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The Right to Private Property by Jeremy Waldron
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May 31, 12

bookshelves: non-fiction
Recommended to Tyler by: The Book Title Looked Interesting
Recommended for: Anyone Interested in Political Thought
Read in March, 2012

What does “private property” mean, and who has a right to it? Jeremy Waldron takes up these two neglected areas of politics and philosophy. In doing so he crosses territory already marked out by John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, which means the discussion will build on those two authors. But he also takes up the argument for private property laid out during that same era by Robert Nozick. Waldron casts a wide net in order to look at the concept of private property from every angle. This wide scope is one of the strengths of his book.

Like so many political thinkers, Waldron takes us often to that famous “state of nature” that factors into so much of the the moral justification of politics. The author takes up John Locke’s conception of a state of nature, among others, in order to pinpoint our problem: How did something already out there in the natural world come to belong to certain people? Seeing how this question has been answered in the past sheds light on our present conceptions of private property. Waldron argues that the appearance of government ends the state of nature and abolishes original concepts of property, such as first occupancy, replacing them with newer conceptions.

The idea of a “right” to something comes under scrutiny, with Waldron noting that negative rights are in fact duties imposed on others. From this concept the author brings us to two implicit conceptions of “rights”: Special Rights and General Rights. Which is a the better conception, a right that guarantees the private property of certain people or one that guarantees the private property of all? In the background lie two famous conceptions of private property, that of Locke, who argues for private property as a special right of those acquire it, and Hegel, whose writings imply a general right to private property for all persons.

Waldron so far seems to be veering to the left, but he’s not ready to go Marxist on us. After all, he’s talking about our rights, not some utilitarian calculus or an argument for collective property, both of which he dismisses. As to Nozick, Waldron points out that his argument for private property in Anarchy, State, and Utopia depend upon a theory of distributive justice, much as socialist policies do. He faults Nozick for an absence of grounding principles in his book which forces libertarian and anarcho-libertarian conceptions of private property back onto Locke.

After many interesting chapters and unique arguments, Waldron comes to his point: What conception of private property could defeat a Marxist pessimism about private property and Marx's conception of public property as a means of avoiding injustice? Again he turns to Hegel, and here he looks to the very definition of private property to suggest an intriguing answer.

This book gives us a thorough, strongly argued case for Waldron’s conception of private property. I recommend it to every political reader for its penetrating reach. For even if Fukuyama’s “end of history” has put collective property out of reach as a concept to be opposed to private property, the kind of private property that could best serve this new world order is relevant, but unexplored, factor for the success of that order.
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