
Factories and corporations are also considered private property

Although contemporary neoclassical economics—currently the dominant school of economics—rejects some of the assumptions of the early philosophers underpinning classical economics, it has been argued that neoclassical economics continues to be influenced by the legacy of natural moral theory and the concept of natural rights, which has led to the presentation of private market exchange and private property rights as "natural rights" inherent in nature. [11]

Economic liberals (defined as those who support a private sector-driven market economy) consider private property to be essential for the construction of a prosperous society. They believe private ownership of land ensures the land will be put to productive use and its value protected by the landowner. If the owners must pay property taxes, this forces the owners to maintain a productive output from the land to keep taxes current. Private property also attaches a monetary value to land, which can be used to trade or as collateral. Private property thus is an important part of capitalization within the economy. [12]

Socialist economists are critical of private property as socialism aims to substitute private property in the means of production for social ownership or public property. Socialists generally argue that private property relations limit the potential of the productive forces in the economy when productive activity becomes a collective activity, where the role of the capitalist becomes redundant (as a passive owner). Socialists generally favor social ownership either to eliminate the class distinctions between owners and workers and as a component of the development of a post-capitalist economic system. [13]

In response to the socialist critique, the Austrian School economist Ludwig Von Mises argued that private property rights are a requisite for what he called "rational" economic calculation and that the prices of goods and services cannot be determined accurately enough to make efficient economic calculation without having clearly defined private-property rights. Mises argued that a socialist system, which by definition would lack private property in the factors of production, would be unable to determine appropriate price valuations for the factors of production. According to Mises, this problem would make rational socialist calculation impossible. [14]

In capitalism, ownership can be viewed as a “bundle of rights" over an asset that entitles its holder to a strong form of authority over it. Such bundle is composed of a set of rights that allows the owner of the asset to control it and decide on its use, claim the value generated by it, exclude others from using it and the right to transfer the ownership (set of rights over the asset) of it to another holder. [15] [16]

In Marxian economics and socialist politics, there is distinction between "private property" and "personal property". The former is defined as the means of production in reference to private ownership over an economic enterprise based on socialized production and wage labor whereas the latter is defined as consumer goods or goods produced by an individual. [17] [18] Prior to the 18th century, private property usually referred to land ownership.


Private property in the means of production is the central element of capitalism criticized by socialists. In Marxist literature, private property refers to a social relationship in which the property owner takes possession of anything that another person or group produces with that property and capitalism depends on private property. [19] The socialist critique of private ownership is heavily influenced by the Marxian analysis of capitalist property forms as part of its broader critique of alienation and exploitation in capitalism. Although there is considerable disagreement among socialists about the validity of certain aspects of Marxian analysis, the majority of socialists are sympathetic to Marx's views on exploitation and alienation. [20] Socialists critique the private appropriation of property income on the grounds that because such income does not correspond to a return on any productive activity and is generated by the working class, it represents exploitation. The property-owning (capitalist) class lives off passive property income produced by the working population by virtue of their claim to ownership in the form of stock or private equity. This exploitative arrangement is perpetuated due to the structure of capitalist society. From this perspective, capitalism is regarded as class system akin to historical class systems like slavery and feudalism. [21]

Private ownership has also been criticized on non-Marxist ethical grounds by advocates of market socialism. According to the economist James Yunker, the ethical case for market socialism is as follows: because passive property income requires no mental or physical exertion on the part of the recipient and because its appropriation by a small group of private owners is the source of the vast inequalities in contemporary capitalism, social ownership in a market economy would resolve the major cause of social inequality and its accompanying social ills. [22] Weyl and Posner argue that private property is another name for monopoly and can hamper allocative efficiency. Through use of taxation and modified Vickrey auctions, they argue that partial common property ownership is a more efficient and just way to organize the economy. [23]

See also

Related Research Articles

Capitalism is an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Characteristics central to capitalism include private property, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system, and competitive markets. In a capitalist market economy, decision-making and investment are determined by every owner of wealth, property or production ability in financial and capital markets, whereas prices and the distribution of goods and services are mainly determined by competition in goods and services markets.

Anti-capitalism political ideology

Anti-capitalism encompasses a wide variety of movements, ideas and attitudes that oppose capitalism. Anti-capitalists, in the strict sense of the word, are those who wish to replace capitalism with another type of economic system.

