Classical Liberalism and Property

Human society is an association of persons for cooperative action. As against the isolated action of individuals, cooperative action on the basis of the principle of the division of labor has the advantage of greater productivity. If a number of men work in cooperation in accordance with the principle of the division of labor, they will produce (other things being equal) not only as much as the sum of what they would have produced by working as self-sufficient individuals, but considerably more. All human civilization is founded on this fact. It is by virtue of the division of labor that man is distinguished from the animals. It is the division of labor that has made feeble man, far inferior to most animals in physical strength, the lord of the earth and the creator of the marvels of technology. In the absence of the division of labor, we would not be in any respect further advanced today than our ancestors of a thousand or ten thousand years ago.

Human labor by itself is not capable of increasing our well-being. In order to be fruitful, it must be applied to the materials and resources of the earth that Nature has placed at our disposal. Land, with all the substances and powers resident within it, and human labor constitute the two factors of production from whose purposeful cooperation proceed all the commodities that serve for the satisfaction of our outer needs. In order to produce, one must deploy labor and the material factors of production, including not only the raw materials and resources placed at our disposal by Nature and mostly found in the earth, but also the intermediate products already fabricated of these primary natural factors of production by previously performed human labor. In the language of economics we distinguish, accordingly, three factors of production: labor, land, and capital. By land is to be understood everything that Nature places at our disposal in the way of substances and powers on, under, and above the surface of the earth, in the water, and in the air; by capital goods, all the intermediate goods produced from land with the help of human labor that are made to serve further production, such as machines, tools, half-manufactured articles of all kinds, etc.

Now we wish to consider two different systems of human cooperation under the division of labor-one based on private ownership of the means of production, and the other based on communal ownership of the means of production. The latter is called socialism or communism; the former, liberalism or also (ever since it created in the nineteenth century a division of labor encompassing the whole world) capitalism. The liberals maintain that the only workable system of human cooperation in a society based on the division of labor is private ownership of the means of production. They contend that socialism as a completely comprehensive system encompassing all the means of production is unworkable and that the application of the socialist principle to a part of the means of production, though not, of course, impossible, leads to a reduction in the productivity of labor, so that, far from creating greater wealth, it must, on the contrary, have the effect of diminishing wealth.

The program of liberalism, therefore, if condensed into a single word, would have to read: property, that is, private ownership of the means of production (for in regard to commodities ready for consumption, private ownership is a matter of course and is not disputed even by the socialists and communists). All the other demands of liberalism result from this fundamental demand.

Side by side with the word “property” in the program of liberalism one may quite appropriately place the words “freedom” and “peace.” This is not because the older program of liberalism generally placed them there. We have already said that the program of present-day liberalism has outgrown that of the older liberalism, that it is based on a deeper and better insight into interrelationships, since it can reap the benefit of the advances that science has made in the last decades. Freedom and peace have been placed in the forefront of the program of liberalism, not because many of the older liberals regarded them as coordinate with the fundamental principle of liberalism itself, rather than as merely a necessary consequence following from the one fundamental principle of the private ownership of the means of production; but solely because freedom and peace have come under especially violent attack from the opponents of liberalism, and liberals have not wanted to give the appearance, through the omission of these principles, that they in any way acknowledged the justness of the objections raised against them.

Excerpted from, Classical Liberalism: An Introduction

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