Does private property undermine community?

David Ignacio Zavala
14 min readDec 30, 2018


There is somehow an implicit contradiction between private property and community. I believe we should go beyond this dichotomy in order to understand the complex relation between private property and human nature.

Private property is an organization system as any other in a community.

While it is true that private property is a system based on individual decision-making where the owner of the object (material or immaterial) has authority and control over the property, such a right cannot exist outside a system of property, that is, a common system of social rules (Waldron, 2017). As a matter of fact, we are constantly collectively regulating private property, for example, you can buy explosives but that doesn’t mean you can use them in any public space.

Private property, as a social right, has no sense and cannot exist outside an intricate system of social rules of a community. This is a logical statement considering that private property is a Hohfeldian claim right that correlates with the duty of a third party (Wenar, 2015). In other words, if there is no another person’s duty to which this claim right correlates with then the claim right cannot exist. In addition, if you wanted to impose a claim right to someone with whom you have no relation whatsoever then it would make no sense either (you cannot assert that something belongs to you if there is no someone else aware of your claim right). Therefore, I shall consider the absence of community as the equivalent of a State of Nature where the claim rights of individuals are never conclusive, and although I cannot prove that the existence of community guarantees the respect of private property, I acknowledge that such a system of property only makes sense inside a community even though those rights might be inconclusive (Stilz, 2009, p. 20). Thus, a system of property as private property can only exist within a community and cannot be intrinsically in opposition to it.

Some could reply that just because private property depends on the existence of community doesn’t mean that private property cannot lead to its disintegration. Indeed, it is reasonable to consider that a system of property based on individual decision-making over the available resources will lead to the disintegration of a collective agreement upon which the community is based.

However, this argument only makes sense if we consider that community is really based on a common agreement between all the individuals, as in the form of a social contract binding all the individuals together and each individual to the whole society. I believe that this is a false assumption too; the community is the consequence of a complex web of personal relations between individuals, each individual has social relations with other people but never to all those inside a society and even less to the whole society as an abstract. Thus, such a collective-agreement that would be threatened by private property doesn’t even exist.

Nevertheless, I want to point out the fact that community should not be confused with government even if I consider that the absence of community as the equivalent of a State of Nature (Stilz, 2009, p. 20). While it is true that the government creates rules, which guarantee a specific order inside a society, the system of laws of the government is always coercive while the system of rules of a community, which emanates as a tacit agreement between the members, never is. I am never free to disobey the law, either I obey or I disobey and I will be punished, on the contrary in a community (which is a complex web of personal relations, as defined above) you can disobey to the system of rules and you will not be punished because those common rules are only a system for common understanding between individuals. In other words, you are always free to disobey the system of rules of the community because you can always choose to be outside of the community or at least try to change its social relations, which is not the case of the law because you are always bound to laws (Le Guin, 1999, p. 40). This is an important distinction because private property as a system of property based on individual decision-making can indeed undermine the rules of government but that doesn’t mean it undermines the system of rules of the community. For instance, if you claim ownership of a land because you need a place to live but that land doesn’t belongs to you, this appropriation is likely to be understood by the rest of the community, however the authority of the government will be undermined because you didn’t obey the law and you are challenging the government’s authority as the guardian of the social order.

Private property doesn’t necessarily create misunderstandings between individuals in a community.

The existence of private property implies that people may have a different access to resources having therefore a different experience of life that could lead to a situation of possible misunderstanding between individuals, hence undermining community (Cohen, 2009, pp. 10–11). Nonetheless, I believe that social relations are not the results of a similar lifestyle, so the social relations that form the community should not be threatened by this consequence of private property. Social relations are based on human tendencies, the origin and the persistence of social relations must be found in our human nature and not on something as superficial as a similar lifestyle.

