These two quotes, one from the nineteenth century socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and the other from the modern conservative Grover Norquist, represent the two extreme positions in our polarized political debate about wealth and taxes.
The idea of an inalienable natural right to property (mainly agricultural land) has a long history, going back at least to the philosopher John Locke, whose claims on behalf of “life, liberty, and property” inspired our founding fathers (who pointedly changed the word “property” to “the pursuit of happiness” in their political rhetoric, though the property rights even of slave-holders were enshrined in the Constitution).
However, many later theorists have ignored Locke’s qualifiers that property rights are justified only insofar as a person earns them through his (or her) labor, and provided that enough is left over to satisfy the needs of others. Thus, some modern libertarians, like the philosopher Robert Nozick, have asserted that “natural justice” includes an unconstrained property right with no limit, and without a strong requirement that it be based on merit.
The “classical” socialist attitude toward private property could not have been more different. Beginning with the founding father of modern socialism, Jean Jacques Rousseau, socialists have argued that the property of a society belongs to the community as a whole, and the institution of private property is a cultural invention, not a natural right. As Rousseau, put it, “The right which each individual has to his own estate is always subordinate to the right which the community has over all.” Proudhon later wrote a book-length rant against private property, and what another socialist, Claude Henri de Saint Simon, called “The Hand of Greed.”
A middle-ground between these two extreme positions (closer to John Locke’s views) can be found in my book The Fair Society. In brief, our remote ancestors lived in highly egalitarian small groups with very limited personal property and a high degree of sharing and reciprocity. However, in historical times, and in larger societies, private property has become a cultural universal. It falls under the heading of “equity,” or fair rewards for merit and personal achievement, and it has deep roots in human psychology and our evolved human nature.
But property as a form of equity has its limits. It certainly does not include “unearned” wealth -- e.g., inherited wealth, wealth based on various forms of “luck” or happenstance, wealth that others shared in creating, or wealth that is gained in such a way that it causes harm to others or to society as a whole. Indeed, “merit” is a socially determined value; it depends in part on what others (or society) consider to be justified.
More important, wealth that is “superfluous” (in the philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ characterization) can only be justified so long as the basic needs of the rest of society have been provided for. The imperatives related to our biological survival and reproduction have a higher moral claim even than earned wealth.
In the final analysis, property is a “social right,” not a natural right. It exists only insofar as the rest of society recognizes and respects it. And if society chooses to set limits on personal wealth and utilize some of it for the common good, this is our collective right. Come to think of it, it’s also a Constitutional right! And if conservative apologists like Norquist object to it, they are implicitly denying the right of the people, and their representatives, to impose “responsible” taxes and, yes, redistribute the wealth as necessary in the public interest. The anti-tax movement is thus profoundly undemocratic, and a cancer on the body politic.
If the power to tax is the power to destroy, as the old saying goes, the opposite is also true; without the power to tax, a society will no longer exist.