In economics and sociology, the means of production are physical and non-financial inputs used in the production of economic value. These include raw materials, facilities, machinery and tools used in the production of goods and services. In the terminology of classical economics, the means of production are the "factors of production" minus financial and human capital.

A market economy is an economic system in which the decisions regarding investment, production and distribution are guided by the price signals created by the forces of supply and demand. The major characteristic of a market economy is the existence of factor markets that play a dominant role in the allocation of capital and the factors of production.

State ownership

State ownership is the ownership of an industry, asset, or enterprise by the state or a public body representing a community as opposed to an individual or private party. Public ownership specifically refers to industries selling goods and services to consumers and differs from public goods and government services financed out of a government’s general budget. Public ownership can take place at the national, regional, local, or municipal levels of government; or can refer to non-governmental public ownership vested in autonomous public enterprises. Public ownership is one of the three major forms of property ownership, differentiated from private, collective/cooperative, and common ownership.

Economic system system of production and exchange

An economic system is a system of production, resource allocation and distribution of goods and services within a society or a given geographic area. It includes the combination of the various institutions, agencies, entities, decision-making processes and patterns of consumption that comprise the economic structure of a given community. As such, an economic system is a type of social system. The mode of production is a related concept. All economic systems have three basic questions to ask: what to produce, how to produce and in what quantities and who receives the output of production.

A theory of capitalism describes the essential features of capitalism and how it functions. The history of various such theories is the subject of this article.

Unearned income is a term coined by Henry George to refer to income gained through ownership of land and other monopoly. Today the term often refers to income received by virtue of owning property, inheritance, pensions and payments received from public welfare. The three major forms of unearned income based on property ownership are rent, received from the ownership of natural resources; interest, received by virtue of owning financial assets; and profit, received from the ownership of capital equipment. As such, unearned income is often categorized as "passive income".

Criticism of capitalism

Criticism of capitalism ranges from expressing disagreement with the principles of capitalism in its entirety to expressing disagreement with particular outcomes of capitalism.

Economic planning is a mechanism for the allocation of resources between and within organizations which is held in contrast to the market mechanism. As an allocation mechanism for socialism, economic planning replaces factor markets with a direct allocation of resources within a single or interconnected group of socially-owned organizations.

An economic ideology distinguishes itself from economic theory in being normative rather than just explanatory in its approach. It expresses a perspective on the way an economy should run and to what end, whereas the aim of economic theories is to create accurate explanatory models. However the two are closely interrelated as underlying economic ideology influences the methodology and theory employed in analysis. The diverse ideology and methodology of the 74 Nobel laureates in economics speaks to such interrelation.

Ricardian socialism is a branch of classical economic thought based upon the work of the economist David Ricardo (1772–1823). The term is used to describe economists in the 1820s and 1830s who developed a theory of capitalist exploitation from the theory developed by Ricardo that stated that labor is the source of all wealth and exchange value. This principle extends back to the principles of English philosopher John Locke. The Ricardian socialists reasoned that labor is entitled to all it produces, and that rent, profit and interest were not natural outgrowths of the free market process but were instead distortions. They argued that private ownership of the means of production should be supplanted by cooperatives owned by associations of workers.

The social dividend is the return on the capital assets and natural resources owned by society in a socialist economy. The concept notably appears as a key characteristic of market socialism, where it takes the form of a dividend payment to each citizen derived from the property income generated by publicly owned enterprises, representing the individual’s share of the capital and natural resources owned by society.

Production for use is a phrase referring to the principle of economic organization and production taken as a defining criterion for a socialist economy. It is held in contrast to production for profit. This criterion is used to distinguish socialism from capitalism, and was one of the fundamental defining characteristics of socialism initially shared by Marxian socialists, evolutionary socialists, social anarchists and Christian socialists.

Throughout modern history, a variety of perspectives on capitalism have evolved based on different schools of thought.

In Karl Marx's critique of political economy and subsequent Marxian analyses, the capitalist mode of production refers to the systems of organizing production and distribution within capitalist societies. Private money-making in various forms preceded the development of the capitalist mode of production as such. The capitalist mode of production proper, based on wage-labour and private ownership of the means of production and on industrial technology, began to grow rapidly in Western Europe from the Industrial Revolution, later extending to most of the world.

