Common Ownership of Property Considered Harmful, says Aristotle

Aristotle next takes up whether, in the ideal state, property should be held in common or privately owned.


He first distinguishes between three possible varieties of holding property in common that I found difficult to unravel:

  1. holding land itself in common, and working it communally (“but its produce is distributed according to individual requirements”)
  2. holding the use of otherwise privately-held land in common
  3. holding both the land and the use of the land in common

He says the second form has been implemented in “some foreign nations,” while the first is also “said to exist among certain non-Greek peoples.”

What would it mean to own private property, but not own the use of it? In what sense can you be said to privately own a piece of land if what is done with that land is not owned by you? Is ownership in such a case just a sort of honorary title or bragging rights?

But since Aristotle quickly passes from describing these varieties to criticizing communal ownership in general, we can perhaps get by without understanding these distinctions.

Aristotle believed that communal labor and ownership could lead to “ill-feeling between those who get a good income without doing much work and those who work harder but get not corresponding extra benefit.” Such a state of affairs will add stressors that make living and working together even harder than it can be in the best of circumstances. He compares this to the situation of people who decide to go on a road trip together — “How often have we not seen such partnerships break down over quarrels arising out of trivial and unimportant matters!”

Anyone who has lived with roommates where people have different standards for clutter and cleanliness in common areas can feel the justice of Aristotle’s concern.

Still, he suggests that while private property should be the “general principle” on which we found the ideal polis, yet “property should up to a point be held in common.” This mixed-economic model he says, also has the advantage of being the one currently in force (in the Athens of his day, I suppose), and so requires no wrenching changes.

Communal use of property should not be enforced by communal ownership, but by a shared ethos of generosity. Aristotle says this is already in practice in some well-run places: “Each man has his own possessions, part of which he makes available for his friends’ use, part he uses in common with others. For example, in Sparta they use each others’ slaves practically as if they were their own, and horses and dogs too; and if they need food on a journey, they get it in the country as they go.” He concludes:

Clearly then it is better for property to remain in private hands; but we should make the use of it communal. It is a particular duty of a lawgiver to see that citizens are disposed to do this.

Interestingly, the lawgiver is not to make it illegal to do otherwise, or to force people to share-and-share-alike, but to see that citizens “are disposed to” do so. So the lawgiver here is a sort of social reformer or perhaps a maintainer of the better impulses of the citizenry.

Why does Aristotle want to limit the lawgiver’s role to that of a gentle persuader, when presumably he has more powerful inducements at his disposal? This is because voluntary generosity has benefits that forced sharing does not. For one thing, it is more pleasurable:

[T]here is very great pleasure in helping and doing favors to friends and strangers and associates; and this happens when people have property of their own.

And for another, it is virtuous:

The abolition of private property will mean that no man will be seen to be liberal and no man will ever do any act of liberality; for it is in the use of articles of property that liberality is practiced.

Aristotle rejects the idea that the evils that can be found in a private-property or mixed-economy system can necessarily be attributed to that system. Things like “charges and countercharges of broken contracts, trials for false witness, and sucking up to wealthy owners” are more attributable to flaws in human nature than to the institution of private property, he thinks. He points out that although partnerships are greatly outnumbered by individual private owners in Athens, partnerships result in a disproportionate number of legal quarrels. Communal ownership, he concludes, would not end but would only multiply our disputes over property.

Aristotle accuses Plato of incorrectly aiming for unity when the better goal would be harmony. And even so, Plato only seems to enforce this unity in his Guardian class, and so ends up dividing his society worse than before, with Guardians ruling over the other citizens as though it were an occupied state. If the ruling class is so permanently distinct, won’t it inevitably begin ruling mostly for its own benefit?

Aristotle also finds it suspicious that, if communal ownership were such a boon, we haven’t already stumbled upon it. He points out that societies throughout human history have experimented with a variety of systems, and if communism were as good as its proponents suggests, surely some culture somewhere would have tried it and proved the case.

Some of Aristotle’s objections are against certain specifics (or lack of specifics) in Plato’s Republic, and those I find less interesting. Nobody is trying to enact Plato’s pipe dreams, and certainly not Aristotle’s straw man versions of them, so arguments against them don’t seem as interesting to me. But Aristotle seems to be making astute points about the flaws of communal ownership in general, and ones that hold up pretty well today (the failure of Communism to deliver prosperity and social good-will, and the continuing debate in economics over how much coercive government action crowds out charity are both good examples of the durability of Aristotle’s concerns).

But I think also that his opponents, were they around today, would find examples that would make trouble for Aristotle’s arguments. Take the U.S. Social Security system. Some people pay into it much more than others, and some people take from it much more than others, and there’s lots of mismatch between the two. Has this led to enormous amounts of ill-will in society? It doesn’t seem to have. People seem to be pretty reconciled to the redistributive aspects of the Social Security program and are mostly worried about its solvency — and even that not in a way that is leading to factionalism between, say, the young and the old. So perhaps in the real world, the kind of stresses over common ownership that stress out (for example) roommates don’t scale up to some forms of commonly-owned property.

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