Private Property Rights as the Pillar of Human Civilization

The fundamental question all human beings face is, how do we organize our society in such a way that leads to the achievement of ground norms of justice, peace, prosperity and civilization? Particularly, how to organize the society so it avoids conflict between its members and promotes cooperation.  In this short essay I am going to discuss what lies at the foundation of human civilization. We must first begin by defining civilization. 

What is civilization? 

Before we go and discuss how private property rights are pillars of human civilization, it is important to define what that civilization is.  

National geographic society encyclopedia entry defines it as:

“The word “civilization” relates to the Latin word “civitas” or “city.” This is why the most basic definition of the word “civilization” is “a society made up of cities.” But early in the development of the term, anthropologists and others used “civilization” and “civilized society” to differentiate between societies they found culturally superior (which they were often a part of), and those they found culturally inferior (which they referred to as “savage” or “barbaric” cultures). The term “civilization” was often applied in an ethnocentric way, with “civilizations” being considered morally good and culturally advanced, and other societies being morally wrong and “backward.” This complicated history is what makes defining a civilization troublesome for scholars, and why today’s modern definition is still in flux.” (Source)

Now let us see how this civilization was built during the course of time. What conditions were necessary for its construction? This will also give us an answer to the question of why some societies like the West are civilized while some others are backward.

Why does conflict arise? 

Conflict arises because of scarcity of goods that we all want to consume to fulfil our needs. Scarcity is defined as lack of supply of some good compared to its demand by human actors. For example, suppose Robinson Crusoe and Friday are together on an island. While hungry they take a trip in the jungle to find food where they find a carcass. Immediately we can see that there is a chance of conflict because the carcass is only one while people who want to consume it are two. This conflict can only be resolved by two methods. One, establishing the ownership rights of one of the two individuals over the carcass by a peaceful method of argumentation, and two, by a fight between the two; whoever wins the fight takes the carcass. The first method is the method of civilization and the second of barbarism. If we choose to be civilized then it becomes important to decide who is the owner of that carcass using the peaceful method, because only the owner will have rights of utilizing it to fulfill his need of hunger. That owner can later share his property with the other out of genuine concern, or because we are social animals who live by reciprocity (i.e., you scratch my back and I will scratch yours when needed). But before that happens, one has to be declared a legitimate owner of that carcass. In light of this, the next issue to be decided is how to determine the ownership rights – I.e., whose property is that carcass? There are many ways of doing this and we see many ways below while checking if a particular way is proper for our purpose or not.

The first person to see the carcass is the owner

If we use this principle to establish the ownership right, and so property right, then the immediate question arises, how do we know who saw the carcass first? How do we prove it in the court where the case will ultimately go because one of the parties will challenge it? What objective criteria will establish who saw it first? We can see that even very sophisticated technique won’t be able to establish conclusively who saw the carcass first. There is no physical extension of two actors’ bodies to connect them with the carcass. A mere gaze doesn’t establish any such physical contact which can clearly show who saw it first.   

First appropriation 

If seeing doesn’t establish someone’s ownership right then physical appropriation definitely does because it establishes an objective physical link between the property and its acquiring owner. Anyone who first appropriates/picks up the carcass becomes the owner. This ‘original first appropriation’ criteria is the only one suitable for our purpose of establishing private property rights (see this). 

This criteria also implicitly assumes and accepts the fact that our two actors first own their bodies and only then whatever they acquire/appropriate using that body becomes their property. This is the principle of ‘self ownership’. If someone is not an owner of his body, e.g., a slave, then he can’t own any other property because he lacks the means of appropriating that property. 

So we have two main principles now with us for establishing property rights: 1) self ownership and 2) original or first appropriation of previously unowned physical scarce resources. Why previously unowned physical scarce resources? Because one cannot appropriate legitimately something that is already owned by someone. Doing so will be a theft of original owner’s property. To physically appropriate something that thing has to be physically extended in space e.g., one cannot own an idea because an idea is an intensive concept without any extension in space and so one can’t get a hold of it and appropriate it physically, but a piece of land can be physically appropriated. Also, something intangible that is not scarce doesn’t need to be owned because it doesn’t lead to any conflict situation e.g., oxygen in the air or earth’s gravity; we don’t have to worry about its use as long as they are abundant.   

Why is conflict avoidance fundamental to building a civilization?

