As an institution, private property has been critical in Western society and political thought. Modern capitalists defend private property merely on the grounds of efficiency. Socialists, on the other hand, tend to critique it.
Capitalists’ defense of private property rarely extends beyond a calculation of economic benefits. Many assert simply that there is no viable alternative to individual ownership. Private property, they contend, is just the best option within a set of subpar options. This argument, with its pessimistic tone, hardly inspires much love for the concept of private ownership.
But throughout history, numerous thinkers have robustly defended and justified the institution of private property: Cicero of ancient Rome, Thomas Aquinas of medieval Europe, and John Locke of the early modern period. The first extensive defense of private property comes from Aristotle in the fourth century B.C., and he believed there were more reasons than efficiency alone to endorse it.
Who was Aristotle?
Aristotle was a polymath who wrote extensively on ethics, logic, metaphysics, biology, astronomy, rhetoric, and more. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas referred to Aristotle as “The Philosopher,” demonstrating the level of respect Aristotle commanded. To this day, he is considered one of the most influential philosophers to ever live.
On the subject of private ownership, Aristotle believed external goods — such as property and wealth — could help people live a virtuous life. Unlike his teacher, Plato, who recommended strict limits on wealth, Aristotle argued that “happiness also requires external goods in addition, as we said; for it is impossible, or at least not easy, to play a noble part unless furnished with the necessary equipment.” This view is the foundation of Aristotle’s positive stance on private ownership.
If people are sharing something, everyone is more likely to assume that someone else is taking care of it.
Aristotle’s arguments in favor of private property have shaped debate on this topic throughout history. In his seminal work Politics, Aristotle argued against communal ownership of property by demonstrating the superiority of private property in four core areas: efficiency, unity, justice, and virtue.
According to Aristotle, private ownership is simply more efficient than communal ownership. The latter increases the likelihood of neglect. When people are sharing something, Aristotle claims, everyone is more likely to assume that someone else will take care of it instead of taking responsibility themselves.
As the economist Milton Friedman argued, we spend our own money most carefully and spend others’ money most liberally. Aristotle shared this stance, writing that “people pay most attention to what is their own; they care less for what is common.”
People have an incentive to be productive with what they are uniquely responsible for since they will benefit directly from their own efforts. On the other hand, communally owned property does not produce the same incentives because the fruits of your efforts are not solely your own.
Critics of private property tend to demean it as atomistic, claiming that its adoption creates a society of “rugged individualists” who refuse to cooperate with one another. Aristotle sharply disagreed with this view, arguing instead that private property, in fact, fostered unity while communally owned property bred constant discord. On the subject of communal ownership, he wrote that “in general, living together and sharing in common in all human matters is difficult, and most of all these sorts of things.”
For Aristotle, justice constitutes being rewarded what you are worth, therefore unequal abilities result in unequal rewards.
Association is not a bad thing by any means, but having people share essential resources opens the door to potential conflict. As Aristotle put it, “It is a fact of common observation that those who own common property, and share in its management, are far more at variance with one another than those who have property separately.” In owning things for ourselves, we avoid the strife that arises from compromising over critical assets.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle asserts that justice is defined by equals getting equal rewards and unequals getting unequal rewards. When we apply this view to the notion of communally owned property, an issue arises. Aristotle explained it this way: “If people are not equal, they will not possess equal things, but from this comes fights and accusations… For everyone agrees that the just in distributions must be according to some worth; the worth however, everyone does not call the same thing.”
For Aristotle, justice constitutes being rewarded what you are worth, therefore unequal abilities result in unequal rewards. Aristotle considered this to be a benefit of the private property system in which people are rewarded whatever price they themselves can command. He believed that in a system of communal ownership, problems are bound to arise where some people work more than others yet receive the same reward. This issue naturally causes discontent, but it is also unjust because it treats everyone equally to the detriment of those who dedicate more of their efforts.
Aristotle believed that using one’s property to aid friends was a great practice: “Doing favors and helping friends, guests or mates is most pleasant, and this only happens when property is private.”
If everyone communally owns everything, no one can give something of their own to someone else. Aristotle wrote of “generosity concerning possessions, for no one will be known to be generous or do generous actions since the work of generosity is in the use of one’s possessions.” In a system of communal ownership, it’s difficult to exhibit virtues of generosity, moderation, and charity. Each of these virtues depends on the fact of ownership, and what people decide to do with that ownership.
Coercion of communal property nullifies the individual’s possibility for virtue because it removes personal choice.
Private property, therefore, is not only an efficient mode of production as well as a unifying agent — it is also a vital tool for the cultivation of certain virtues.
One could argue that communal property can also be used for virtuous purposes, but this would be misleading. Virtue must be cultivated through free, uncoerced action. Aristotle begins book three of Nicomachean Ethics by saying that “since virtue is concerned with passions and actions, and on voluntary passions and actions praise and blame are bestowed, on those that are involuntary pardon, and sometimes also pity.” In this way, the coercion of communal property nullifies the individual’s possibility for virtue because it removes personal choice.