Private Property and Political Power

Individual Property: Private Wealth & Democratic Participation

The classical conception of property has throughout history been attacked for its distributive consequences. This problem has recently received renewed attention with Occupy protests against the concentration of wealth at “the top 1%” and Piketty’s empirical study of the trends in wealth inequalities (Piketty 2014). Even bracketing global inequalities and focusing on developed countries, wealth inequalities seem to be back at 19-century levels. These wealth inequalities are discussed in the context of political philosophy’s traditional tasks of (i) proposing conceptions of social justice, and (ii) proposing conceptions of political legitimacy. An engagement with both contexts is necessary for rethinking property relations.

(i) Since the ground-breaking publication of John Rawls’s Theory of Justice (1971), philosophers have written extensively on the fairness of differences in wealth (Scanlon 2003; O’Neill 2008). An important egalitarian strand in liberal philosophy has incorporated distributive concerns using a renewed form of the social contract tradition to argue that wealth increases should be to be benefit of all (Rawls 1999). However, this has not led to sustained philosophical investigation of conceptions of private property. What seems to be missing is an institutional translation of Rawls’s (and others’) abstract proposals for a fair wealth distribution. For the theme of property, this is crucial. Fortunately, over the last decade a bit more discussion has occurred, in two contexts. One is the discussion about ‘property-owning democracy’ (O’Neill and Williamson 2012). Here the maintenance of sufficient property by everyone is seen as a prerequisite of justice. A second context is the newly emerging literature on ‘justice in taxation’, which tries to develop principles of just taxation (Murphy and Nagel 2002; Halliday 2013; Verbeek 2015). Neither of these contexts focuses explicitly on the concept of property used, however. This will be the task of this subproject: to reconstruct from this literature on social justice, whether it implicitly still uses a ‘classical’ conception of property, or whether an alternative conception is emerging that diverges from that. The focus will not be on the justice of property distributions per se, however, but on the relation between justice and legitimacy. For Rawls, a just distribution requires that wealth difference should not impact upon each citizen’s ability to exercise her political rights. Political legitimacy then requires the just arrangement of a society’s wealth. Many have argued this demands too much: political legitimacy should be a lower standard than justice. The subproject will inquire whether or not this is the case: can political institutions still function legitimately even in the presence of unjust wealth distributions?

(ii) The relations between private wealth and political power have mainly been the focus of empirical studies. Here too however, recent work is changing this. One important step is to theorise the nature of power in the economic sphere: against the image of the economy of a power-free zone, some have proposed a reconceptualisation of power in the economy (Barry 2002; Dowding 2003). Building on their work, we can then ask whether the holding of private wealth has an effect on political decision-making which renders the latter illegitimate. Although the popular media often and loosely speak of the corrupting effect of wealth on politics, sustained philosophical analysis shows these claims are not so easily made. On a principled level, the legitimacy of buying votes in open markets is disputed (Freiman 2014; Taylor 2016). Accepting such markets, would mean that the separation between wealth and political power is unproblematic from the start. But even when one thinks there is a problem, we need to distinguish several channels of influence between private wealth and political power: influencing elections, influencing the political agenda, influencing public opinion and influencing background socio-economic conditions. For each of these the predicament might be different (Christiano 2012). More nuance is also needed on another score: while private individuals and firms may disproportionally influence or constrain political decisions, this is not necessarily illegitimate because a complicated balance between this problem and the benefits of free markets need to be established (Christiano 2010). The subproject will study these debates on the political (il)legitimacy of the influence of private wealth on politics. For the conceptualisation of property, two themes will be key. On the one hand, the key question is whether a ‘mere’ redistribution of property is sufficient to insulate politics from distorting private influences, or whether a different (e.g. more collective) ownership of property, or a different set of conditions (obligations) on the use of property, is called for. On the other hand, the question is whether mechanisms of democratic accountability can be formulated to legitimise the (inevitable) linkages between wealth and decision-making that are likely to persist (e.g. the ethics of campaign financing is a neglected topic in the ethical literature to which the subproject could contribute).

This part of the project is the responsibility of Sylvain Lajoie.