Socialist mode of production

In Marxist theory, socialism refers to a specific historical phase of economic development and its corresponding set of social relations that emerge from capitalism in the schema of historical materialism. The Marxist definition of socialism is an economic transition where the sole criterion for production is use-value and therefore the law of value no longer directs economic activity. Marxist production for use is coordinated through conscious economic planning, while distribution of products is based on the principle of to each according to his contribution. The social relations of socialism are characterized by the proletariat effectively controlling the means of production, either through cooperative enterprises or by public ownership or private artisanal tools and self-management, so that social surplus goes to the working class, and hence society as a whole. Karl Marx himself did not use the term "socialism" to refer to this development, but rather called it a communist society that has not yet reached its "higher-stage." The term "socialism" was popularized during the Russian Revolution by Vladimir Lenin.

Social ownership is any of various forms of ownership for the means of production in socialist economic systems, encompassing public ownership, employee ownership, cooperative ownership, citizen ownership of equity, common ownership and collective ownership. Historically social ownership implied that capital and factor markets would cease to exist under the assumption that market exchanges within the production process would be made redundant if capital goods were owned by a single entity or network of entities representing society, but the articulation of models of market socialism where factor markets are utilized for allocating capital goods between socially owned enterprises broadened the definition to include autonomous entities within a market economy. Social ownership of the means of production is the common defining characteristic of all the various forms of socialism.

Market socialism is a type of economic system involving the public, cooperative or social ownership of the means of production in the framework of a market economy. Market socialism differs from non-market socialism in that the market mechanism is utilized for the allocation of capital goods and the means of production. Depending on the specific model of market socialism, profits generated by socially owned firms may variously be used to directly remunerate employees, accrue to society at large as the source of public finance or be distributed amongst the population in a social dividend.

Socialist economics comprises the economic theories, practices, and norms of hypothetical and existing socialist economic systems.


