The Elements of Moral Science (1835, 1856 ed.)

Francis Wayland


Right of Property as Violated by Society

I have already stated that, whatever a man possesses, he possesses exclusively of every man, and of all men. He has a right to use his property in such a manner as will promote his own happiness, provided he do not interfere with the rights of others. But with this right, society may interfere, as well as individuals; and the injury is here the greater, inasmuch as it is remediless. In this world the individual knows of no power superior to society, and from its decisions, even when unjust, he has no appeal. A few suggestions on this part of the subject, will close the present chapter.

I have mentioned that the individual has a right to use his property, innocently, as he will, exclusively of any man, or of all men. It is proper to state here, that this right is apparently modified by his becoming a member of society. When men form a civil society, they mutually agree to confer upon the individual certain benefits upon certain conditions. But as these benefits cannot be attained without incurring some expenses, as, for instance, those of courts of justice, legislation, etc., it is just that every individual who enters the society, and thus enjoys these benefits, should pay his portion of the expense. By the very act of becoming a member of society, he renders himself answerable for his portion of that burden, without the incurring of which, society could not exist. He has his option, to leave society, or to join it. But if he join it, he must join it on the same conditions as others. He demands the benefit of laws, and of protection; but he has no right to demand what other men have purchased, unless he will pay for it an equitable price.

From these principles, it will follow, that society has a natural right to require every individual to contribute his portion of those expenses necessary to the existence of society.

Besides these however the members of a society have the power to agree together to contribute for objects which, if not essential to the existence, are yet important to the well-being of society. If they so agree, they are bound to fulfil this agreement; for a contract between the individual and society, is as binding as one between individual and individual. Hence, if such an agreement be made, society has a right to enforce it. This, however, by no means decides the question of the original wisdom of any particular compact; much less is it meant to be asserted, that the individual is bound by the acts of a majority, when that majority has exceeded its power. These subjects belong to a subsequent chapter. What is meant to be asserted here, is, that there may arise cases in which society may rightfully oblige the individual to contribute for purposes which are not absolutely necessary to the existence of society.

The difference, which we wish to establish, is this: In the case of whatever is necessary to the existence of society, society has a natural right to oblige the individual to bear his part of the burden; that is, it has a right over his property to this amount, without obtaining any concession on his part. Society has, manifestly, a right to whatever is necessary to its own existence.

Whatever, on the other hand, is not necessary to the existence of society, is not in the power of society, unless it has been conferred upon it by the will of the individual. That this is the rule, is evident from the necessity of the case. No other rule could be devised, which would not put the property of the individual wholly in the power of society; or, in other words, absolutely destroy the liberty of the individual.

If such be the facts, it will follow that society has a right over the property of the individual, for all purposes necessary to the existence of society; and, secondly, in all respects in which the individual has conferred that power, but only for the purpose for which it was conferred.

And hence, 1. It is the duty of the individual to hold his property always subject to these conditions; and, for such purposes, freely to contribute his portion of that expense for which he, in common with others, is receiving an equivalent. No one has any more right than another to receive a consideration without making a remuneration.

2. The individual has a right to demand that no impositions be laid upon him, unless they come under the one or the other of these classes.

3. He has a right to demand, that the burdens of society be laid upon individuals according to some equitable law This law should be founded, as nearly as possible, upon the principle, that each one should pay, in proportion to the benefits which he receives from the protection of society. As these benefits are either personal or pecuniary, and as those which are personal are equal, it would seem just that the variation should be in proportion to property.

If these principles be just, it is evident that society may violate the right of individual property, in the following ways:

1. By taking, through the means of government, which s its agent, the property of the individual, arbitrarily, or merely by the will of the executive. Such is the nature of the exactions in despotic governments.

2. When, by arbitrary will, or by law, it takes the property of the individual for purposes, which, whether good or bad, are not necessary to the existence of society, when the individuals of society have not consented that it be so appropriated. This consent is never to be presumed, except in the case of necessary expenditures, as has been shown. Whenever this plea cannot be made good, society has no right to touch the property of the individual, unless it can show the constitutional provision. Were our government to levy a tax to build churches, it would avail nothing to say, that churches were wanted, or that the good of society demanded it; it would be an invasion of the right of property, until the article in the constitution could be shown, granting to the government power over property, for this very purpose.

3. Society, even when the claim is just, may violate the rights of the individual, by adopting an inequitable rule in the distribution of the public burdens. Every individual has an equal right to employ his property unmolested, in just such manner as will innocently promote his own happiness. That is, it is to society a matter of indifference in what way he employs it. Provided it be innocent, it does not come within the view of society. Hence, in this respect, all modes of employing it are equal. And the only question to be considered, in adjusting the appropriation, is, How much does he ask society to protect? and by this rule it should, as we have said before, be adjusted. If, then, besides this rule, another be adopted; and an individual be obliged, besides his pro rata proportion, to bear a burden levied on his particular calling, to the exemption of another, he has a right to complain. He is obliged to bear a double burden, and one portion of the burden is laid for a cause over which society professes itself to have no jurisdiction.

4. Inasmuch as the value of property depends upon the unrestrained use which I am allowed to make of it, for the promotion of my individual happiness, society interferes with the right of property, if it in any manner abridge any of these. One man is rendered happy by accumulation, another by benevolence; one by promoting science, another by promoting religion. Each one has a right to use what is his own, exactly as he pleases. And if society interfere, by directing the manner in which he shall appropriate it, it is an act of injustice. It is as great a violation of property, for instance, to interfere with the purpose of the individual in the appropriation of his property for religious purposes, as it is to enact that a farmer shall keep but three cows, or a manufacturer employ but ten workmen.