Critical Reflections on Human Rights and the Environment series
Chapter 4: Common ownership 1: communism
Private property is a necessary institution, at least in a fallen world. Men work more and dispute less when goods are private than when they are common. But it is to be tolerated as a concession to human frailty, not applauded as a good in itself. So wrote the pioneering social theorist and economist, R.H. Tawney. Unlike Hume, he did not think that the ownership of property was anything to be proud of. But immediately we come across an ambiguity. Although in the passage quoted he spoke of common, as the alternative to private, ownership (and was writing in the context of the early Christian ideal of holding all things in common), in fact he was a socialist through and through, and the real alternative to private ownership that he advocated was state ownership, of land, of houses, and especially of schools. We shall see, in the course of this chapter, how slippery a notion common ownership becomes when set up as an ideal; how it slides between the idea, on the one hand, of people sharing ownership among themselves and, on the other hand, that of the state owning things in the name of the people who are its citizens.
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