Lost Language, Lost Liberalism

A review of the changes 1880-1940 to the central semantics of liberal civilization.

Property  Rejoinders


William Hurrell Mallock (1849 – 1923) was an English novelist and economics writer. Perhaps his most significant work, recently reprinted in paperback by Transaction Publishers, is The Limits of Pure Democracy.

William Hurrell Mallock (1849 – 1923) was an English novelist and economics writer. Perhaps his most significant work, recently reprinted in paperback by Transaction Publishers, is The Limits of Pure Democracy.

Mallock, William Hurrell. 1883. “Socialism in England,” The Quarterly Review 156(312): 353-393.

[368] Absurd, however, as is the conception formed by the Socialists of what constitutes justice in a law or a legal principle, the conception they have formed of what constitutes private property is more absurd still. Private property, they seem to imagine, is such property, and such property only, as its possessor can be allowed to use in any way he pleases. Hence, anything that might be used to the detriment of the public in general, and the use of which must consequently be limited by legislation, is, they argue, not private property at all.


Mallock, William Hurrell. 1884. Property and Progress. G. P. Putnams Sons: New York.

[111] If the ultimate justification of private property in land is the theory that some men have a better right to existence than others, the first principle of justice, by which such property stands condemned, is the opposite principle that the right of all men to existence is equal. This alone, however, is not sufficient. It would prove but half of what is wanted. For what natural justice is supposed by the Socialists to inform us, is, not merely that the human race are the collective owners of the earth, but that special sections of the human race are the collective owners, severally, of certain parts of it. The Americans are the owners of America; the Indians are the owners of India; the Irish are the owners of Ireland; and, when Mr. Hyndman calls his book ‘England for All,’ he does not mean ‘England for all the world.’ He means ‘England for all the English.’ The above principle, therefore, as to the natural right to live, is, in the logic of Socialism, evidently accompanied by another, The Socialist must maintain, not only that every man has an equal right to live, but that every man has a right to live in his own country.


Rae, John. 1884. Contemporary Socialism. Charles Scribners and Sons: New York.

[24] Democracy, guided by the spirit of freedom, will resist socialism; but authoritative democracy, such as finds favour abroad, leans strongly towards it. A democratic despotism is obviously more dangerous to property than any other, inasmuch as the despot is, in this case, more insatiable, and his rapacity is so easily hid and even sanctified under the general considerations of humanity that always mingle with it. The future thus stands before us with a solemn choice: property must either contrive to get widely diffused or it will be nationalised altogether; and the fate of free institutions hangs upon the dilemma. For in a democratic community the peril is always near.

[364-365] Socialists ignore the civilising value of private property and inheritance, because they think of property only as a means of immediate enjoyment, and not as a means of progress and moral development. They would allow private property only in what is sometimes termed consumers’ wealth. You might still own your clothes, or even purchase your house and garden. But producerswealth, they hold, should be common property, and neither be owned nor inherited by individuals. If this theory were to be enforced, it would be fatal to progress. Private property has all along been a great factor in civilisation, but the private property that has been so has been much more producersthan consumers. [Socialists] look upon [property] purely as a means for gratifying the desires of individuals, and ignore the immense social value it possesses as a nurse of the industrial virtues and an agency in the progressive development of society from generation to generation.


Brown, Edmund Woodward. 1885. The Life of Society. G. P. Putnams and Sons: New York.

[232-233] Another form of liberty is what may be called liberty of property; it is the liberty of persons to possess property. In the ancient forms of life in common, property as possessed by an individual hardly exists. The household, the township, the village, the tribe, or some other sort of body owns the property. No person owns any of it. And if a person apparently has property, he only has the use of it for a year or a series of years, or at the most for a lifetime. If it be land he is only a tenant; if it be household things or certain privileges, he has only a hold limited in degree and in time. In the other view, that of liberty to make a will, property can be truly owned by any person; can be owned absolutely and without limit; can be given away, sold, or left at death freely. No family, no commune has rights.


Brown, Thomas Edwin. 1886. Studies in Modern Socialism and Labor Problems. D. Appleton and Co.: New York.