The main driving force that leads social relations is empathy (Rousseau, 1755, p. 15), and empathy as a human tendency lies on deeper aspects than just a similar lifestyle (or equal access to resources). Let’s imagine a situation in which I own the most fertile land of the community while another person owns the most beautiful and comfortable land in the community. While it is true that both of us would have different lifestyles because we would own different resources, that obviously does not mean that we wouldn’t be able to have a social relation. For instance, from my own experience, I consider that our friendships are not based on the fact that we share the same resources or that we deal with the same difficulties, instead I believe that friendships are based on a feeling of reciprocity. What encourages people to establish relations is the fact that they see each other as similar, something reciprocal or in other words, they feel empathy for each other. The existence of empathy is completely independent to the system of distribution of resources; we must find the origins of empathy in the experience of suffering, which is part of our human condition. It is because I suffered in the past that I am capable to feel empathy for another person that is also capable to suffer (Le Guin, 1999, p. 54).

The persistence of empathy, in order to guarantee the persistence of social relations, relies on the awareness that we have about others’ lives, if we are aware of their human condition, of their suffering (especially when we have to deal with a common suffering), the social relations that constitute the community persist and are strengthen. While is true that people with access to different kind of scare resources will have to struggle with different problems, the possibility of suffering will always exist as part of our human condition and as long as we are aware about the Other (as an existence similar to ours) the empathy that guarantees the cohesion in a community should persist. Therefore, a different access to resources (even if they are rare) created by the existence of private property, should not lead to the lack of empathy and the disintegration of social relations.

Secondly, a different access to resources does not undermine our compassion for the weak, which is the base for any kind of solidarity. For example, the family as an institution created by social relations cannot be explained if we do not contemplate the existence of compassion as part of our nature (Rousseau, 1755, p. 16). For instance, the parents of a baby despite of the fact that they obviously have a different life and struggles than a baby, they feel compassion for the new-born. This kind of social relations, far from being the result of empathy (or reciprocity) result mainly from compassion. This human tendency is not threatened by the fact that the individual for which we fill compassion has a completely different life and has no access to any resource, that is to say that the distribution of resources doesn’t change this human tendency. Consequently, nothing proves that the consequences private property would lead to a disintegration of social relations based on compassion.

Lastly, I would like to emphasize on our nature as creatures that depend on narratives to have a sense of belonging to a human group and therefore an identity (Wibben, 2008). While is true that we don’t have a social relation to the whole community as an abstract, we have the need to recognize who we are, and our identity depends on our capacity to relate to a narrative that defines us as part of a group of people. The sense of belonging that comes from the common narrative to which a group of people identify creates a sense of reciprocity and equality between those people and allows them to feel empathy and compassion between them, even if they are not aware of each other’s life they are supportive between them just because they identify to a common narrative.

I consider that our nature as “homo fabulans” (Wibben, 2008, p. 86) allows the persistence and the reproduction of social relations despite the possibility of different lifestyles created by private property. For example, even if a farmer of England has more in common with a farmer in Argentina than with a banker in England, the English farmer will more likely defend his interests as English than as a farmer in an international conflict. We could explain this phenomenon by the solidarity we feel towards those who we believe have the same identity. Therefore, the cohesion of the social relations in a community is not determined by the fact that we have an equal access to the same resources, but by my capacity to identify to a common narrative (history, stories, culture…). Thus, private property doesn’t seem to undermine to any extent the social relations inside a community as long as there is a coherent narrative to which the members of the community may identify.

Through these three tendencies of human nature that I described as the main driving forces of cohesion in social relations (which are empathy, compassion, and our solidarity towards those who share our identity) I proved that the consequence of private property in the access to resources wouldn’t lead to the disintegration of the social relations that constitute the community. In other words, the existence of private property should not change our relation as human beings and should not threaten the existence of community. While I relayed mainly on Rousseau’s understanding of human nature to make a point in favor of private property, I don’t pretend to contradict Rousseau’s arguments, it just means that from the same presuppositions about human nature we can derive many different conclusions. I want to point out the fact that the main obstacle for these three human tendencies is the ignorance or misunderstandings of the Other. Indeed, you cannot feel empathy, compassion, and identify to a common narrative if you are isolated and you completely ignore the life and the struggles of the rest of the people.

