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Private and Personal Property: How Economic Theorists Talk Past Each Other

When talking about economics, capitalists and socialists/Marxists (for the sake of brevity these two camps are presented as one group) seem to consistently talk past each other instead of listening to what the other side is saying. Part of this problem comes from both sides’ conflicting definitions of certain terms, which often prevents any meaningful discourse from occurring. One such example of this confusion and subsequent misunderstanding surrounds the term “private property.”

In most contexts, private property means something quite different to capitalists than to socialists/Marxists. Capitalists usually consider anything that is owned by a non-governmental entity as private property. In other words, a thing that is owned by someone or something that is not the government is private property.

However, many socialists/Marxists do not have the same understanding of the term. They see a distinction between private and personal property. To them, private property essentially refers to the means of production, including factories, land and natural resources, dams, power plants, and general infrastructure. On the other hand, clothes, things of sentimental value, or sometimes even homes or cars fall into the category of personal items.

This is a distinction that capitalists often fail to recognize and socialists/Marxists may neglect to make clear during economic discussions. So when the latter talk about the abolition of private property, they usually are talking not about taking away all private property in the capitalist sense (which would include personal items), but rather, getting rid of private ownership of the means of production.

Of course not every capitalist or socialist/Marxist holds these views. The economic and political thought is much more nuanced than that. However, this does offer an explanation of how both sides can often talk past each other and end up never listening to the other side. Without clear definitions in any debate, no real progress can be made. Although semantics might not be the most crucial issue, it serves as an example of how defining the terms before a discussion can add real value to the conversation at hand.