Public and Private Property.
In a society where men make useful tools - knives, bags, ropes, and so forth - they may hold these goods in common, or as personal private property. In the former case, as tools are made, they are put into a common store for general use by whoever has need of them. In the latter case, each person possesses for his own use those tools that he needs.
If the manufacture of a tool requires considerable skill and labour, such that the demand for the tool cannot be met, then it is better for a society if these tools were held in common ownership. Thus in a village with several farmers, but only one plough, it is better that the plough be held in common ownership by the villagers, so that each farmer can take turns in using it, than that one farmer retain it exclusively for his own use, and the others use their bare hands to turn the earth.
A well may also be an example of a tool held in common. The construction of a deep well may require many months of effort before it produces the water that men drink to sustain their life, or use to wash themselves and their clothes and houses, or use to boil food, or any of the many other uses of water. A single well, held in common, could then be used by anyone seeking to draw water from it.
But if tool-makers are able to easily meet any level of demand for tools, so that no shortages ever appeared, there would be a strong incentive to private ownership. For if all tools are held in some common store, then the use of these tools entails first taking the trouble of going to this store and taking some number of tools, and, after using them, taking the trouble to return them. If such tools were instead held by individuals for their own use, they could be kept at hand, and the time and trouble of getting them from, and returning them to, a common store would be saved. Thus, private, personal possession of tools results in increased social idleness.
Private ownership of tools also has other advantages. Not only can their owner lay hands on them immediately, without applying to borrow from a common store, but he is also able to become familiar with a particular tool, knowing its characteristics, able to see when it requires repair or replacement. Unless a common store is periodically examined, it is likely to become filled with worn-out tools, or tools which would be serviceable if they had been maintained. Private ownership of tools will usually result in greater care being of tools, to ensure they are not damaged through misuse, or lost, and that they are kept in good repair, and replaced when past repair. In the example of the village in need of ploughs, instead of a single plough being shared among the farmers, each farmer would own his own plough. And if wells could be dug without great effort, then each household could have the convenience of its own private well.
If the scarcity of some useful tool demands that it be held in common, and a sufficiency of tools allows their private possession, then a glut of useful tools will return them to common ownership. Air is useful, but is available in such abundance that nobody wishes to own any. In a village by a river of sweet water, more than sufficient to meet every requirement, the river would be held in common ownership. And if knife-makers could produce knives so rapidly that they could pave the village street with knives, nobody would bother to own a knife.
The advantage of common ownership is that all persons have access to commonly-owned tools, but the disadvantage is that these tools must be applied for from the common store, and returned to the store after use. The advantage of private ownership is that persons who own their own tools are saved the trouble of getting them and returning them to the common store, but the disadvantage is that some people may not own tools.
The same argument applies with other goods. If houses require great amounts of labour to build, then people will all tend to live together under one roof, in common. And if, at the same time, clothing is difficult to make, then people will live together unclothed, taking clothes from a common store when they need to go out into the cold. When water can only be obtained from a single well, then this well will be held in common.
By this general argument, whether goods are held in common or held privately depends upon their availability. When goods are in short supply, they will be held in common. When they are in sufficient supply, they will be held privately. What ultimately determines whether goods are public or privately held is the social idleness that results from one or the other habit. Society is more idle when goods in short supply are held in common because the social inconvenience of common ownership is outweighed by the labour socially saved by shared use of tools, and it is more idle when goods are abundant if these goods are held privately because the convenience of personal ownership outweighs the labour saved by shared tool usage.
If so, when goods become abundant, public property gives way to private property. When goods become scarce, private property is commandeered as public property. And if goods ever exist in superabundance, they will become public property.
Seen in this light, there exist no absolute property rights. The private ownership of tools does not arise from some immutable natural right to ownership, but purely from social convenience. In some circumstances, a society will be more idle if it holds tools in common ownership. In others, society will be more idle if such tools are privately owned.
When a man manufactures some useful tool - e.g. a knife -, he does so at some cost to himself. If other men simply take the knives he makes, and reap their value using them to save time in some activity - e.g. cutting reeds -, then the manufacturer always loses time, and those who take the knives always gain time.