And private property doesn’t foster isolation, instead it encourages engagement and responsibility towards the community.

While the inevitable consequence of the system of private property is the creation of different life styles through a different access to resources, I will argue that such a consequence shouldn’t threat community. Indeed, only if the community encourages some specific values private property may foster isolation, therefore contributing to the disintegration of the community. While is true that this system of property allows isolation, it does not encourage it, instead private property may even encourage values that guarantee the cohesion of the community. Private property may be harmful to a community only if certain values, independent to the existence of private property, are encouraged in the community.

Empirically, we cannot deny that there is a tendency for accumulation of wealth in human societies, an evident harm for the community, which is only possible through the existence of private property. Through the accumulation of wealth, a “gap” is created between the less fortunate and the wealthiest, this gap provokes an isolation of certain individuals from the community (it is the case of the less fortunate but also of the wealthiest) that could undoubtedly undermine community.

I believe that such accumulation even if is only possible through a system of private property (or a concentrated collective property), can only exist if encouraged by greed (Steiner, 2014). In a society in which the value of an individual is not measured by the amount of wealth possessed, there is absolutely no sense in the accumulation of wealth. In other words, the values of the community are the only determining factor in how we use private property. Other than greed, I don’t see any other motivation to accumulate more wealth than what we need, it would only mean more work and responsibility for the owner of that wealth. If we were attracted by the accumulation of wealth just because private property allows it all of us would be working in business, but in reality each of us tries to spend our lives doing what we think deserves recognition and struggling for economic stability, otherwise how would you explain the existence of artists, political theorists, scientist, doctors, etc.… It is definitely not true that all we want in a system of private property is the accumulation of wealth but it is true that in a society where values like greed are consider important for our survival and recognition, it will be a society in which private property may become harmful for community.

Secondly, some could reply that private property itself would inevitably lead to the isolation of the individuals because they would spend most of their time protecting and protected by their private property, this isolation would lead to the disintegration of the community. While is true that private property may allow that kind of behaviors, this system of distribution of resources doesn’t required a suspicion against the other that would lead to my isolation through my private property. This kind of behavior is encouraged and can only be explained by the values through which we understand the other individuals in the community. Naturally, if we consider the Other as someone dangerous, we will grow with fear of the other, constantly protecting our private property and only feeling protected through our private property (Steiner, 2014). It is easy to imagine a society in which we have a private management of resources but where individuals trust in each other to the extent that private property is only a concept binding the individual to a resource.

On the other hand, social hierarchies can’t be the result of private property, even when someone owns some precious resource from which the rest of the community depends. Indeed, it is not because I possess a scare resource that I won’t exchange it fairly or give it to other people if they need it, unless I wanted to obtain some power from the situation. Again, it is a matter of values, if the person desires power is because the community values powerful people, then it is plausible that the person who owns a scare resource will take advantage of the situation in order to submit people to its desires and gain recognition. This kind of behavior will lead people to act in a competitive manner for resources, creating a hostile dynamic between individuals and isolating them from one another and therefore undermining the social relations upon which the community is based.

Finally, those values that may lead to a counterproductive use of private property are not encouraged to any extent by the existence of such system of property, instead private property encourages certain values that strengthen the cohesion of the social relations in the community.

First, private property encourages paradoxically a true involvement in the life of the community (Friedman, 1973). Indeed, the problem in every community is that everyone relies too much on one another, eluding therefore their responsibilities, leading everyone towards a behavior of “free-riders”. However, when someone owns a resource, the owner not only has rights related to the resource but also has responsibilities to which he feels attached because his recognition depends on his responsibility regarding his property. This kind of responsibility avoids the tragedy of commons (Brennan, 2014, p. 6), which is a bad use of the collective resources; ownership is a commitment in the management of resources. In other words, it is through private property that you become a responsible individual towards the community.

