- H.P. Lovecraft, October, 1936
The picture becomes more complicated when, like Jefferson and Paine, you introduce the dimension of time. Inheritance allows the appropriation and accumulation of property with no legitimate claim at all. The inheritor didn't work for the property. It's solely his by virtue of the pact of violence between him and society to bash the skulls of anyone else who would claim it. What is the difference between the heir and the non-heir that warrants the award of property to the heir? Sheer luck of birth, and nothing more. Add on top of that the fact that over time, property rights offers a perfect money laundering scheme. At least one branch of my family owned slaves - they owned human beings like livestock - and they derived advantages from that, and I enjoy advantages from that. If I held slaves today against the law and derived benefits from that, the state could take those benefits back from me (and then some). But because of the property pact, no one will ever challenge my right to the benefits won for me by my slave-driving forefathers. It is mine.
I'm not advocating the overthrow of capitalism, but when you really think about it, it all gets awfully hazy. It would be like asserting the overthrow of Mubarak is unethical because they challenged his right to rule, when the right itself was only ever enjoyed because he had powerful friends willing to be violent on his behalf. The very nature of society is to coerce. What we know as social institutions are the frameworks that other human beings that I've never met would use violence, shunning, ostracism, and the withholding of favor to enforce. When I say "I own this", what I mean is "I would normally have to defend this with force if I wanted to use it but I have three hundred million people who will defend it for me, so I can just assert my possession without putting anything on the line". All social life is about power and coercion. The exercise of the fruits of that coercion - the exercise of rights - can't be thought of as the opposite of coercion. Liberty is not the opposite of coercion, so what is it? Liberty is the arrangement of these coercions in a way that is consistent with human dignity and human potentiality.
The myth of natural rights is a convenient myth, and a nice mental device, but it introduces the very problematic idea that rights are things-in-themselves which human conduct is measured against. If you believe in natural rights, a violation of liberty is twisted into that which alters or departs from rights. Liberty is conceived of as the state of life which follows from adherence to rights. The reality is just the opposite. Rights must be arranged to promote, approximate, or approach liberty, and not the other way around.
And an arrangement that is quite successful - the best we have so far - is a system of private property, with adequate social organization to support those who suffer in that arrangement through no fault of their own. That is a system that maximizes dignity and our potentiality (socialism would not do this for the obvious reaons). This was the Jeffersonian vision of liberty:
"That the earth belongs in usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. If the society has formed no rules for the appropriation of its lands in severalty, it will be taken by the first occupants. These will generally be the wife and children of the decedent... But the child, the legatee or creditor takes it, not by any natural right, but by a law of the society of which they are members, and to which they are subject. Then no man can by natural right oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the paiment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living, which would be reverse of our principle."
- Thomas Jefferson, 1789
"Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right"