Throughout history, societies have been evolving and gradually improving to raise the overall standard of living, therefore it is natural to question if mankind will ever reach a stopping point. A society that is flawless, a utopia, is believed to be the epitome of civilization. For thousands of years, philosophers have pondered what circumstances would allow such a place to exist and where the values of society as we know it fit in to the utopian equation. Writers and philosophers such as Plato, Thomas More and Jean-Jacques Rousseau have all tried their hands at selecting the individual elements to create a community where all needs are met in every way, there is no strife, injustice or battle that needs fighting. When looking at societies both past and present, especially ones with a capitalistic drive, one such key element is property. We, as people, have built communistic civilizations where we share everything, ones where we share nothing and ones that find each point between the two extremes, however in all cases there have been some that succeed and some that fail. Although we as Americans have found capitalism to work best, if the goal of a society is make all of its citizens as well off as possible, the system certainly falls short. Rousseau claims that mankind was doomed from the moment we established private property, while More is convinced by someone who has travelled to Utopia that communal property is a pillar upon which they were able to build their perfect state. In both instances, the verdict is clear: in order to create a society where each citizen experiences a universal and equally high standard of living, a communal property system is key.
In the case of the island of Utopia, resources are shared amongst the population, more specifically property is allocated evenly to each person. There, the citizens are able to live more leisurely lives because when everyone contributes time, enough work gets done to support the population. When all have only what they need, and no excess, only the work needed is done and thus no excess effort is spent. More initially argues against Raphael Hythloday’s praise for the civilization much in the same way we as Americans defend our system, he says, “It seems to me that no-one can live comfortable when all is held in common. For how can there be an abundance of good when everyone stops working because he is no longer motivated by making a profit and grows lazy because he relies on the support of others” (More 48). More’s concerns are valid ones, however having not been to Utopia, he fails to realize that people are still given resources based on their work. The difference being that everyone is afforded the same amount based on the standard amount of work they do. The system More defends is also inherently flawed in that not everyone is given the same resources from birth; not all are given the same chance to succeed. As Hythloday says, “For where everyone tries to get clear title to whatever he can scrape together, then however abundant things are, a few men divide up everything between themselves, leaving everyone else in poverty” (More 47). This means that though all are motivated by their own drive to succeed, each mans reward isn’t solely based on work ethic, but is instead a combination of variables that create a system that leave some disadvantaged from the start. For as some become rich, they soon are able to earn more with less effort, inevitably creating a wealth gap. Though one could instate laws dictating who could own how much of what and so on, if the goal is to uplift society as a whole from poverty, this isn’t a solution, it is merely a crutch for a limping system. As Raphael phrases it, “such laws, I say, could mitigate and alleviate these ills, just as applying continual poultices can relieve the symptoms of sick bodies that are beyond healing” (More 48). Hythloday recognizes the true problem here, in order to make the system fair it becomes bogged down with complications and technicalities. Simply put, it is the system as a whole that is at fault.
Rousseau argues much the same point in his book, but bases his argument in the past. By pinpointing the exact moment when man became civil, Rousseau is able to extrapolate each action early man takes and relate it to modern society. He claims, “from the moment one man began to stand in need of another’s assistance; from the moment it appeared an advantage for one man to possess the quantity of provisions requisite for two, all equality vanished; property started up; labour became…necessary to water with human sweat, and…slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout” (Rousseau 116). Driven by greed, man who has realized he can have some, will always want more, and as Rousseau asserts, he is willing to pursue it at the expense of his fellow man. This is the principle which leads mankind to never stop competing with itself, and at its own expense. Rousseau recognizes that feeding the human instinct to always want as much as possible leads us to blindly trample over one another in the race to the top. With the notion that it’s acceptable to have many times over what one needs, those who are wealthy are bound to use their power to acquire more wealth. Hythloday gives the example of a king and his people: “he should leave as little as possible to his subjects since his safety consists in keeping the people from enjoying too much wealth or freedom, which render them less willing to put up with harsh and unjust commands, whereas on the other hand poverty and privation break their spirits and make them patient” (More 40). A ‘good’ king is therefore working not for his people, but for his own benefit. While this is a very extreme example, the same is true for every man; it makes the most sense to provide for yourself instead of others so that you may continue to do so into the future. Hythloday’s anecdote about kingship builds upon Rousseau’s claims to make it abundantly clear that property gives certain people the ability to manipulate others against their will. With the goal of achieving the most successful life possible for each and every citizen in a community, it seems that private property not only leads to inequality in wealth distribution but a lack of compassion as well.
The concept of communal property gains its strength from the fact that it is almost an oxymoron. According to Rousseau, “you are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to everyone and that the earth itself belongs to no one” (Rousseau 109). By establishing property, man created a new system, which as has been displayed, leads to inequitable distribution of resources. Rousseau is pointing out that before we, as humans, made these rules for ourselves, and that without them we would be in a much better, more natural state. When resources are made communal again, and they belong to no one man but instead equally to all men, the obstacle we have created for ourselves is almost effectively eliminated. When no-one is allowed to own more than anyone else, and all are equal, the rat race stops. There is less incentive to constantly be prioritizing one’s self when there is no real room for personal expansion. Instead, growing as a community fosters a greater emphasis on justice and happiness for all, as well as more universal success. Hythloday stresses this when he argues, “it seems to me that whenever there is private property, where everything is measured in terms of money, it is hardly ever possible for the common good to be served with justice and prosperity,” he continues, “unless you think justice is served when all the best things go to the worst people, or that happiness is possible when everything is shared among very few…while the rest are plunged into misery” (More 46). For in a society with private property, it is often the cold hearted ones who take the necessary steps to make what is someone else’s theirs. Hythloday believes a privatized society fuels greed and creates a lack of compassion. Human nature aside, it is this type of system that encourages those who are able to take as much as they can, and those who are weaker to spend their lives working to get it back.
In summary, both Rousseau and More agree that while it is human nature to work for ones own preservation and thus create private property. Rousseau states this was an inevitable part of evolution, however the two also conclude that private property causes greed and lack of human compassion. These are the main elements of human nature society must overcome in order to create a utopia. The system has to compensate for what nature has built into man. The goal of uplifting society as a whole is not feasible through a process in which the rich get richer, opportunity to succeed is not equal, greed and crime are provoked, and one is encouraged to provide only for one’s self. These vices must all be corrected with legislation that will bog society down, and complicate it in exchange for little forward progress. With the abolition of private property, the core issue is solved, and man stands a better chance of coexisting in a society more perfect than ours, More’s or Rousseau’s.
I have neither received nor given unauthorized assistance during the completion of this work.
More, Thomas. Utopia. Translated by Clarence H. Miller. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. A Discourse on Inequality. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1984.