For my money, P.J. Proudhon is still history’s greatest critic of property theories. His writing is also wildly entertaining because it is extremely angry and vitriolic. In his magnum opus — What Is Property? — Proudhon takes a vicious run at famed economist J.B. Say, pointing out that Say confuses the question of why land has been appropriated with the question of why it is justifiable to do so. Proudhon starts with a quote from Say’s “Political Economy” and then levels a brutal attack:
“It would seem that lands capable of cultivation ought to be regarded as natural wealth, since they are not of human creation, but Nature’s gratuitous gift to man; but inasmuch as this wealth is not fugitive, like the air and water, — inasmuch as a field is a fixed and limited space which certain men have been able to appropriate, to the exclusion of all others who in their turn have consented to this appropriation, — the land, which was a natural and gratuitous gift, has become social wealth, for the use of which we ought to pay.” — Say: Political Economy
Was I wrong in saying, at the beginning of this chapter, that the economists are the very worst authorities in matters of legislation and philosophy? It is the father of this class of men who clearly states the question, How can the supplies of Nature, the wealth created by Providence, become private property? and who replies by so gross an equivocation that we scarcely know which the author lacks, sense or honesty. What, I ask, has the fixed and solid nature of the earth to do with the right of appropriation? I can understand that a thing limited and stationary, like the land, offers greater chances for appropriation than the water or the sunshine; that it is easier to exercise the right of domain over the soil than over the atmosphere: but we are not dealing with the difficulty of the thing, and Say confounds the right with the possibility. We do not ask why the earth has been appropriated to a greater extent than the sea and the air; we want to know by what right man has appropriated wealth which he did not create, and which nature gave to him gratuitously.
Say, then, did not solve the question which he asked. But if he had solved it, if the explanation which he has given us were as satisfactory as it is illogical, we should know no better than before who has a right to exact payment for the use of the soil, of this wealth which is not man’s handiwork. Who is entitled to the rent of the land? The producer of the land, without doubt. Who made the land? God. Then, proprietor, retire!