The third post in this blog series discussed how right-leaning neo-liberalism, as opposed to classical liberalism, places property rights above all other rights. This means that property holders are a protected class, overriding the political and civil rights of everyone else. It is highly anti-democratic.

Right-leaning neo-liberalism’s obsession with property rights over all others appears even more bizarre when one considers how strange our ideas about property rights are in general.

Modern property law is derived from Roman law. Roman law says that the basic form of property is private property, and that private property means that owners have the absolute power to do anything they want with their possessions––have, use, enjoy their produce, and abuse or alienate them. But what does it really mean for a person to have a legally-recognised relationship with a thing? How can a thing have legal standing in such an arrangement?

It is, of course, a convenient fiction. We do not have relationships (legal or otherwise) with things. In reality, property law formalises an arrangement between the owner and other people concerning things.

However, there is one important exception. There is a “thing” that an owner can have a relationship with, and it is perhaps the most valuable thing of all: a slave.

Indeed, according to Harvard sociologist and slavery expert Orlando Peterson, the notion of absolute property rights in Rome was derived from slavery. Early Romans, like the Greeks before them, defined property as a claim between the owner and “all the world”, and this was useful when property was mostly tangible things. As slavery expanded, the old definition did not work because there was no legal way to define “all the world” in a way that did not include the slaves themselves (who no doubt would have objected to being considered someone’s property).

So instead of a relationship between people, Romans invented the concept of a relationship between a person and a thing. The model they used was the Roman household (domus), where the paterfamilias had absolute authority over the familia, which originally referred not to blood relations but to all the people in the domus, including slaves. In fact, Latin familia is derived from famulus, one of the Latin words for house slaves.

The word they chose for private property rights, dominium, was derived from dominus, originally meaning “master” before it was generalised to mean “owner”. Dominium was more than just a relationship between a person and a thing, it meant the owner had absolute power over it. Thus, Roman property law took a principal of domestic authority, with the paterfamilias having absolute authority over the people in his household, including slaves, and extended that logic to objects. In this way, it is easier to conceptualise a relationship between a person and an object if the starting point is the relation between two people, one of whom is an object.

Since the concept of property was so closely intertwined with slavery, the Roman concept of freedom was based on the power of an individual to dispose of his property as he sees fit––something someone who was unfree (a slave) could not do. Under this view, there is no real difference between private property, freedom, and political power.

When one realises that private property is an expression of power, neo-liberalism’s obsession over protecting property rights comes into focus. No one expressed these views more clearly than the American James McGill Buchanan, who formed and led the Center for the Study of Public Choice at George Mason University outside Washington DC with funding from corporate donors including Charles Koch, himself a member of the Mont Pèlerin Society since 1970.

Buchanan’s work on “public choice” theory (the use of economic tools in political science) won him a Nobel Prize for Economics in 1986, right at the end of his term as president of the Mont Pèlerin Society (1984-86).

The starting point for the analysis that won Buchanan the Nobel was that political actors are not concerned with the common good or the public interest, but in fact are self-interested and seek  their own advantage. Elected politicians will make multiple costly promises to multiple constituencies that they cannot keep, and bureaucrats will continually seek to expand their power and resources.

Especially in a democracy, a state like this will eventually redistribute wealth to maintain legitimacy. In Buchanan’s view, therefore, the people who needed protection the most in a democracy were property owners. In his book Property as a Guarantor of Liberty (1993), he wrote that their rights could only be secured though constitutional limits in democracies to prevent politics (i.e., voters) from encroaching on them. Indeed, he had already put that idea into practice in 1981 when he advised the Pinochet government in Chile to amend the constitution to require balanced budgets and supermajorities in parliament for any changes of substance.

However, since even constitutional limits can be changed in a democracy, as early as his 1975 book The Limits of Liberty, he acknowledged the logical conclusion of his recommendations: “Despotism may be the only organisational alternative to the political structure that we observe.”

This may sound extreme until one remembers that Buchanan was a Tennessean whose career began around the time of the US civil rights movement. Whereas slaveholders in English and French colonies were compensated when slavery was abolished, the US’s Southern planter oligarchs viewed themselves as ultimate victims of the state’s ability to confiscate property. Jim Crow laws kept former slaves and their descendants landless and dependent on their former masters long into the twentieth century, and desegregation was another political interference in their property rights.

The founding members of the Mont Pèlerin Society did not have slavery in mind when they wrote their manifesto, but the logic is the same. Intangible “property” is inherently worthless unless there are people to farm the land, work the mines, and run the machines. Right-leaning neo-liberalism’s goal is not only that property owners keep all of their profits, but that they have no constraints on how they manage their properties, including the people who work on them. Given their strong opposition to even basic elements of a healthy democracy such as public education and public health, it isn’t difficult to imagine what kind of labour force right-leaning neo-liberals prefer.


Ron Bevacqua is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute as well as the Co-Founder and Managing Director of ACCESS Advisory Inc.