Some of my friends got off onto a property rights argument yet again in a back and forth on Twitter. The exchange reminded me that when you get to the heart of most arguments you will find a misunderstanding of property rights, a misunderstanding of basic economics, or both. And so, I decided to write a brief look at my take on property rights and then a look at a friend’s distinction between “private property” and “personal property”.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. ~Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of independence
In America among the so-called “Liberals” of the modern era we find those who are constantly finding “human rights” to justify whatever their latest goals and schemes happen to be at the time and yet they attack the individual’s property rights every chance they get. These “human” rights of the so-called American Left are all warm and fuzzy and are without the clarity needed to be principles. The liberals are ready to toss a “human right” under the bus when it is pragmatic to do so. They don’t seem to have any bed rock principles to guide them other than they think they know what is best for the rest of us.
I have long been convinced that all “human rights” are property rights. When the argument drifts away from property rights then the “rights” become vague and they vacillate with changing fads and circumstances. Without the principle of the individual’s property rights, often it becomes just a government dictate as to what “rights” one has and that situation is not rights at all but government granted privilege.
Murray Rothbard wrote:
Take, for example, the “human right” of free speech. Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, then, there is no such thing as a separate “right to free speech”; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners. ~ Power and Market, 2nd ed. (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977), pp. 238-39.
Free speech is in the news again as well as the right of a “free press”, and there have even been calls to have Glenn Greenwald, The Guardian Newspaper, and other journalists prosecuted for publishing materials supplied by the whistle blower Edward Snowden. I intend to write about the Snowden episode another day but that news led me to think of “freedom of the press” and of “free speech” in conjunction with private property today.
It has been said that “the right to freedom of speech” is just the right to hire a venue (or start a blog) to express your views on various matters. I can say anything I want to while I am in my house (if the wife lets me of course!) and I can write what I want to here (freedom of the press) at this blog as long as I don’t violate the agreement with wordpress or verbally aggress against someone in my writings. Free speech and free press rights are almost the same thing, especially in these modern high tech times. Both are just subsets of private property rights. I can enter into agreements with others to express my views in a variety of ways — but I have to respect the property rights of others at the same time.
Sometimes people get all hung up on common words. Most people define “private property” simply as property held by non-governmental legal entities. Or in other words, the property that the State does not claim is said to be “private” property. And “personal property” has historically just meant private property that is movable as opposed to land that you can not move. As Rothbard did, I take “property rights” to mean those rights in our private property to include all property owned by the individual no matter if he can move the property about or not. Why make such a distinction? After all, what usually divides people on “property rights” is land.
Land is often the sticking point with many people because the easiest way to control a man is to control the land beneath his feet. If you keep the masses from owning land, then you have gained control of the masses to a great degree. That is one of the reasons that the criminal State would often make huge land grants to its favored co-conspirators. In a libertarian world, there would be a lot of “owners” of large tracks of land that would not be able to defend their deed to that land, but that is for the common law courts to decide after society sheds the evil of the state — and a topic for another day.
“To take from one because it is thought that his own industry and that of his father’s has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association–‘the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it.'” ~Thomas Jefferson: Note in Destutt de Tracy’s “Political Economy,” 1816.