In such a circumstance, the manufacturer would be more idle if he simply stopped making knives, if they were taken from him as soon as they were made. But once he stopped manufacturing them, the supply of knives would dry up, and reeds would have to be laboriously cut using broken knives or found objects. It would require some incentive for the knife-maker to start making knives again. If the reed cutters agreed to give him something in return for the knives he made, either to work for him or give him food or other tools, then when the price is right both the knife-maker and the knife-users could benefit - i.e. become more idle -.
Ultimately, in this sort of transaction, it is time, rather than knives, which are being traded. A useful tool like a knife is something with a time cost of production, and a time value in use. Nobody wants a knife for itself, but for the time it will save in some necessary activity.
In a land paved with knives, it has been argued, no-one would want to own knives as personal possessions. In the earliest human history, when human numbers were low, the land was paved with land, and nobody wanted to personally own it. It was only when parts of the land began to be put to specific uses - as farms, as quarries, as mines, towns and roads -, that land began to become private property.
A toolmaker requires not only the raw materials required to make a tool, but also some place where he can make it - an area of land. A farmer requires not only seeds and water, but land on which to grow plants. In the beginning, anyone who wanted to start up a workshop or a farm simply found a bit of suitable land, and started work. But as the numbers of farms, barns, houses, workshops, and roads multiplied, anyone who wanted land would find that little that other people did not already have a use for.
Land becomes personal property where someone uses land for some purpose - as a workshop, as a farm - and where moving his activities to another place results in some inconvenience.
The ground on which anyone stands is their property. But if someone wishes to pass over the same spot, the cost of taking a step or two back out of their way is a minor inconvenience.
Where a basketmaker sits down in some place, with a few reeds and a knife, to make a few baskets, the ground on which he sits, and on which his raw materials and finished products rest, are his property while he is at work. When his work is finished, and he vacates the spot, it reverts to being public property. During the time that he is at work, if someone else wishes to uses that piece of ground, then the cost to him of moving is not just of moving himself, but also his raw materials, tools, works in progress, and finished products.
If the same basketmaker sets up a workbench, with a roof over it, with numerous heavy tools for heating and bending wood, with a large store of raw materials, and of finished products, and a roof over the whole, then the cost to him of moving his business off one piece of land may be very high. It may take several days work, and interrupt his trade. He will only move if he is forced to, or if he is recompensed in some way.
The price of land is originally the trouble it takes to move to another place. Land is property when anyone puts it to some use. Land property acquires a price when the cost of moving from that land becomes substantial.
The nature of land property may be seen, speeded up, on any sunny beach where families go to bathe and play and sun themselves. The beaches are usually public property, and whoever arrives first stakes out a plot on which to spread out mats or towels, erect sunshades, lay out food and drink. These small areas of beach become temporary private property. It is understood that nobody must walk across such properties, because they might disturb the occupants or damage their contents. As the beach fills, new arrivals find vacant spaces between the occupied plots, fitting in as best they can. In order to create larger spaces, some existing owners may be induced to move their plot a few feet. For the price of some small gift or service, the owners of a plot might even be induced to contract the size of their plot. As some people leave, their plot is taken by whoever arrives first, or they may bequeath it to friends. An elaborate system of paths between the plots becomes established, and the owners of adjacent plots shrink their property to avoid their possessions being trampled upon. Where the owner of a plot must temporarily leave, he might ask and appoint a neighbour to defend his property rights, preventing anyone from taking over. Come nightfall, as everyone goes home, the entire elaborate township of beach plots and paths disappears, to be recreated the next day.
Much the same applies to the occupation of seats in a theatre, or on a train, or in a park. Whoever gets there first acquires property rights. And they can dispose of these rights (giving away their seat to an elderly man). And they can ask neighbours to "look after" their seat if they need to temporarily vacate it.
Author: Chris Davis
First created: 25 Sep 1998
Last edited: 16 Oct 2000