sunnuntai 5. syyskuuta 2010

Aristotle on Ownership

Aristotle (384 BC - 322 BC)

Private versus common ownership

Unlike Plato, Aristotle does not consider private ownership second best or less than ideal. At one point in the Politics, Aristotle offers an argument in support of private ownership which must perplex modern defenders of private ownership. He criticizes common ownership because it annihilates the virtue of liberty. "No one, when men have all things in common, will any longer set an example of liberality or do any liberal actions, for liberality consists in the use which is made of private property".

Without private ownership, Aristotle believes people will not be able to give to their friends or to those who are in need. Private ownership is, therefore, valuable because of what it allows owners to do for others, not, as in more modern accounts, what private ownership allows owners to do for themselves.

Aristotle bases his preference for private ownership over Plato's communal ownership on three grounds not shared by Plato. The first is Aristotle's understanding that what is privately owned will be better managed than what is communally owned. This argumentation is based upon two assumptions: one about the objects of knowledge and the other about human motivation and interest. Second is Aristotle's understanding of what he names natural exchange. And third is Aristotle's understanding of human nature which implies the equalization of desires rather than the equalization of wealth through communal ownership.

Private ownership is better managed

Aristotle believes that those who would attempt to centrally manage communally owned land might have great difficulty in acquiring all of the information necessary to make good judgments about how the communal land should be utilized. On the other hand, mismanagement through ignorance seems an inevitable outcome.

"Private education has an advantage over public, as private medical treatment has, for while in general rest and abstinence from food are good for man in a fever, for a particular man they may not be; and a boxer presumably does not prescribe the same style of fighting to all his pupils. It would seem, then, that the detail is worked out with more precision if the control is private, for each person is more likely to get what suits his case"

Aristotle is a relativist who believes that virtue, which is the rational mean between extremes, is relative to each individual; but it is an objective reality not a subjective one. The implication for ownership is that each person can be better served by administering what he privately owns than he would be served by more distant and impersonal administration. Each individual will more likely have his own unique needs fulfilled through his own rather than another's administration. Therefore, in the search for virtue an individual is better served by managing his own resources. He has more intimate knowledge of what he owns and how what he owns contributes to his successfully achieving his own individual virtuous means.

Aristotle highlights human motivation as a reason why private ownership will result in better care being taken of what is owned than will communal ownership. Aristotle believes people think chiefly of their own and hardly at all of the common interest. "Everyone is more inclined to neglect the duty he expects another to fulfill". He also believes the vice of selfishness is rightly censured: "Love of self is a feeling implanted in nature and not given in vain."

Kept within the proper measure, self-love for, concern with, or partiality towards what is privately owned is a virtue not a vice. Aristotle argues that because of the special love and care for what is privately owned the thing owned should benefit from the special concern.

Land ownership and a comfortable amount of wealth

Unlike the modern conception of private land ownership, Aristotle does not consider privately owned land to be alienable by either bequest or exchange. Land is to remain connected to each family to serve as a means of production the family's subsistence. Each family is actually to have two plots, one near the city and the other near the border in order to inspire unanimity among the people in their border wars.

"Property should be in a certain sense common, but as a general rule, private; for when everyone has a direct interest, men will not complain of the another, and they will make more progress, because everyone will be attending to his own business. And yet by reason of goodness, and in respect of use, 'Friends', as the proverb says, 'will have everything in common'... For although every man has his own property, some things he will place at the disposal of his friends, while others he shares the use of them... It is clearly better that property should be private, but the use of it common..."

That individuals may privately own things, both land and goods, for Aristotle implies they will be better cared for by the person who owns them, i.e. the management right of title is best exercised by private owners. Presumably, better management benefits everyone because of increased efficiency. Rights of use must be shared by owners with others who can make use of what is owned.

Privately owned lands, therefore, are to be used in order to support the family at a comfortable level and not to create an excess of wealth. Selling the land for money is frowned by Aristotle.

"The source of the confusion is the near connection between the two kinds of wealth-getting, in either, the instrument is the same, although the case is different, and so they pass into one another; for each is a use of property, but with a difference: accumulation is the end in one case, but there is a further end in the other. Hence, some persons are led to believe that getting wealth is the object of household management, and the whole idea of their lives is that they ought either to increase their money without limit, or at any rate not to lose it".

