A common point of difference between capitalists and socialists is the issue of private property. However, this argument long precedes these two groups. In fact, it has been discussed for centuries, as far back as Plato and Aristotle. Part of this debate entails disagreement about whether or not private property makes mankind resourceful and responsible (a position defended by capitalists) or greedy and selfish (a position defended by socialists). Though this generalization fails to capture a variety of nuances within the discussion of private property, it is important to reflect on private property itself and how it is inherent to the human person, paramount to human flourishing, and necessary for a healthy society.
One of the most common arguments against private property is that it fosters competition, jealousy, and greed. Yet, as Aristotle points out, these human behaviors are not a result of private property itself, but rather, a manifestation of vices that are already present in human nature regardless of whether private property does or does not exist. The reverse argument—that private property actually calls people to care for their belongings and surroundings—is one of the most common arguments in favor of private property, and is supported by inherent human behavior.
For example, let us consider caring for one’s own body. In order to remain healthy, one must put effort into taking care of oneself. Every person must eat, sleep, exercise, and make sure that all of the above are of good quality. Each individual is the only one responsible for doing such things. In order to succeed in proper care of the body, individuals must understand ownership of their selves and know that they alone are ultimately responsible for their own wellbeing. In a sense, each person must conceive of them self as a unit of private property. Besides extraordinary circumstances where one is physically incapable of caring for oneself, most people have a primary responsibility for their own health and body.
If individuals are entrusted with the care of their own body in the most intimate way possible, then it stands to reason that the private ownership of goods can also be ascribed to people. The proper care of property begins with an understanding of proper care of oneself, prepare a person for the ownership of other goods. The first unit of care is the person’s own body, and the lessons learned can then be applied to external goods.
The habits formed when caring for external goods also have an effect on personal care and health. For example, psychology has shown that a girl who is taught to keep her room tidy will enjoy better mental health and success than one who is disorganized and lazy. Part of the reason is that private ownership of an item or a space boosts one’s understanding of responsibility. It has long been shown that when ownership is given to an individual, rather than a collective, the object or space is better cared for, avoiding the phenomenon known as the tragedy of the commons. If people are shown that there are personal belongings that require direct investment, it can in turn boost their mental confidence in being able to take care of themselves.
Given the above information, it is possible that there is a connection between the mindset of communal ownership and mental health deterioration. Though it is doubtful that there has been extensive research on this, it is certainly possible that the decline in appreciation of private property has contributed to a decrease in mental stability, confidence, and wellbeing. This is not to say that it is the socialist mindset alone that causes a decreased sense of responsibility—it could be any number of things, such as bad parenting or a myriad of other mental health factors. However, increasing the public understanding of private property may help bolster mental health as it teaches one to care for one’s belongings and, by extension, oneself. Renewing this mindset within an individual does not need to be tied to any particular ideology. Taking ownership of what is one’s own in life is an important step towards increased self-confidence, and if an entire society were to renew a commitment to private property ownership in these terms, it is highly possible that that society would also see renewed confidence and human flourishing.
Ownership also increases attitudes of gratitude for those who have given us what we own, culminating in a gratitude towards the Creator for the gift of oneself. A mindset of ownership and responsibility does not need to necessitate pride or selfishness; rather, if properly understood, it can instead foster an attitude of thankfulness for one’s possessions as blessings that require care. Proper stewardship of what one has been given is part of living the Christian life. Even for nonbelievers, an attitude of gratitude contributes to a better quality of life, and gratitude can only be achieved if one is responsible for possessions that require stewardship..
A final overlooked facet of the private property debate is that an item must be your own before you can share it or give it away. In order for the sharing of one’s possessions to be considered a good deed, the possessions must be yours to give. Communal ownership of goods would not result in a utopia because it would not call humankind to the virtue necessary to do so. It would do nothing to curb the vice within us; it will only expose people to the vices of sloth and irresponsibility.
These are a few of the reasons why the right to property is such an important aspect of the United States’ founding principles. It is not, as some may assert, a remnant of a cruel capitalism, but rather, an acknowledgement of the kind of mentality that sustains a nation and fuels healthy behavior for an individual and a community. Private property ownership is a virtue that must be cultivated personally and publicly, and it is regrettable that its personal benefits are so often overlooked, even by those who defend it so rigorously in the public sphere.