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.






About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

18 thoughts on “On property

  1. renudepride says:

    Great topic for the day, my Kenyan brother. The assessment of the American as the ultimate “worshipper of money” is true and on point. All one has to do is to look at the “cartoon-as-president” to see the perfect example of executive-in-thief!”

    Naked hugs!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Russell’s was a great and humorous mind. He lived a very long life, too. Another fascinating post that’s given me things to ponder on.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Personally, I like to be comfortable, & be satisfied with what I have. I don’t need or want wealth, or have the more, more, more, attitude. We’re pensioners with fixed income, but the house is paid for. We don’t need more.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I don’t think I fully agree with all of Russell’s points you shared here, but I do agree on his point about further material wealth and ostentation. In the ideal, it shouldn’t matter which economic system is employed, so long as people have access to what they need. Everything beyond that is suited to one’s personal industry.

    Economics needs to develop ethical constraints just like government. Without it, we’re seeing corruption subvert the lofty principles which modern governments allegedly espouse. For example, even if your country abolished private land ownership in favor of government management, the government would still be the same one that wasn’t able to carry out a proper election. I don’t think anyone would be surprised if corruption got worse instead of better.


    • makagutu says:

      Hahaha. Good points indeed. A government that can’t carry out an election wouldn’t be expected to manage a land roll. But I don’t think it would be worse than it is now when it is held by just a few people

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Tish Farrell says:

    Great essay, Mak – Bertrand Russell’s thoughts and yours. It’s interesting how in the UK the younger generation generally can’t afford to buy their own homes – deemed some sort of right – and this is pretty much down to the fact that the older generations, including their parents, cling to the notion that owning property is the means of making money as property always goes up in value. This clearly is a ludicrous situation. I mean how high do we want property values to go. Also the reason property is so expensive in the first place is because a small number of people own a large amount of the nation’s land. Unfortunately this model was left behind in Kenya by the British, along with remnant large landowners. It becomes more and more untenable with climate change. I like your idea of revoking private title in the city, and no speculators need apply.


    • makagutu says:

      Speculators are big problem.
      You don’t have to do anything to the land, you just need to have a piece in the city and wait for a windfall. This, in my view, is absurd.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Tish Farrell says:

        In the UK they get planning permission which ups the value of land to mega bucks, then they sit on the land, controlling the number of houses built to keep the prices up, and using loopholes to get out of building the required quota of affordable homes. It is utterly corrupt, but somehow we don’t notice, other than to complain about the housing shortage. The speculator land banks are sitting on permissions for 420,000 homes.


  6. >>> “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.”

    I’m in no way defending America here (I’m a vocal critic), but the problems of greed, materialism, exploitation, and corruption certainly didn’t originate there. Private ownership rights trace back to 17th England at the very least, and the problems associated with avarice are inherent in our species. Furthermore, Russell’s keen observation (quoted above) relates directly with the so-called Protestant (i.e. Calvinist) “work ethic” from 16th century Europe (i.e. the Reformation).


  7. shelldigger says:

    Fantastic, thought provoking write up Mak.

    I find myself in agreement with much of it. Though I fear, were the state in control of all landownership, it would require a non corrupt, non greedy state to work for everyone. And we see those all the time…right?

    I must admit I am a greedy American well beyond all of my most immediate necessities to survive. But not well off by any means. Nor do I need or hope to acquire much more than I have already. Except for a 60 foot yacht. I gotta have that 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • makagutu says:

      Well, it is true governments everywhere are corrupt. As it is, they are corrupt and only a few benefit.
      Barry tells me always their government is unlike the rest. So I think it is possible to have a less corrupt government. We must hope for such a government that benefits the many, not just a few idiots.
      You must get that yacht my friend.
      It’s bee ages since you were last seen here, hope all is well

      Liked by 1 person

      • shelldigger says:

        We have a few idiots running the show here and it hasn’t caused any problems 😉

        It is possible to have less corruption, and certainly we should strive for integrity in office.

        I’ll have to settle for an old fiberglass boat with my old work boat engine on it I think. (That’s where I’m at right now)

        I have been busy man, had a house to work my magic on (custom home finish paint job, a trade I learned a long time ago, and something my back allows me to do albeit with much discomfort) and that means everything else that needs doing goes undone, so I’m trying to catch up on all of that shit now 🙂

        Otherwise all is well enough. I do hope your world is allowing for easy living 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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