Property is Theft

Mises was never keen to speak in terms of ethics, but the following excerpt from Socialism does a brilliant job dispatching the notion that ownership of property must necessarily preclude others from the benefits derived,

Socialism (Mises)To have production goods in the economic sense, i.e. to make them serve one’s own economic purposes, it is not necessary to have them physically in the way that one must have consumption goods if one is to use them up or to use them lastingly. To drink coffee I do not need to own a coffee plantation in Brazil, an ocean steamer, and a coffee roasting plant, though all these means of production must be used to bring a cup of coffee to my table. Sufficient that others own these means of production and employ them for me. In the society which divides labor no one is exclusive owner of the means of production, either of the material things or of the personal element, capacity to work. All means of production render services to everyone who buys or sells on the market. Hence if we are disinclined here to speak of ownership as shared between consumers and owners of the means of production, we should have to regard consumers as the true owners in the natural sense and describe those who are considered as the owners in the legal sense as administrators of other people’s property.

— Ludwig von Mises, Socialism (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009), pp. 41–42.

5 thoughts on “Property is Theft

  1. Faxanavia

    So I recently had Proudhon’s original critique of property (the one from which “property is theft” originates) explained to me. It seems to me that his issue lies very much in the fact of the division of labour. It is not only the case that no one is exclusive owner of the means of production, but indeed that one can never be exclusive owner of all of the means of production – even if, for example, I buy all of the raw goods prerequisite to make a pencil, I still have not controlled the whole of the process. We solve this problem by recognizing that property rights can be handed on, e.g. that you, the producer of rubber, gives to me the right to some of your rubber in exchange for the right to some of my money. (One of) the problem(s) that Proudhon raises is that we lack a justification for the origination of the chain — how can we justifiably lay claim to property from nature? How can you have the right to the rubber derived from nature in the first place?

    This may not be immediately relevant to the Mises excerpt above, but I’m interested in your response nonetheless.

    P.S. Hi. In case you don’t remember, I’m from NSD, and also the Facebooks.

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    1. JosephFetz

      That is far more an ethical argument than an economic one. However, if we were to take such a stance as an ethical ideal, I do believe that this would have real implications for the ethical result (i.e. society would be living in a squalor that is far more prevalent than in other systems of allocation).

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  2. JosephFetz

    This is, of course, highly determinate upon Mises’s conception of consumer sovereignty.

    All of the productive means in an economy have but only one end: to satisfy the wants of the consumers. The profit of which is determined by the demand of the consumer coupled with the calculation of the entrepreneur, and the exchange on the market of such goods. Also, the value of these means is inputed from the preferences of the consumers. After all, if a piece of land or capital is useless in producing the goods that consumers value, then it has no value to the economy proper, only to the subjective individual valuations of the person who holds such land or capital.

    I value my guitars much higher than anybody else would, because I have a subjective attachment to them that is beyond what the market could determine, but this overvaluing on my part is not rational in the catallactic sense, because my personal valuation of my guitars is not grounded in exchange, but is grounded in the further consumption of that good.

    If I were to communize my guitars, such that all had equal access, who would be the thief? I say that it would be the society that would support such a case, because I could not fully realize my ultimate end, which is enjoying the process of playing, as well as the productive results therein, which are predicated upon my consumptive use of this good. This could not take place without the concept of property. Our individual ends could never be satisfied, but would instead be spread thin by those who also wish to have use of my guitars.

    Some would say, “ah, but we can just produce more guitars”. But then this would not solve the problems of calculation, and indeed there would be no real incentive to do so, without private property.

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  3. JCatalan

    Faxanavia : I don’t think property rights originate in nature, in the sense that they exist outside of social organization. I don’t think Mises did either — Mises didn’t find much of worth in concepts like natural law. But, we can say that property rights are part of an institutional framework that arises and develops over time, and that they are justified only on the basis of the prevailing attitude and culture. I’m sure that, historically, there’s also been a lot of injustice associated with property rights (like coerced expropriation of property). But, I don’t think this is a case for invalidating the value of property rights (nor meddling in them, especially if the costs of meddling are larger than whatever costs — most of them sunk costs, no less — past injustices in distribution have caused).

    JosephFetz: I think that, for the most part, socialist societies have granted what more-or-less amounts to property rights for consumer goods — as long as you can access them.

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