Conflict avoidance is fundamental to building civilization because to build a civilization we need peace. Civilization requires leisurely time which people can use to build high culture like arts and literature, philosophy, science, etc. Such leisurely time can only become available to people when they produce more than what they consume i.e., when they produce a surplus of all goods. Surplus production is only possible when there is a peaceful environment, and within that peaceful environment both internal and foreign trade is flourishing. Establishment of private property rights and its proper implementation ensures that conflict is usually avoided, and if it happens then it is quickly resolved. 

Because private property is fundamental in resolving conflict situations, private property rights are the pillars of human civilization. The conclusion is simple: if you want to live in a civilized society then the foundation must be built on private property rights. Any other societal organization arrangement will result in chaos and misery for everyone. Without this foundation, both economy and society will never flourish.  

Further considerations

Unfortunately this matter is not as easy as it seems. This matter actually doesn’t stop at the regime of private property rights. The issue of establishment of private property rights further begs a question: how do we establish these rights? This work requires a sound base of cultural values; above all individualism, then hard work, responsibility etc., by the population which in turn are determined by genes and environment interaction viz., gene-culture evolution. If people in the society do not understand the concept of property, and most importantly, an individual who will own this property, then establishing these rights becomes almost impossible. The concept of the individual and his inalienable rights is at the core of this subject matter. If a society is collective, like India, then no one will allow any individual to exclusively own anything and in that case material progress and civilization becomes impossible. If collective entities like family, society,  or the nation state/government etc., are reigning supreme over the individual then individual efforts to improve one’s lot will not be forthcoming or they will be frustrated. Thus, the cultural environment is the bedrock of any society and genes are a major factor in determining that culture. 

Again this begs a question: what determines genetic make-up? Here when I say genes I am pointing at higher IQ and accompanying intelligence which is necessary for the development of higher culture. The researches into IQ and so genetic development, i.e., biological evolution, suggests that harsh colder environment of the North was the major environmental factor that determined high IQ genetic make up of the population living in those areas. The harsh environment of the icy north pushes inhabitants to use their brain in innovative way to survive in conditions which are not hospitable to human life. Extreme cold makes agriculture almost impossible. There are few domesticated animals or plants available in those areas. Such a challenging environment pushes the evolution of the brain. With brain’s development, the level of intelligence also increases and with that comes higher culture and civilization. Compared to those northern areas, life in the tropics is easy. Without much hard work crops grow on their own. Agriculture is easy because water supply is readily available and climate is amenable year around. Also a hot environment means the body uses most of its energy, leaving little surplus for brain development. This non-challenging environment means brain development up to higher levels is not necessary. That means lower IQ for people who evolved in tropics, and that lower IQ implies lower culture and civilization.    

Conclusion

We saw above how the regime of private property rights is a must for civilization to develop. Without it there will be no individual efforts to better one’s lot and that means people have little time left to develop higher culture. Establishment of these property rights in turn depends on the gene-culture evolution process. People who evolved in the cold environment of the north developed high IQ and they were able to develop civilization and progress. IQ studies shows a very strong relationship between higher IQ and world income inequality as well as other social, economic, political etc. outcomes. World IQ map shows these outcomes clearly. Almost all countries with lower IQ are poor and abound with all kinds of other problems.  

What are the implications of this for India whose IQ presently stands at 81 as compared to 100 world standard? This means India faces an uphill task in achieving its goals of progress. With an unskilled population it is very hard to achieve development goals. As Thomas Sowell very aptly said, the most important factor determining any country’s progress is the quality of its inhabitants i.e., human capital. India lacks this human capital. Although it is touted as one of the youngest countries, and labor force, in the world by experts, as the latest Mohandas Pai reports shows, India’s so-called demographic dividend is actually a liability because around 20 crore young people in India do not possess any usable skills! Although IQ levels are not static and they can be increased with the help of good nutrition and education, I am not very hopeful for India’s future. The way Indian rulers are implementing one progress retarding policy after another, poverty and hunger is only increasing in India. A country where almost half of the adult and child population is suffering from malnutrition, increasing IQ levels looks increasingly impossible. In fact, IQ levels will fall faster retarding progress further. Unless and until the government makes a U-turn and starts implementing policies that free up the economy and foreign trade, the situation in India is only going to get worse with every passing day.   

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One thought on “Private Property Rights as the Pillar of Human Civilization

  1. Chitrang says:

    IQ levels are hindered due to government faulty policy. We have too much of resources in terms of human as well as agro products, materials , iron but due to high level of corruption the poor and needy people are being refrain from getting it . It leads to malnutrition.

    Civilization and property are very closely related to each other.

    Enjoyed reading article!!

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