The Origins of Private Property: The History of Freedom


“The Origins of Private Property: The History of Freedom” was originally published by the Liberty Insitute of Freedom and Economics (LIFE).

Private property is the bedrock of a free society. Private property, of course, emerges from self-ownership. Since you own yourself, you have the right to mix your labor with unowned resources so that it may become yours. In addition to original appropriation, one can also acquire property through voluntary exchange. Through private property emerges capitalism and a system of justice based on the idea that one has a right to their life and property, and that consent is the only means by which association should occur.

Many legal positivists see private property as a strictly legal affair. This, however, is not the case. As shown in this article, private property far predates government. This article will show not what private property is, but how private property emerged among humans.

Private Property: Our Ancestors’ Greatest Accomplishment

Approximately 50,000 years ago, the modern behavioral human emerged. Unlike the rest of the great apes and the hominids, modern humans had a unique grasp of the language. While early hominids, such as the homo erectus and the homo neanderthalensis, were capable of the lower functions of language (signaling and expression), the modern behavioral human uniquely grasped the higher functions of language (description and argumentation).

Because of the ability of early humans to develop languages, tribes of 10-30 people emerged. These tribes would band together in groups of approximately 150-500 to form gene pools. But what also emerged was the hunter-gatherer system. Early humans did not have the means to partake in farming, so they hunted animals and gathered plants to survive.

But even in such a primitive system, a division of labor did exist. Males overwhelmingly hunted while females overwhelmingly gathered. This original system demonstrated the propensity human beings have to cooperate quite early on in history. This primitive division of labor eventually came to form the market economy we know today. Unfortunately, hunting and gathering were unsustainable.

Hunter-Gathering: All Consumption, No Production

Fossil records indicate a lifespan for hunter-gatherers to be approximately 30 years. Such a lifespan was not passed again until the 19th century. The hunter-gatherers were able to live such long lives because their lifestyle was inherently parasitic, meaning they consumed the resources of the Earth without ever producing anything. As the population grew, humanity was faced with three options: fight, move or innovate. At first, humanity moved. They would find new areas where they could continue to consume. This is why modern hunter-gatherers are still nomadic.

Eventually, humanity ran out of new territory to move to, so they resorted to fighting. It is a common misconception that civilization is the root of war and violence. But if we look to the estimates of anthropologists, approximately .5 percent of every tribe’s population died every year due to war. If the two World Wars carried such a death rate, 2 billion people would have died in those wars compared to the much smaller few hundred million.

The consumption of natural resources under hunting and gathering ultimately turned humanity into a species of enemies. It is undeniable that early humans were far more prone to war than even the most hawkish governments of modern society. This is because specialization beyond hunting and gathering did not exist, so the early humans had no incentive to keep other tribes alive. Fortunately, private property and capitalism saved humanity from its inevitable demise.

The Neolithic Revolution: The Origin of Survival and Capitalism

With the Neolithic revolution came agriculture. In the agrarian society, humanity moved beyond just personal ownership (ownership of one’s tools, clothing, and other basic items). In exchange for the vague system of ownership, private property emerged approximately 12,000 years ago when farmers began to tend to their land to produce so that consumption can increase.

Private property came naturally to acting human beings. With overpopulation being a serious threat, the early humans moved to extend their self-ownership to the ownership of their land so that they can produce enough for themselves to survive. This, of course, led to the emergence of the family as humans moved away from the early tribalism of the hunter-gatherers. It is through this process within the neolithic revolution by which the early humans escaped its first Malthusian Trap and civilization began.

Civilization and Private Property Predate Government.

With private property emerged civilization. Rather than remaining in a system of nomadic tribalism, humans began to plant themselves with their land. Families became sustainable. And with the emergence of private property through the neolithic revolution came civilization. The first government that modern historians know of formed in the 3,000s BCE. The Neolithic revolution, however, predates government by approximately 7,000 years.

Private property is not a legal idea, it was the fulfillment of humanity’s nature to own themselves and to act in a way that will lead them to a more satisfactory future. As society advanced, the division of labor extended beyond hunters and gatherers, but also farmers, shepherds, ironworkers, and so on. This process of civilization will continue well into the industrial revolution and into the future. This came without a central government or authority. Private property emerged through spontaneous order.

Suggested Reading

A Short History of Man, Hans-Hermann Hoppe

War Before Civilization, Lawrence Keeley

Genes, Peoples, and Languages, Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza

Understanding Human History, Michael Hart


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