There is a common theme among many on the left of the political spectrum, the idea that property is theft. It can be used as a justification for almost any government intervention into people’s lives, therefore whether it’s true is a pretty important question. So let’s look into it as rationally as we can.
First, we need to define some terms. The two terms we need to worry about are property and theft (I think we can leave “is” out for the time being).
Let’s start with the first, what is property?
There are a couple of different concepts for which the term “property” is used somewhat interchangeably. One is an object, such as a car, and the other is the control over that object, which can be said to be the property “right” or “ownership.” I think we can safely discard the first concept, since an object itself cannot be considered theft.
What constitutes a property “ownership”? Ownership of an object is control over that object. I own a car if I can make decisions about the use and disposal of that car. I can temporarily, and conditionally, assign some of that ownership to another person which is “loaning” the car to them. During the time that they have borrowed the car, they make all of the decisions for it, with the understanding that at some point they are going to return control of it to me. That brings an interesting point: If someone takes that car without my permission then they are quite literally in control, do they then own it? Yes and no. They own it in the sense that are making all of the decisions regarding its use and disposal. But there is another layer of ownership on top, which is a legal framework dealing with title. While they would own it for all practical purposes, I still own it in the theoretical sense. So this complicates things further, as there are practical and conceptual types of ownership.
I’m not sure which type of ownership is being referred to in the “property is theft” claim, so let’s look at both.
The practical type of ownership can only exist for either zero or one person at a time, things can never be simultaneously owned by more than one person. Certain constructs can make it appear that something is owned my multiple people, but these are just simulations. These simulations are achieved either through dividing an object into several parts (each with distinct ownership) or by switching ownership between people or a combination of both. A pizza, for example, can appear to be owned by all of the frat boys who paid for it, however, each piece can only be eaten by a single person, so it’s really just subdivided into smaller units. Likewise, an elevator in a condominium complex isn’t simultaneously owned by all residents, but is owned individually by each one as it is in use (or each half is owned if two residents use it at the same time).
So, is practical property ownership theft? First, though, we need to define theft. Theft is defined as taking property from another person without their permission. It’s critical to understand property in order to understand this definition. Using our practical definition of property, it can only theft if someone already controls (owns) the object. However, since the practical definition of property includes the caveat that something can be owned by no one, then the first owner cannot be taking it from anyone. Therefore, since the first practical owner of an object has taken that ownership from no one, it cannot be theft in that case. This means that practical ownership is not in itself theft even though it can be a part of theft. This leaves us with conceptual (or legal) property ownership. Is this theft?
Conceptual property can be thought of as “property rights,” these are human-made concepts of ownership. These rights are independent of, but quite often coincident with, practical ownership. They are also not intrinsic within the object in question, but are only a part of the human actors and their interaction with each other. Conceptual ownership is not objective, but is subjective to the people involved, and it can be defined in many (potentially infinite) ways. How can we possibly determine if conceptual property ownership is theft, if it has no one objective definition? Well, it’s a question of where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Going back to our definition of theft, something is only “theft” if it takes property from someone else. If two concepts of property conflict in theory, but never in practice, then neither one is theft since neither has taken anything from anyone. You and I can both claim to own the Brooklyn bridge, but as long as neither of us attempt to take physical control of it, then the conflict is moot and no theft has taken place. In other words, conceptual property ownership is only relevant when it affects practical property ownership. This leads us to the same result as before. Conceptual ownership cannot be theft in the situation where it leads to the first practical ownership of an object. Even if other’s had claimed to own something conceptually, they can continue to claim conceptual ownership and there is nothing taken from them.
In conclusion, we can see that property cannot in and of itself be theft, for the simple reason that the first owner of something cannot have taken it from anyone. Even if your personal concept of property is that someone did in fact own it before they did, that concept is still perfectly valid after they have taken ownership, for all of its practical consequences. This idea dovetails nicely with the homesteading principle, in that nothing can be owned until it has been used.
One caveat to all of this is that indeed much of the property today was in fact stolen from someone at some point. But while it’s true that theft has played a role in most property ownership today, it’s a mistake (if understandably easy) to take the logical leap to all property being theft. Unfortunately, it’s intractably complex to unravel all of the property theft and re-theft and re-re-theft in the past to return things to their proper owners, and any attempt to do so becomes just one more layer of theft on top of an already large pile. Even if you can identify the previous owner of property, can you be certain that they didn’t steal it and therefore have no more right to ownership than the current owner? Probably not, so it’s just adding on the the cycle of theft. Let’s stop it all now and get on with our lives.