22 February 2018

South Africa: Property Rights - Why the Poor Need Them


Property rights are for the rich. They are the legitimising mechanism of economic inequality and social inequity. They place the assets of the most affluent in society beyond the reach of democratic deliberation, and ensure that accumulated patterns of wealth and poverty are passed on from one generation to another.

Property rights mean little to the poor. Indeed, to apply the term "rights" - in the sense of human rights - to them is itself problematic. Far from being a condition of human sustenance and fulfilment, they have frequently been the source of immiseration. Property should, rather, be seen as a qualified entitlement. It is perhaps a useful concept for managing our day-to-day lives, but not a principle relevant to the big questions of societal organisation.

With only a touch of parody, this view is widely held in one form or another by a great many people, typically by those who profess to care about the living conditions and life chances of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Perhaps the purest expression of this was by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto: "You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But...

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