… is a slogan invented by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Frequently used and abused by those with no clear understanding of what it means.
The first thing to note is that it is just a slogan and a nineteenth century slogan at that. It isn’t necessary for it to be taken literally.
Secondly it does not refer to all property but specifically to land ownership, and needs to be understood in the context of nineteenth century grand estates owned by aristocrats.
Aristocrats had built up huge estates over many centuries; and not always by simply buying it. Feudal land grants from kings were originally more like rents – “I give you this land for your lifetime; in return you owe me military service to include 10 knights and 200 men at arms when I call”. Originally for a lifetime but gradually became inheritable and the military service that was owed as “rent”? That gradually faded away as kings found more professional armies were more reliable.
Laws were often arranged to protect large land holdings – for instance Scotland had a law that protected estates from being broken up and sold off during bankruptcy – effectively protecting the fundamental wealth of an aristocratic family from their creditors.
Lastly those close to the bottom of the rung of the rural community who saw in just a few short generations change from protected feudal client (roughly the equivalent of a tenant farmer) through to a day worker who could be discarded on a moment’s notice. At the same time, enclosures took away “common land” (which every member of the community could use for grazing, etc.) and gave it to local land owners.
In a real sense, this is where the notion that property is theft comes from – in many ways, although legally done, land was in some cases stolen.
When you come down to it, is it any wonder 19th century radicals were steaming at the ears at the land ownership of the elites?
But is it still relevant or appropriate today?
Well yes and no. Certainly as a campaigning slogan it does apply.
In the intervening decades, a number of laws have been introduced to mitigate the worst aspects of the landlord (in the most general sense of the word) tenant relationship, but there are still many, many opportunities for abuse.
It is one thing when a landlord is the owner of one or two properties and quite another when a landlord owns a large enough portfolio of properties to distort the local market. And in my history of renting homes, the later is far more common than the former (although this might be peculiar to my location).
One of the biggest problems is that property prices (and rents) have inflated far faster than salaries (or wages) which is fundamentally a problem of supply and demand. Supply is always going to be limited (creating new land is rare).
Demand is split into property investment by the rich, and homes for everyone. The former limits the supply for the later, and in the case of property shortages (and excess costs), it is arguably true that the former should be suppressed in some manner.
Before considering how to get from a world of private ownership of property to a world where that doesn’t exist, let us consider how a world without land ownership might work.
Land could be “owned” by the community as a whole, and a lifetime tenancy granted to people with an appropriate use case. With an appropriate rent owed – a monthly payment, profit share, etc.
At the end of the leasehold (when the leaseholder dies or gives up the lease for whatever reason), the community compensates the leaseholder for improvements – buildings constructed, land improvements, etc. And the leaseholder compensates the community for any neglect of the land (and any buildings on it) – environmental, necessary repairs, etc.
The community could look at any land returned to it and make decisions on such matters as whether it should be sub-divided – is a 6-bedroom house on a half-acre of land suitable for an inner city?
There are undoubtedly problems large and small with a solution to land such as this; but there are problems large and small with our current solution to land.
Whilst we have tinkered with land ownership rights and wrongs, we have not yet thrown the rulebook away and started again. Don’t give up on the idea just because it is not done the way it has “always been done”.