[87] Our Socialist reverses the course of history. He would roll back the stream of time. The world has already had Socialism in its essence. Original property was common property. But as civilization grew, it outgrew common property. The necessities of progress demanded individual ownership of land and the instruments of production. … Socialism is an old skin that progressive nations long ago outgrew and threw off. We talk of civilizing our own Indian tribes. What do we demand for them as the first step towards civilization? Socialism? They have it—State ownership of land and of the instruments of production. Nay! We demand for them land in severalty—personal ownership—as necessary to their uplift from Socialistic barbarism. When the French ‘Socialist Review’ said, in 1880, ‘You may almost measure the degree of civilization by the extent to which collective appropriation has taken place,it spoke in the teeth of all history and of all fact. You may rather measure human industrial progress by the extent to which collective ownership has been abandoned.


Albert Venn "A. V." Dicey (1835 – 1922) was a British jurist and constitutional theorist, and was the younger brother of Edward Dicey. He is most widely known as the author of An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885). Dicey popularised the phrase "rule of law", although its use goes back to the 17th century.

Albert Venn "A. V." Dicey (1835 – 1922) was a British jurist and constitutional theorist, and was the younger brother of Edward Dicey. He is most widely known as the author of An Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (1885). Dicey popularised the phrase "rule of law", although its use goes back to the 17th century.

Dicey, Albert Venn. 1888. “New Jacobism and Old Morality,” The Contemporary Review 53(3): 475-502.

[485-486] ’Jacobinism is the revolt of the enterprising talents of a country against its property. When private men form themselves into associations for the purpose of destroying the pre-existing laws and institutions of their country; when they secure to themselves an army by dividing amongst the people of no property the estates of the ancient and lawful proprietors; when a State recognizes those acts; when it does not make confiscations for crimes, it makes crimes for confiscations; when it has its principal strength and all its resources in such a violation of property; when it stands chiefly upon such a violation; massacring by judgments, or otherwise, those who make any struggle for their old legal government and their legal hereditary or acquired possessions—I call this Jacobinism by establishment.

This is the portrait of Jacobinism in its youth. New Radicalism is the child of old Jacobinism and exhibits with but slight change the familiar traits of its parent. Once again, as a century ago, a priori dogmatism apes the appearance of political wisdom. Superficial humanitarianism hardly conceals latent but profound brutality, and adopts the semblance of benevolence in order to oppose the reality of justice.


Van Ornum, William Henry. 1892. Why Government at ALL? Charles H. Kerr and Co.: Chicago.

[32] And if individuals cannot properly do it, how can the community do it as a whole? The community is only an aggregation of individuals. It has no rights or powers which any one of its members does not have. If one man cannot justly collect rent, no more can one hundred, or a thousand, or a majority of all of them. Mr. George's distinction between private property in land and public property in land is a distinction without a difference. The public has no rights, and can obtain no rights, that are not enjoyed by its private members. The only source from which they can come is its members; and those members cannot confer a right which they do not possess.


Flint, Robert. 1894. Socialism. Isbister and Co.: London.

[319] There is no right to equal participation in property, but only a right not to be inequitably prevented from participation in it. The State is consequently not entitled to enforce or aim at an equal distribution of property. Its function is to do justice, neither more nor less; and the sphere of justice as to property is merely that of equal freedom to acquire and to use it.


Abbot, Everett Vergnies. 1913. Justice and The Modern Law. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston.

[24-25] Property, ownership, title, — these are merely synonyms in our law expressing the legal perception of a man’s natural right to be untrammeled in the physical control which he establishes over inanimate things and the lower animals. We are accustomed to regard these terms as denoting a bundle of rights. Accurately understood, however, they indicate merely a single right, and that the right of freedom.

[25-26] There has been a considerable effort to distinguish the property right in things movable from the property right in land, but the effort has ignored essential principles of morality. In both cases the right rests upon the simple duty of every man to refrain from interfering with the physical dominion which his fellow man has established over those material things which have not been made the subject of any prior physical dominion. The settler who first plants corn in the wilderness acquires thereby a natural right to be let alone in the enjoyment of his new acquisition which is precisely identical with the right of a man who converts the skins of wild beasts into clothing. The entire superstructure of modern civilization rests upon the more or less complete perception of that identity. The principles of men like Henry George and the socialists which deny that identity, and therefore dispute the essential justice of private property in land, are themselves essentially unjust, and, if put into application, would defeat the real rights of mankind. Their teachings can never become serious factors in our civilization, however, because they run counter to the most deeply grounded instincts of our race. Indeed, it is a noteworthy fact that those nations which have most effectively guarded the dominion of the individual over inanimate things, and in particular have most effectively protected the private appropriation of land, have been the most advanced in their civilization. Their citizens have achieved the fullest measure of individual liberty and have obeyed the highest standards of personal morality.


