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On Ownership and Stewardship: Private and Collective Property

On Ownership and Stewardship: Private and Collective Property

Property is a complex subject and can be approached from several points of view such as: legal, philosophical, sociological, but especially economic. For each domain, property is of particular importance, which is why the question first arises: what is property? 

The “genesis” of property: privacy and collectiveness 

By answering this question we will be able to see the essence of the property and to analyse both the forms of property and the problems it raises. In order to be aware of the essence of property, it can be studied as a ratio between three factors: natural, social and economic.

Property in relation to the natural factor is regarded as the relation between man and thing – therefore, property can be defined as a natural institution. This approach is also encountered in Adam Smith’s work, who nevertheless did not develop this line of thought significantly[1]. Another important feature in this context is that man wants to have control over things. The will arises within the man who comes into the possession of nature and can be considered private property. We can see that “taking possession is an act of singular character”[2]. This character helps us to understand that property originates not only in will and human reason, but also in divine will and reason. As in the case of wealth, man has received the whole Earth in his control: plants, waters, animals; the same principle also applies to the property, that is, the possession only for administrative purposes. Property means possession, it means “mine”, “his”, “yours”. In other words, in this context, property is characterized as a relationship between people, involving things, but not a strictly natural relationship as mentioned above. Thus, the natural relationship of property supports the Christian perspective in which nature (property) is free and it is up to man to administer it through his own work and to use it collectively. However, this rapport also has a negative part in the sense that it excludes social relations and the social relation of property.

Property in relation to the social factor represents the transition from the natural state to the social domain. This can be included in a scenario of a man who wants to occupy a free land and who owns it after concluding an agreement with other people who recognize his right. One difference between the natural relationship and the social relationship is that of will. In this context, we are talking about a general will, the will of both parties that generate the property. This time, the property acquires a collective character, stimulating the inter-human social relations.

Property in relation to the economic factor has evolved from the natural state to that of the social domain and has reached the economic domain in the last two centuries. The economic factor refers to wealth and, through wealth, we refer to the things that satisfy our needs. Property stimulates people to produce their own wealth. It also allows the consumption of this wealth. In this context, we observe that property has as its object wealth, which is indispensable for the satisfaction of human needs. Also, “the property describes the cycle of an economic activity because it includes the production, distribution and consumption”[3]. It follows from this that property is a fundamental economic fact.

After observing property rights in relation to the three factors, we can now answer the question: “what is property?” or “what is the essence of property?”. The basis of property is the effort (work) that people exert on nature so that afterwards they will be able to own goods detached from nature. The social relationship is indispensable for human existence and property represents an inter-human relationship. This relationship between people is formed as a result of the process of production, distribution and use of wealth, which is a relationship based on the economic factor. The object of property is nature and the subject is represented by people. Finally, we could define property as a feature of both material and spiritual goods, mediated by the members of a society. 

Adam and Eve, the “ancestors” of collective property 

The property from the time of Adam and Eve represents the first form of property, the common property that was made available to our ancestors[4]. This was a property with which the first people survived. After the fall into sin, this property began to be replaced by private property, from which the collective property will appear again, this time in socialist form. We must mention that when we participate in a change of ownership, it does not necessarily result in the definitive removal of the old form. Nowadays, we can see the characteristics of the property of the first people, not only in a more aggravated form (in socialism), but also where the form of property is private.

The common property was indispensable not only to our ancestors but was necessary to all peoples. All the goods were used jointly, because the works were jointly performed. We observe this in the early Christians who survived with the help of the Church, where all things were in common and distributed according to the needs of each. Also, Romans, Greeks, and all kinds of tribes and peoples had this form of property in the beginning. In other words, all peoples went through this stage first and then moved on to a form of private property. We could even say that private property existed in parallel with the common one. I am referring here to certain goods such as land or hunting weapons. These were the property of the entire community, but were used individually. The tribes presented a form of common property from an internal point of view, but a form of private property from an external point of view.

Even though peoples had this form of property at the beginning of their existence, it does not mean that they cannot return to it in the future. The best example is the socialism that imposed collective ownership. During socialism, this was characterized through a single word: “common”. Work was carried out in a common way, there was no separation between the producer and the owner, and the state had control over the means of production that they also used in common. We can observe that the property of collective type retains the same common character in all the periods mentioned above: the property of the first people, the property from the beginning of the existence of all peoples, the property of socialist type which reappeared. 


[1] Adam Smith makes very little reference to the concept of property in his The Wealth of Nations. He wanted instead to write a book just on this subject, but failed to fulfil his desire, leaving only a series of notes.

[2] Nicolae, B., „Proprietatea în economie”, p. 9, available online at:

[3] Nicolae, B., op. cit., p. 15.

[4] See also Woods, E.T. Jr., The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, Lexington Books, U.S.A., 2015.



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