perjantai 24. syyskuuta 2010

Jean-Jacques Rousseau on Ownership

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

First possession

Ownership, for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is grounded in first possession. The process of first possession or first occupancy is described in the Social Contract:

"In general, to establish right of first occupier over a plot of ground, the following conditions are necessary; first, the land must not be inhabited; second, a man must occupy only the amount he needs for his subsistence; and in the third place, possession must be taken, not by an empty ceremony, but by labor and cultivation, the only sign of proprietorship that should be respected by others in default of legal title."

Amount needed for subsistence

According to Rousseau, whatever the precise interpretation is put on the right of first occupier in the state of nature, full moral rights of ownership arise only in a civil society founded by compact. The second clause in Rousseau's description of first occupancy, that one may only appropriate an amount needed for subsistence, reflects a strong anti-wealth posture which he shares with the Natural Perfectionists. Rousseau would limit riches so that "no one shall ever be wealthy enough to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself", although he realizes that in fact the limitation is unlikely to obtain.

In contrast to Immanuel Kant, Jean Jacques Rousseau is acutely aware of how non-owners fare under private ownership. While Rousseau believes that first appropriation, what he calls first occupancy, grounds ownership through rights created through the social compact, he does not believe that everyone's well-being or that everyone's freedom is promoted by private ownership. Non-owners, as well as the other poor, may be virtually enslaved by an ownership form which permits great accumulation of wealth.

Every man has naturally right to everything he needs

"Every man has naturally right to everything he needs; but the positive act which makes him proprietor of one thing excludes him from everything else." Rousseau seems to be referring here to the transition from a stage of human society in which all was owned in common to a later stage, brought about the social compact, in which individuals have rights over things that exclude others.

Rousseau does not argue that the rich have a duty to help the poor. The right is therefore best understood as describing a goal for society, i.e. a society in which everyone has what he needs. Rousseau's ideal society, were it possible, is a small democracy in which everyone knows everyone else, in which there is no very rich nor very poor, and thus there is little conflict and rivalry.

Community over individual

For Rousseau, moral rights and ownership are only fully established in a civil society founded by social compact. The compact requires each person to give up all of his rights to what others possess if they reciprocally give up all of their rights to what he possesses. The rights which an individual exercises over what he owns are subordinate to the rights of the community as a whole: "the right which each individual has to his own estate is always subordinate to the right of the community over all". It is only logical for Rousseau to conclude that ongoing stability is possible only if the society has the right to regulate ownership.

Source: James O. Grunebaum. 1987. Private Ownership. p. 75-78

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