On property

By Bertrand Russell.

Bertrand Russell is known for many things. He wrote many essays on different subjects from mathematics to politics to metaphysics. He also wrote in defense of laziness. A text I will throw at anyone who tells me I shouldn’t be lazy. HE attempted, I think and I think did a fairly good job in his critique of socialism and expanded the thinking around syndicalism. I think his work on these two topics need to be revisited, if for anything, to see what is good in socialism and syndicalism that can make our world a better place to live in for all of us.

This post does not address his writings on those two topics. We are here concerned with his essay on property.

HE writes, concerning worship of material goods in his age thus

And in the modern world generally, it is the decay of life which has promoted the religion of material
goods; and the religion of material goods, in its turn, has hastened the decay of life on which it thrives.

He says the

the worshipper of money can never achieve greatness as an artist or a lover.

While admitting that the love of money has been denounced by moralists since the beginning of time, their denunciation seem to have had no effect and so he says he is not interested into adding to the list of moral denunciations.

It seems the average American has not changed. He writes

America, the pioneer of Western progress, is thought by many to display the worship of money in its most perfect form. A well-to-do American, who already has more than enough money to satisfy all reasonable requirements, very often continues to work at his office with an assiduity which would only be pardonable if starvation were the alternative.

In England, he says the worship of money is tied to a desire to maintain a certain class. In France it takes the form of thrift, and in Germany, it is associated with the state.

He notes all our political thought,

whether Imperialist, Radical, or Socialist, continues to occupy itself almost exclusively with men’s  economic desires, as though they alone had real importance.

The capitalist’s belief that production should be increased in amount by any possible means, he argues, is both irrational and ruthless. Irrational because, it generally does not matter what is produced, as long as it is produced. Ruthless because, it keeps the average person working for fear of losing their employment.

He argues and I generally agree that

When we are fed and clothed and housed, further material goods are needed only for ostentation.

The socialists’ solution to this problem is through state ownership of land and capital with a more just system of redistribution.

He identifies these four basic sources for legal property rights

  1. a man’s right to what he has made himself;
  2. the right to interest on capital which has been lent;
  3. the ownership of land; and
  4. inheritance

I am persuaded to agree with his claim that

Private property in land has no justification except historically through power of the sword.

This illegality has been maintained by the sword. The feudal lords who first made men serfs who forced to work for them to be granted permission to stay eventually saw the establishment of law to safeguard that which had been acquired by the sword.

Looking at the Kenyan situation, this

There is no justification for private property in land, except the historical necessity to conciliate turbulent robbers who would not otherwise have obeyed the law.

makes so much sense. Those who own the most land stole it. Be they white people owning ranches in Laikipia or the Kenyattas and other families that own big chunks of land in this country who now hoard it and only release to the market at exorbitant prices. I am tempted to add here, that the solution to our housing problem, especially in urban areas would be to revoke all private titles. Land should be held by the state to be leased to developers. No speculation on land be permitted.

It is indeed true that

It is a singular example of human inertia that men should have continued until now to endure the tyranny and extortion which a small minority are able to inflict by their possession of the land

Inheritance should not be a natural right. While it is true that men will earn different wages, say for example an inventor, there can be no good reason for allowing this privilege to descend to his children and grandchildren and so
on for ever.

While socialism aims chiefly at justice, this alone is not sufficient principle to base an economic reconstruction. What must be aimed at must aspire to keep alive in individuals creativeness, vigour, vitality, and the joy of life. What is wanted is opportunity. The economic system should

  1. should not cramp men’s private affections, and
  2. give the greatest possible outlet to the impulse of creation.

His comments on education have a timeless ring to them. He notes

Education suffers at present, and may long continue to suffer, through the desire of parents that their children should earn money as soon as possible.

I am persuaded that this holds true

it is of the very highest importance that capitalism should become the exception rather than the rule, and that the bulk of the world’s industry should be conducted on a more democratic system.

He proposes that cooperative movement and syndicalism, as means of achieving democracy in the industry be pursued.