If you put five political ideologues in a room and asked them to discuss their opinions about individual rights to life, liberty, and property, their greatest differences would most likely center on the right to property.
Although this topic can become incredibly complex (if we were to consider the various views), I will focus on only a few points in this post.
First, there are the conceptions of property for personal use (personal property) and property as a means of production (private property). An increasingly popular view of property suggests that people have a right to personal property, but not to private property. Although many of today’s adherents to this belief may not recognize (or wish to recognize) it, this view belongs to the Oppression Paradigm (Socialism). Private property, or the means of production, includes capital, or additional money above what is required to meet basic needs.
The problem occurs when people mistakenly believe that we only require the immediate fulfillment of our physical needs. In reality, we require control over the means of producing what we need (or the money to obtain it) in order to ensure our ongoing survival.
In other words, we have to work to provide for our needs (by the sweat of our brow). Work is the act of improving upon something. This is how John Locke provided justification for separating land that is in a state of nature and creating private property. When we improve upon previously unowned land, we put something of ourselves into that land and make it our own. Rousseau would argue that the very same act of improving upon the land, without the permission of all others in the world, would be unjust–taking from the world what belongs to everyone in common. What Locke sees as a necessary part of a secure life, Rousseau views as the origin of inequality, because it is separating out for private use more than is required for immediate need.
It’s interesting that the debate about the right to property begins with a view of immediate desires versus a view of future desires. However, the greatest impact of this difference is apparent when we consider the impact that property has on life and liberty.
The obvious connection to life is that private property provides a consistent ability to maintain life. This means that if a person is able to control the means of production, they are able to produce enough to save for future changes in their ability to provide for their needs, thus increasing the security of their life. And why is a longer life important?
Each of our lives may be seen as a certain period of time (although we are unaware of how long that time may be) during which we are able to decide what we will do with that time. Our life, then, is to provide opportunity to exercise our individual liberty. However long or short our life may be, we will make decisions about how to live it. Liberty, and not life itself, is the greatest liberty we have: the ability to choose what we will do with the time we have (life).
If someone has power over our life, then they have power over our liberty and we no longer possess individual liberty. Our ability to choose is limited by their power to decrease the amount of time we have to exercise our liberty. Likewise, if someone has power over our property, then we neither have the ability to choose how to apply that property according to our own conscience, nor the ability to apply that property towards the preservation of our own life. Our liberty, in either case, rests in the hands of someone else, which is no liberty at all.
It is upon property that both our life and our liberty rest. Not only do they rest upon personal property–the trinkets and daily consumable necessities–but they rest even more on our ability to gain and maintain control over the means of production. When we have this right, we can choose to store up what we need for future scarcity, or we can choose to take a risk on a business endeavor, or we can choose to use our resources for something that is more important to us than money, food, or other resources.
We cannot have liberty without the ability to choose how we will live our life. That choice comes from property–personal and private.