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The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought; Kirzner, Israel M.
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Chapter 2

2) Another force in the eighteenth-century environment that must have helped to set up wealth as the subject matter of a separate discipline seems to have been the intellectual interest in private property. Despite the variety of meanings that we shall find to have been attached to the term "wealth" by classical economists, almost all these meanings find some common ground with a definition of wealth as consisting in the objects of ownership. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a peculiar attraction seems to have resided in inquiries into the legal and moral bases of the institution of private property. Grotius had discussed the matter from a juristic standpoint. With Hobbes the inquiry into the nature and origins of private property became merged with his theories on the origins of the organization of society under the sovereignty of the state. Locke saw the origin of and justification for private property in natural law. These speculations and theories affected much of the thought of the leading writers throughout the eighteenth century. Discussions of civil justice must turn on the acceptance and justification of property rights; discussions of the legitimacy of slavery must involve the question of the admissible extent of property rights; the movements in France and America towards democracy were generally accompanied by specific attention to private property. For many years democracy was to mean democracy for the property owners. Godwin's call for the abolition of private property once again drew attention to the foundation of the entire institution. *39

On the attitudes of some of the earliest economic writers towards the right of private property, see, e.g., E. Halévy, The Growth of Philosophic Radicalism (Boston, 1955), p. 45; L. Robbins, The Theory of Economic Policy, pp. 50 f.; J. Bonar, Philosophy and Political Economy (3rd ed.; London, 1922), pp. 142 f. Perhaps the most clear example of an economist who was stimulated by concern with private property rights was Samuel Read. Read, one of the economists "rediscovered" by Seligman ("Some Neglected British Economists," Economic Journal, 1903), called his book Political Economy. An Inquiry into the Natural Grounds of Right to Vendible Property or Wealth (Edinburgh, 1829). He treated economics, not as concerning wealth, but as concerning the "right to wealth." It is of interest to note that the alternative name which Read suggested (p. xvii) for political economy, "Political Justice," is the title of Godwin's book of 1793 fiercely attacking the institution of private property.