Secondly, private property is an “instrument” through which an individual finds its relevance inside the community. Indeed, I believe that some beautiful characteristics of the human beings can only be expressed through creation, and such a creation cannot exist without a private property that allows an exclusive use of a resource. For example, we can see how through the dynamic of exchange in the market an individual may feel that his creation has a value for the community: the artist has recognition because his art is recognized as valuable (Brennan, 2014, pp. 10–12). Furthermore, our struggle for human recognition may only coexist peacefully in a community if we allow the existence of private property through which an individual can find its relevance without trying to impose himself as valuable over the others.

Thirdly, the effect of the relation of possession seems to encourage affection towards what is conceived as my property (Brennan, 2014, p. 13). For instance, we can easily perceive how a child develops feelings such as tenderness, gentleness and compassion towards a teddy bear that he believes is his property. It is undeniable therefore that private property may encourage feelings that may be positive for the common good in the community.

Through these three examples we can understand that the existence of private property encourages values that may strengthen the cohesion of social relations inside a community, values as for example, responsibility, commitment, reciprocal recognition and gentleness seem to be directly encouraged by private property. Thus, private property should not be considered as threat to the cohesion of social relations, instead private property seems to encourage it, so a counterproductive use of private property must be imputed to values promoted by the community itself, as for example, greed, fear of the Other and ambition of power.

A new perspective.

Private property, allows and legitimizes the accumulation of capital in the hands of a few, and through such a right a relation of power is constructed in our society, that is undoubtedly true, but I agree with Paul Krugman when he says “I haven’t seen even an implausible proposal for a decentralized system that doesn’t rely on price incentives and self-interest — i.e., a market economy with private property, which most people would consider capitalism” (Krugman, 2018). Based on empirical evidence it is easy to acknowledge that a mixed economy, where publicly owned and privately-owned resources coexist, is the best way to manage an economy. Therefore, to believe in a better world doesn’t necessarily requires that we fight for a world without private property, instead we should be focusing in what we do as a society and what narratives define our behaviors. The next revolution requires a true evolution of who we are and what we do.

Through this essay I tried to prove that private property does not undermine community unless a counterproductive use of it is encouraged by values like greed, fear of the Other and ambition of power. With this analysis I hope to contribute to the end of the assumption that private property necessarily undermines our common good, only if we are freed from this false dichotomy that plagues our mind we will be able to formulate a compelling critic to the current system. It is time to reconsider the narratives that define our identity and our subjectivity in order to make a new political agenda that will require our own reconstruction as individuals and as communities.


Brennan, J., 2014. Why not Capitalism?. 2014 ed. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cohen, G., 2009. Why not Socialism?. 2009 ed. Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Friedman, D., 1973. The Machinery of freedom. Second edition ed. s.l.:Open Court Publishing Company.

Krugman, P. (2018, December 22). The Case for a Mixed Economy. The New York Times.

Le Guin, U., 1999. The Dispossessed. 2002 ed. London: Gollancz.

Rousseau, J.-J., 1755. Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men. République de Genève: s.n.

Steiner, H., 2014. Greed and Fear. Politics,Philosophy & Economics, 13(2), pp. 140–150.

Stilz, A., 2009. Authority. In: Liberal Loyalty: Freedom, Obligation, and the State. 2009 ed. OXFORD: Princeton University Press, p. pp. 27–56.

Waldron, J., 2017. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 07 01 2018].

Wenar, L., 2015. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 01 07 2018].

Wibben, A., 2008. Who do we think we are?. In: Z. Maja & J. Edkins, eds. Global Politics: A New Introduction. London: Routledge, pp. 85–107.



David Ignacio Zavala

Amante de la ciencia ficción, y realista por vocación, me especializo en las relaciones entre sociedad y tecnología.