Private Property

While primitive society was virtually communal, primitive man did not adhere to the modern doctrines of communism. The communism of these early times was not a mere theory or social doctrine; it was a simple and practical automatic adjustment. Communism prevented pauperism and want; begging and prostitution were almost unknown among these ancient tribes.

Primitive communism did not especially level men down, nor did it exalt mediocrity, but it did put a premium on inactivity and idleness, and it did stifle industry and destroy ambition. Communism was indispensable scaffolding in the growth of primitive society, but it gave way to the evolution of a higher social order because it ran counter to four strong human proclivities:

1. The family. Man not only craves to accumulate property; he desires to bequeath his capital goods to his progeny. But in early communal society a man’s capital was either immediately consumed or distributed among the group at his death. There was no inheritance of property — the inheritance tax was one hundred per cent. The later capital-accumulation and property-inheritance mores were a distinct social advance. And this is true notwithstanding the subsequent gross abuses attendant upon the misuse of capital.

2. Religious tendencies. Primitive man also wanted to save up property as a nucleus for starting life in the next existence. This motive explains why it was so long the custom to bury a man’s personal belongings with him. The ancients believed that only the rich survived death with any immediate pleasure and dignity. The teachers of revealed religion, more especially the Christian teachers, were the first to proclaim that the poor could have salvation on equal terms with the rich.

3. The desire for liberty and leisure. In the earlier days of social evolution the apportionment of individual earnings among the group was virtually a form of slavery; the worker was made slave to the idler. This was the suicidal weakness of communism: The improvident habitually lived off the thrifty. Even in modern times the improvident depend on the state (thrifty taxpayers) to take care of them. Those who have no capital still expect those who have to feed them.

4. The urge for security and power. Communism was finally destroyed by the deceptive practices of progressive and successful individuals who resorted to diverse subterfuges in an effort to escape enslavement to the shiftless idlers of their tribes. But at first all hoarding was secret; primitive insecurity prevented the outward accumulation of capital. And even at a later time it was most dangerous to amass too much wealth; the king would be sure to trump up some charge for confiscating a rich man’s property, and when a wealthy man died, the funeral was held up until the family donated a large sum to public welfare or to the king, an inheritance tax.

In earliest times women were the property of the community, and the mother dominated the family. The early chiefs owned all the land and were proprietors of all the women; marriage required the consent of the tribal ruler. With the passing of communism, women were held individually, and the father gradually assumed domestic control. Thus the home had its beginning, and the prevailing polygamous customs were gradually displaced by monogamy. (Polygamy is the survival of the female-slavery element in marriage. Monogamy is the slave-free ideal of the matchless association of one man and one woman in the exquisite enterprise of home building, offspring rearing, mutual culture, and self-improvement.)

At first, all property, including tools and weapons, was the common possession of the tribe. Private property first consisted of all things personally touched. If a stranger drank from a cup, the cup was henceforth his. Next, any place where blood was shed became the property of the injured person or group.

Private property was thus originally respected because it was supposed to be charged with some part of the owner’s personality. Property honesty rested safely on this type of superstition; no police were needed to guard personal belongings. There was no stealing within the group, though men did not hesitate to appropriate the goods of other tribes. Property relations did not end with death; early, personal effects were burned, then buried with the dead, and later, inherited by the surviving family or by the tribe.

The ornamental type of personal effects originated in the wearing of charms. Vanity plus ghost fear led early man to resist all attempts to relieve him of his favorite charms, such property being valued above necessities.

Sleeping space was one of man’s earliest properties. Later, homesites were assigned by the tribal chiefs, who held all real estate in trust for the group. Presently a fire site conferred ownership; and still later, a well constituted title to the adjacent land.

Water holes and wells were among the first private possessions. The whole fetish practice was utilized to guard water holes, wells, trees, crops, and honey. Following the loss of faith in the fetish, laws were evolved to protect private belongings. But game laws, the right to hunt, long preceded land laws. The American red man never understood private ownership of land; he could not comprehend the white man’s view.

Private property was early marked by family insignia, and this is the early origin of family crests. Real estate could also be put under the watchcare of spirits. The priests would “consecrate” a piece of land, and it would then rest under the protection of the magic taboos erected thereon. Owners thereof were said to have a “priest’s title.” The Hebrews had great respect for these family landmarks: “Cursed be he who removes his neighbor’s landmark.” These stone markers bore the priest’s initials. Even trees, when initialed, became private property.

In early days only the crops were private, but successive crops conferred title; agriculture was thus the genesis of the private ownership of land. Individuals were first given only a life tenureship; at death land reverted to the tribe. The very first land titles granted by tribes to individuals were graves — family burying grounds. In later times land belonged to those who fenced it. But the cities always reserved certain lands for public pasturage and for use in case of siege; these “commons” represent the survival of the earlier form of collective ownership.

Eventually the state assigned property to the individual, reserving the right of taxation. Having made secure their titles, landlords could collect rents, and land became a source of income — capital. Finally land became truly negotiable, with sales, transfers, mortgages, and foreclosures.

Private ownership brought increased liberty and enhanced stability; but private ownership of land was given social sanction only after communal control and direction had failed, and it was soon followed by a succession of slaves, serfs, and landless classes. But improved machinery is gradually setting men free from slavish toil.

The right to property is not absolute; it is purely social. But all government, law, order, civil rights, social liberties, conventions, peace, and happiness, as they are enjoyed by modern peoples, have grown up around the private ownership of property.

The present social order is not necessarily right — not divine or sacred — but mankind will do well to move slowly in making changes. That which you have is vastly better than any system known to your ancestors. Make certain that when you change the social order you change for the better. Do not be persuaded to experiment with the discarded formulas of your forefathers. Go forward, not backward! Let evolution proceed! Do not take a backward step.

Reference

Urantia Book. (1955). Private Property. Chicago, IL: Urantia Foundation.

Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them (Matt 7:20).

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