What is "Private Property?"
For as long as there have been socialists, there have been American Christians triumphantly damning them to hell. Almost one hundred years ago Aimee Semple McPherson, one of the most important preachers of the twentieth century, preached a sermon warning her congregants that “the bombs of atheism and of communism and of anarchy!” were coming to her California shores, and that Americans needed to “Awake!” and “Defend your own!” Exactly twenty years later, in 1954, Billy Graham declared that “It is a battle to the death: either Communism must die, or Christianity must die... The Devil is their god, Marx their prophet, Lenin their saint and Malenkov their high priest.” American Christians have always been more interested in condemning socialism than understanding it, so it’s no surprise that while modern American Christians can tell you that socialism is bad, they often cannot tell you why. Usually their critiques are misunderstandings of the Bible used to debunk misunderstandings of socialist theory. And no aspect of socialist theory has been more misunderstood, both unintentionally and intentionally, than “the abolition of private property.”
In the United States, “private property” has a very broad definition. Anything you own is your “private property,” and it usually refers to the things you personally use in your non-work life: things like your house, your car, your TV, your couch, and your toothbrush. Socialists don’t want, and haven’t ever wanted, to take those things away from you. That is simply a misunderstanding of socialism, perpetuated by people who fundamentally don’t understand it. When socialists talk about the “abolition of private property,” what we mean by “private property” has a much narrower definition. Socialists traditionally make a distinction between “private property” and “personal property.” Everything I listed above—everything capitalists will try to scare you with, saying socialists want to take them away, things like your toothbrush and your house—falls into the category of “personal property.” Socialists think that it’s good to own personal property. That’s why people have always still owned toothbrushes and cars in socialist countries, a fact that seems to be often omitted.
Socialists do want to abolish what we call “private property,” though. “Private property,” in a socialist definition, refers to what we call “the means of production.” That is, the things that you use to make money. Socialists say that the sources of revenue for a community shouldn’t be owned exclusively by one person within the community, but should instead be owned by the community at large in some form or another. So, more specifically, when we say “abolish private property” we’re saying that it is not right for one person to own the factory and therefore not labor but profit off of the factory workers’ labor. A concrete example might make this clearer.
Let’s say you work at a restaurant. You are a server, and you and a handful of other employees work together most nights. Usually you and your co-workers are working most of the night, the manager is judging your performance, and occasionally the restaurant owner stops by to terrorize the staff for a night. You’re working, your friends are working, the manager is frantic, and the owner—if he is present at all—is little more than a tyrant, a force of nature that you and the manager have to pacify. How do you think the income is divided, in a situation like this? If you have ever been an employee, or presumably an owner, you know already know the answer.
You could extend that analysis out to just about every job. You and I work for a living—we teach students, build houses, train dogs, pour drinks—and all of us have an employer who skims money off of what we produce. The owners of construction companies live in mansions just for telling their underpaid labor forces where and what to build. Owners make far more money, do far less work, and tell you they’re doing you a favor by giving you a job. You produce a dollar worth of value but are only given a dime as payment, so that your boss can go on a fancy vacation you could never afford with those other 90 cents that you produced.
In the above examples, the restaurants and the businesses are the “means of production.” A restaurant is a “means of production” because, as a business, it produces more money. Socialists say that the employer-employee relationship I described above, where the boss makes a dollar for no work and you make a dime for a lot of work, is unjust. Businesses, the “means of production,” should not be owned by a small number of private individuals who make their money from the rest of our labor. And so, socialists want to abolish the “private property” of privately held businesses. We say that workers shouldn’t be paid starvation wages just so business owners can get rich. If a restaurant makes $5,000 profit after expenses and salaries, that money should be split by all the workers instead of just being put in one person’s pocket. Especially since the owner did little to no work in creating that wealth. Do you think the average coffee shop owner deserves to make $130,000 per year just because they own a building, where they sit around “vision-casting,” while a barista makes around $10,000 for actually making the products? If you think this is unjust, you have begun to understand the moral intuitions that motivate socialists.