An Introduction to Private Property


In South Africa, private property is often demonized as an apparent product of Western colonialism which only ensures the oppressed masses are kept down, without being able to access the wealth which property offers.

These debates around private property are loaded with ideological preconceptions which more often than not have little demonstrable application in the real world. Buzzwords like ‘exploitation,’ ‘redress,’ and ‘white monopoly capital’ are carelessly thrown around in attempts to argue against this institution, but with little further ado. Indeed, the widespread calls for ‘decolonization’ are often accompanied by calls for the abolishment of private property, without proponents really explaining ‘why.’ Few people who engage in these ideological debates truly interrogate the underlying concepts of property.

The truth is that private property is an economic, rather than ideological, imperative. In light of this fact, I hope to introduce South Africans to the value and philosophy of private property in this article.


The essence of property lies in ownership. Ownership is what makes an ‘object’ or a ‘thing’ into property. When something is unowned or cannot be owned – like the Sun and Moon – we have scant reason to conceive of it as anything other than a thing or object. Therefore, in a world where only one person lives, without the possibility of there being others, the concept of ‘property’ (or ‘economics,’ for that matter) will not exist, because there is nobody to challenge this person’s exercising of the entitlements of ownership.

The entitlements of ownership are exclusive use and alienation. The very concept of ownership, therefore, is by its nature exclusionary. It means someone should always have the final say.

If there is no person – which could be an individual or individuals acting in common – who has exclusive use and enjoyment of the property (from which other individuals need to acquire permission for use), then the property is not owned.

What’s the use?

The point behind the notion of property is to avoid or solve conflicts which come about over things and objects. As I wrote above, if someone were alone in the world, there would be no use for a conception of ownership or property, because there are no other people to have a conflict with.

The moment one other person exists in that world, however, property as a concept becomes an imperative. Everything cannot belong to both these people, because there are limited resources. If there were unlimited resources, similarly, property as a concept would be rather useless, because everyone can just take as much as they like, forever.

The recent controversy around evictions in Johannesburg serves as a good example of where property rights are supposed to avoid conflict. On the one hand, you have destitute individuals with nowhere to sleep who are seeking shelter, and on the other hand, you have private property owners who want the use and enjoyment of their property back. Mayor Herman Mashaba intends to evict these squatters. The concept of private property solves this conflict, because it is clear in who the private property vests. The Constitution, unfortunately, has made the situation more complex than it needs to be, because it requires a ‘balancing act’ between the private property rights of owners and the so-called ‘right to housing’ of squatters. This defeats the entire purpose of private property.

We need the concept of property because individuals need to use property for survival, but also, if we don’t merely see life simply as ‘surviving’, for enjoyment. They can, and will, share their property with one another, but never out of pure altruism. As humans, we are principally concerned with our own self-interest, which depends entirely on the individual in question, as value is subjective. We will only share if we believe sharing to be in our own self-interest. In the absence of such a belief, we will not share, and then, absent a conception of private property, we will engage in conflict. The situation in Johannesburg is an example of such conflict which could have been entirely avoided had private property been respected.

Conflicts over objects and things arise only where there is confusion as to the ownership of the thing. This is why, in South Africa, there is so much controversy over land. While a few people – on both sides of the debate – have a correct conception of property, whereby stolen land should be returned to the individuals it was stolen from, there is a more vocal group of people who conceive of the land as collective property. The real debate, when you consider all arguments, therefore lies between private property and collective property, rather than competing private property arguments.

My colleague Chris Hattingh wrote:

“We frequently talk about the many human rights people enjoy in the liberal democracies of the world, including here in South Africa, but none of these rights mean anything if there is no right to property. Our rights are ineffective if we cannot translate them into reality.”

Property is how any other right is translated into reality.

There is no right to freedom of expression if you are not entitled to own a computer on which you can access Facebook and express yourself. The same goes for microphones, venues for speeches, expressive clothing, and cellphones. The use of ‘collective’ property for expression defeats itself, since, as we know, all collective property is administered by the State, which is often the target of expression. One solution might be the ‘get a good government’, but the ability to live out our rights on a daily basis should not be dependent on the nature of the government of the day.

When someone acquires property legitimately, there can be no debate around their ability to do what they want with it, or, to put it more plainly, just because you want it, you are not entitled to kill him for it. This is, fundamentally, the role of law in society: To protect person and property.

How is property acquired ‘legitimately,’ then?

Acquiring property

For a property right to be established within a piece of property, one must ask what the link between the ownership assertor and the property is. Clearly, simply coming across something and saying ‘this is mine’ does not establish a link. As Stephan Kinsella writes:

With multiple claimants for a piece of property, each having an “equally good” verbal decree, there is no way to avoid conflict by allocating ownership to a particular person. No way, other than an objective link, that is, which again shows why there must be an objective link between the claimant and the resource.