Natural and retail exchange

Natural exchange, which for Aristotle is the true function of household management, is a means of gaining wealth, but limited only to what is useful in a virtuous life, i.e. a life of moderate desires. Natural exchange is contrasted to retail trade which is not a virtue. Aristotle claims that the purpose of retail trade is that of acquiring coin or money without limit and for no additional purpose. What is really salient in Aristotle's condemnation of retail trade is its aiming at unlimited accumulation. Aristotle states that natural exchange occurs because "some have too little and others too much". By "right amount" Aristotle means the amount useful in a life of moderate desire where too many goods are useless of harmful. At one point Aristotle does say that retail trade makes unnatural use of things because things are traded for coin or money. He distinguishes between the natural use and the unnatural use of a thing. Aristotle condemns these unlimited desires because they aim at what is useless of harmful.

The right of exchange in Aristotle's concept of ownership is not the private ownership unfettered right of title to exchange goods in order to acquire riches. His concept of natural exchange is much more restricted being limited to exchanges necessary in order for each household to have the material prerequisites of a virtuous life. To this extent Aristotle's concept of private ownership of goods differs from the modern concept.

Equalization of ownership

Plato believed that the source of dissatisfaction can be prevented by equalizing wealth through equalizing ownership. If wealth and possessions are equalized, Plato believes, everyone will be satisfied with their allotment. Aristotle, however, pursues a different objection. Even if wealth were equalized, Aristotle sees no reason to assume that discord will cease because people's desires are not equal. Equality of wealth and possessions can be as much of a source of dissatisfaction as inequality of wealth.

"The equalization of property is one of those things that tend to prevent the citizens from quarreling. Not that the gain in this direction is very great. For the nobles will be dissatisfied because they think themselves worthy of more than equal shares of honor, on this is also found to be a cause of sedition and revolution".

"Where there is equality of property, the amount may either be too large or too small, and the possessor may be living in luxury or penury. Clearly, then, the legislator ought not only aim at the equalization of properties, but at moderation in the amount. Further, if he prescribes this moderate amount equally to all, he will be no nearer the mark; for it is not the possessions but the desires of mankind which require to be equalized, and this is impossible unless a sufficient education is provided by the laws."

A society in which everyone is equally well satisfied would, from the perspective of equality, have nothing to commend it over a community in which is equally poorly satisfied. Even if the "correct" level of equalization could be found, equalizing everyone's property would be unjust because people also have unequal needs, unequal deserts, and unequal entitlements. Thus, treating everyone equally will miss the mark and be unjust because some need more, desire more, or are entitled to more. Unequals, for Aristotle, ought to be treated unequally; and to the degree to which people in a society are not equal the "equalization of property" will be unjust. As an ideal, equality of unequals is wrong. In addition, diversity of desires may make satisfaction easier because specific items may be in less demand. Similarity of desires may actually increase dissatisfaction rather than reduce it.


Aristotle is convinced that private ownership promotes virtue and that communal ownership does not. One factor is that private ownership is supposedly more productive so that people can live better. Aristotle further identifies private ownership with virtue because private ownership is just, i.e. unlike communal ownership unequals are not treated equally. And, finally, Aristotle believes that private ownership provides the opportunity for virtue insofar as individuals must make choices about the use of what they own.

Aristotle's concept of land ownership approximates more closely feudal land ownership than in resembles what is now called private ownership. Also the products of the land may be sometimes appropriated by non-owners who need not ask the owner's permission. Ownership of goods, for Aristotle, differs less from the modern concept. Title of rights of use, management income, gift, bequest, and exchange vest in owners much as they do now. It is virtue which for Aristotle limits the rights of owners to use their ownables to try to increase their wealth and income. Virtue prescribes moderation in wealth as well as in desires. Thus the later justification of private ownership grounded upon free market maximization of wealth and efficiency are in opposition to the virtue by which Aristotle justifies private ownership.

Source: James Grunebaum. 1987. Private Ownership. p.35-46

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