  1. McConnell, Campbell; Brue, Stanley; Flynn, Sean (2009). Economics. Boston: Twayne Publishers. p. G-22. ISBN   978-0-07-337569-4.
  2. Gregory and Stuart, Paul and Robert (February 28, 2013). The Global Economy and its Economic Systems. South-Western College Pub. p. 30. ISBN   978-1285055350. There are three broad forms of property ownership – private, public, and collective (cooperative).
  3. "?".
  4. Bertrand Badie; Dirk Berg-Schlosser; Leonardo Morlino (2011). International Encyclopedia of Political Science. SAGE Publications, Inc. p. 2132. ISBN   978-1412959636. Private property cannot exist without a political system that defines its existence, its use, and the conditions of its exchange. That is, private property is defined and exists only because of politics.
  5. Garnsey, Peter (2007). Thinking about Property: From Antiquity to the Age of Revolution. Ideas in Context. 90. Cambridge University Press. p. 1. ISBN   9781139468411 . Retrieved 2018-08-28. The defence of private property has been a feature of philosophical, theological and legal discourse from antiquity to the present day. [...] I begin with Plato's thoughts on property in the Republic [...].
  6. The Meaning and Definition of "Property" in Seventeenth-Century England, 1980"
  7. The Meaning and Definition of "Property" in Seventeenth-Century England, by G. E. Aylmer, 1980. Oxford University Press. Past and Present, No. 86 (Feb., 1980), pp. 87–97.
  8. Compare: Bertrand Badie; Dirk Berg-Schlosser; Leonardo Morlino (2011). International Encyclopedia of Political Science. SAGE Publications, Inc. p. 2132. ISBN   978-1412959636. Oliver Letwin, a British conservative theorist, observed that the private sector had to be invented. This occurred with the great European trading companies, such as the British and Dutch East India companies, founded in the 17th century. Notions of property before the Renaissance assumed that different actors had different relations to the same property.
  9. Thompson, Paul B (2014). "agriculture". In John, Barry. International Encyclopedia of Environmental Politics. Routledge. p. 8. ISBN   978-1-135-55403-3 . Retrieved 2014-08-05. [D]ebates [on enclosure] […] laid down many of the basic terms for political debate about private property, and especially property in land.
  10. 1 2 Property Rights in the History of Economic Thought: From Locke to J.S. Mill, by West, Edwin G. 2001. Property Rights: Cooperation, Conflict, and Law, ed. Terry Lee Anderson and Fred S. McChesney, Princeton University Press, 2003, Ch. 1 (pp. 20–42).
  11. O'Hara, Phillip (September 2003). Encyclopedia of Political Economy, Volume 2. Routledge. pp. 782–83. ISBN   0-415-24187-1. The derivation of natural moral theory has provided the foundation for the use of economic theory to support specific ideological viewpoints. The main strength of the legitimating role of economic theory is that it allows one set of ideological viewpoints to posture as if their conclusions were unbiased scientific conclusions, while those opposing them were merely expressing their value laden opinions. At its apex, this tendency has justified laissez-faire economic policies as if they were based on natural laws. Always behind the legitimization activities of economists is the belief that markets are ‘natural’ institutions and market outcomes are natural outcomes, and the institutions necessary for markets, such as private property rights, are ‘natural rights’.
  12. Connell, Shaun. "Property Rights 101: The Foundation of Capitalism Explained". Capitalism Institute. Archived from the original on 29 October 2012. Retrieved 25 October 2012.
  13. The Political Economy of Socialism, by Horvat, Branko. 1982. Chapter 1: Capitalism, The General Pattern of Capitalist Development (pp. 15–20)
  14. "?".
  16. "PROPERTY LAW 440" (PDF).
  17. Gewirth, Alan. (1996). The Community of Rights. University of Chicago Press. p. 168
  18. Capital, Volume 1, by Marx, Karl. From "Chapter 32: Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation": "Self-earned private property, that is based, so to say, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent laboring-individual with the conditions of his labor, is supplanted by capitalistic private property, which rests on exploitation of the nominally free labor of others, i.e., on wage-labor. As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, as soon as the laborers are turned into proletarians, their means of labor into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, then the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production into socially exploited and, therefore, common means of production, as well as the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form. That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many laborers."
  19. "Glossary of Terms". Retrieved 2 March 2017.
  20. Arnold, Scott (1994). The Philosophy and Economics of Market Socialism: A Critical Study. Oxford University Press. p. 50. ISBN   978-0195088274. Though socialists have disagreed with Marx about how to conceptualize the notion of class, about the dynamics of class societies, and indeed about a whole host of other matters, most socialists seem to be broadly sympathetic to his views about what is wrong with the capitalist (free enterprise) economic system and, by implication, capitalist society ... Marx’s critique attributes basically two systemic evils to capitalism’s economic system: alienation and exploitation.
  21. O'Hara, Phillip (September 2003). Encyclopedia of Political Economy, Volume 2. Routledge. p. 1135. ISBN   0-415-24187-1. Property income is, by definition, received by virtue of owning property ... Since such income is not an equivalent return for any productive activity, it amounts to an entitlement to a portion of the aggregate output of others’ productive activity. The workforce produces output, but surrenders part of it to people who have nothing directly to do with production. Arguably, this occurs by virtue of a social system to which those in the workforce have never given their full consent, i.e. that of private property. Alternatively, it occurs by virtue of a structure of power to which the workforce is subject: property income is the fruit of exploitation. The fact that it is essential to capitalism makes the latter a class system akin to such other historical cases as slavery and feudalism.
  22. The Social Dividend Under Market Socialism, by Yunker, James. 1977. Annals of Public and Cooperative Economics, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 93–133: "From the human point of view, return paid to non-human factors of production is unearned and equivalent to a free gift of nature. It is the personal appropriation of this free gift of nature by a small minority of society under contemporary capitalism which establishes the ethical unworthiness of capitalism and the desirability of a socialist transformation...The employment of capital instruments and natural resources in economic production requires no personal hardship or exertion from any human being. The economic services provided by these factors of production are not corporeally inherent in human beings. The opposite is true of labor services, which can only be provided through the physical and mental activity of human beings...the really grossly exaggerated personal incomes in society are dominated by property income, and this source of inequality would be abrogated by the equalization of property income distribution."
  23. Posner, A. Posner and E. Glen Weyl. “Property is Monopoly: Creating a Competitive Market in Uses Through Partial Common Ownership.” Chap. 1 in Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.