Husslein, Joseph Casper. 1918. The World Problem. P. J. Kennedy and Sons: New York.

[235-236] Men do not exist for the State; but the State exists for the individuals and families within its care. Its function is to guard their individual rights and to harmonize them with the general welfare. The State neither creates nor confers them. Private owners, therefore, may use and dispose of their property, freely and without any interference on the part of the State, except only in so far as the social order and the public good are affected. Just here for the first time the power of the State enters, not however by virtue of any rights of ownership which the State is presumed to possess, but solely by virtue of its power of jurisdiction. This distinction must be carefully noted, since it underlies all that can be said upon this important subject.

The significance of this principle is plain at once. Since the State has no rights of ownership over any private possessions, held individually or corporately by its citizens, it follows that the State cannot dispose of one foot of private land or one penny of private wealth according to its own arbitrary will and pleasure, even should that will and pleasure be expressed through the ballot box, by a majority of Socialist voters. They, no more than czar and emperor, can claim the right of ownership over the private possessions of citizens. It matters not whether these possessions consist of a boy's whipping-top or of the latest factory built by Ford. The principle is absolute and there is no exception.


Elder, Benedict. 1919. A Study in Socialism, second ed. B. Herder Book Co.: St. Louis.

[13-14] Socialists hold that it is wrong for a man to own property he does not use, or use property he does not own. They say that what is personally used should be personally owned and what is collectively used should be collectively owned, for in this manner alone can the exploitation and robbery of labor be stopped. The prevailing system of ownership appears to them to violate justice in each of the particulars indicated. On the one hand some persons own much more than they can use; and on the other, many persons, in order barely to live, are required to use what they do not own. Socialists conceive that this system makes the user, the laborer, dependent upon the owner, the capitalist, and as a result of this dependency, the laborer is required to pay the capitalist a tribute, wrung from his hard toil, for the mere privilege of living by the use of another's property. This tribute may take the form of rent, interest, dividends or profits, which are only separate names for surplus value; but in any event it is taken from the product of labor. Hence, the Socialists say, the prevailing system of ownership, which entails the loss to labor of a part, and much the greater part, of its product, is manifestly contrary to justice.

To remedy this condition, Socialists propose that no person should own property that another person uses, and, so far as is possible, every person should own the property that he uses, while property that more than one uses is to be collectively owned. The object of Socialist ownership is to make it impossible for one person to acquire surplus value, or profit, dividend, interest or rent, through the labor of another. But this can be accomplished only by making it impossible for one person to acquire the labor of another, and this, in turn, can be accomplished only by the public asserting ownership and control of all of the instruments for production and distribution that might be used by one person while owned by another.


Brett, Oliver. 1921. A Defense of Liberty. G. P. Putnams Sons: New York.

[156-157] A Frenchman commits himself to a phrase, such as ‘Property is theft,’ an epigrammatic rechauffe of an idea familiar two thousand years before to Plato and Lycurgus, and it is eagerly taken up by Karl Marx and incorporated into a scientific system as disastrous to mankind as militarism itself. … The truth is that property is a natural right which cannot be ignored or denied.


Rockow, Lewis. 1927. “The Political Ideas of Contemporary Tory Democracy,” The American Political Science Review 21(1): 12-31.

[17] For the full development of individuality, private property is essential. Property is an extension of personality, and hence vital to its growth. Character and ownership develop jointly. Private property, too, is the basis of our civilization, and around it will center the bitter struggles of our time. To strengthen private property, and with it our civilization, it is necessary, not to inaugurate common ownership, as proposed by the Socialists, but to widen ownership to the greatest extent possible.

4L is authored by Daniel B. Klein, Professor of Economics, JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center, George Mason University, Associate Fellow of the Ratio Institute; email: dklein@gmu.edu

Quotations compiled by Ryan Daza & Daniel B. Klein