Simply being born close to something, or within the same geographical region as it, does also not establish a link, because it is completely arbitrary. Would new births in the area override the prior ownership of those born before them? Do they share in the ownership? If new groups also move into the area, do new births among those groups also lead to a share in the ownership? All these questions are left open and are inevitably dependent on further arbitrary criteria. Hence why the ‘objective link’ is an imperative for establishing ownership.

A link is most clearly established by one of two ways, the second of which is dependent on the first. For property to be acquired, it must be unowned. This stands to reason. Ownership cannot be acquired through force, for, as Kinsella writes:

If forcefully taking possession from a prior owner entitles the new possessor to the thing, then there is no such thing as ownership, but only mere possession.

Forceful taking does not avoid conflict, which is the entire point of the concept of property. It defeats the concept.

Unowned property can be acquired by, firstly, exercising physical control over it, and secondly, having the intention to own it. So it is clear from this that standing on a hill overlooking a vast expanse of land and declaring ‘this all belongs to my tribe or my volk‘ is not enough. The person or his tribe or volk must physically control the land they wish to own (and it must be unowned), and they can do so by fencing it off, or cultivating it.

The assertion that simply because a Zulu tribe once moved through an area, that it is theirs, is nonsense. If they lost physical control of an area by moving away and not continuing to exercise control over it in another way (by having a fence, or, to be generous, in some way manifesting the fact that the land in question is theirs, by having a signpost, or something). Similarly, just because the Afrikaners had superior firepower, does not make the land they claimed through force, theirs. This applies to any government and any ‘collective property’.

The second way to acquire property is the simplest: The previous owner must give it or sell it to you, of his own free will. This is the ‘alienation’ entitlement of ownership.

Tragedy of the commons

Finally, let’s deal with the problem of ‘collective’ property.

The notion of collective, or ‘public’ property, is quite simple. Theoretically, it is the common property of all people, sometimes in a country, as is the case with minerals in South Africa; and sometimes in the world, as is the case with space and celestial bodies. This is, however, simply theoretical. In practice, ‘collective’ property is always treated like the private property of the government in question.

True ‘collective’ property is an impossibility, a fact most, with the exception of ‘anarcho-communists’, would agree with.

If everybody owns everything, nobody owns anything, and because nobody owns anything, everyone will use the property in such a way that gives them the most short-term benefits. This they do because, firstly, they don’t own it, so by depleting or damaging the resource, they do not harm themselves, and secondly, because someone else might grab it away from them at any moment, because it will be ‘their turn’ to use this ‘common’ property. We have seen the result of this in the Soviet Union, where large public farms were less productive than small plots of private land the State conceded to peasants. The example of Julius Malema’s call for land-grabs can also be made here. The individual who ‘grabs’ property will not use that property productively, because he intimately knows that the property can just be ‘grabbed’ away from him by his comrades at any moment. This is why protection for private property is crucial.

One can also see this with conceptual common property, such as healthcare, which is often considered to be the common property of all, and shouldn’t be ‘commoditized.’ Almost invariably private medical care is of a much higher quality than that provided by the State, especially in South Africa. This is partly because people aren’t ‘entitled’ to private medical care, and often need to pay significantly more than they need to in the public healthcare sector. (Bearing in mind that South Africa’s private medical sector is ridiculously-heavily regulated, which contributes to the high price of service.)

This problem is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’, and is solved only through the institution of private property.

If you know the property in question is yours, that the law protects it as such, and that nobody will take it away from you, you will use the property in such a way which maximizes its productivity, because you want to keep getting the proverbial golden eggs from the goose for as long as possible. Private farmers take care to not overcultivate or deplete the arable land on which they farm, in one harvest, because they understand that if they do so their business will not be sustainable. The same is not true for ‘public’ farms, which are often run by mid-level bureaucrats who might have a technical understanding of farming, but no real incentive to take sustainability into account, especially if they are paid a fixed salary as most government officials are.


Private property is the sine qua non of progress and development. If you don’t own your house and, therefore, cannot leave it to your descendants or sell it for a profit, why would you maintain and expand it? Do we truly prefer government tenements? If you do not truly own your own money – which is becoming truer by the day as inheritance and income taxes become more onerous – why would you care to start your own business and make a lot of it?

Everything we build and invent pushes human civilization an extra step toward a hypothetical future utopia, a utopia we are already living if we compare ourselves to our ancestors of 500 or just 100 years ago. But any such progress depends upon the ability of the individual or groups in question to be secure in the knowledge that they will reap rewards from such innovation and development. Reward cannot be dictated, mind you – so saying ‘helping society’ (or ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’) does not satisfy this criterion.

Private property is what protects individuals from slavery to the State. Without this institution, can we really say we own ourselves? If we do not own ourselves, and the uBuntu-esque philosophy of ‘mutual ownership of one another’ is really the truth, that simply means, in practice, that the State owns us.

Whether you believe in unbridled free markets or in a generous government welfare program, supporting the existence of the institution of private property is an imperative.