Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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Liberty and Private Property

“The pillars of our prosperity are the most thriving when left most free to individual enterprise.” Thomas Jefferson

The Founders were firm believers in private property rights.  In their minds, private property rights and liberty were intertwined.  Does this make sense?
Charles I receiving crown from God
Let’s go back to 1776.  At the time, we revolted against more than the British; we also revolted against Divine Right.  A short time earlier only nobility owned property and the great mass of humanity were serfs.  As this system withered, the common man developed property rights, and with property, gained political voice.  The Enlightenment preached that all men possessed God given rights, including the right to own property. By the second half of the eighteenth century, most British subjects equated property rights with liberty because they had seen that one followed the other.

In their view, prosperity and broad distribution of wealth depended on the protection of private property.  Even before the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Declaration of Rights led off with “all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which … namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property.”

James Madison said, “The government is instituted to protect property.”

Some argue that a benevolent government should control property, because the government can distribute the fruits of ownership more fairly.  This sounds good, except that these proponents can’t point to a single good example.  Concentrated property ownership always inflicts oppression.  This is not black and white.  It’s a sliding scale.  The more private property is protected, the freer the economic system and the more liberty is enjoyed by the citizenry.  The more property and planning are centralized, the more liberty is eroded.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s feudalism, fascism, communism, theocracy, socialism, or even crony capitalism.  To one degree or another, liberty is eroded in all these systems.

The alternative to private ownership is to confiscate property through force of arms, taxes, or legislation and then place it in the hands of a few.  It doesn’t matter if the property is confiscated by bullies, warlords, or government.  It’s all the same.  Individual liberty is destroyed.  Here’s why:

  1. The people robbed fight back, politically or physically. Those resisting the will of the government must be suppressed.
  2. Government control requires bureaucratic judgment, instead of reliance on the marketplace. Bureaucrats always fail at this herculean task, but won’t give up, so the government ends up dictating more and more of the everyday life.
  3. Miscalculations result in scarcities. Complaints and criticisms must be suppressed. Black markets and underground corruption are overlooked.
  4. When events don’t go as planned, the government uses indoctrination—and worse—to create a common mindset. Leaders come to believe that if everyone has the greater good in mind, then everything will work as planned.
  5. Concentrated power corrupts.

If government allows bullies to take what they want, anarchy reigns.  If government gathers up property unto itself, oppression reigns.

Spain provides a current example.  Until 2004, Spain was the “economic miracle” of Europe, with huge job growth, surpluses, and declining debt.  Then the Socialist Workers Party gained power. After only six years of progressive leadership, Spain is experiencing negative growth and unemployment is 20% (43% for youths).  The government has increased taxes, arbitrarily interfered in business, and blithely disregarded EU regulations.  Basic freedoms—like speech and religion—have been impaired.

Susette Kelo in front of her home

Government confiscation does not have to be at the level of Venezuela to erode liberty. In Kelo v. City of New London, the Supreme Court said government could take property from one private owner and give it to another private owner if it was for the public good. True liberty never allows the government to take a person’s property.  James Madison said, “It is not a just government, nor is property secure under it, where arbitrary restrictions deny to part of its citizens that free use of their faculties.”

If private property enhances liberty, then wouldn’t equal distribution of property be even better.  No, the world doesn’t work that way.  Private property and free markets go together. Whenever you have free markets, some will build wealth faster than others.  The only alternative is to restrain the industrious, the inventive, and the entrepreneurial.  The result might be more even distribution of wealth, but there would be less wealth for everyone, including the government, due to decreased tax receipts.

Thomas Jefferson said, “To take from one because it is thought that his own productivity has acquired too much, in order to give to others who have not exercised equal industry and skill is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association: the guarantee to everyone of a free exercise of his hard work and the profits acquired by it.”

Property may not be distributed equally, but rights are. All men are created equal. James Madison said, “As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”  He meant that even if a person owns nothing, he still owns his rights, which are the most valuable property of all.

Look around, and examine history.  The wealthiest countries have the most limited interference by government.  They enjoy free markets, private property rights, a large middle class, societal improvement, cleaner environments, and the people enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Founders were right.  Private property rights and liberty are intertwined.

James D. Best is the author of Tempest at Dawn, a novel about the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

8 comments

1 Mandamus { 12.29.10 at 3:08 pm }

Look up alodial title. Then look up Fee simple title. Private property doesn’t exist in America. If they thought that land ownership was so important, why didn’t they provide for it? You don’t own your property. You have title to it. And that title is permission from the government to use it. Which can be taken away at any time. Because it’s not really private property.

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Cecil Jones Reply:

True but you miss the point!

if the government is diligent in its role of “protecting private property rights” then your point is moot. It is only when the stronger (in this scenario the government) relinquishes its sacred duty to protect private property rights and instead assumes the role of an elite group of masterminds (whether in the houses of congress, the White House or black robed know-it-alls) who disregard their oaths to defend and support the Constitution as it was written and as it was intended.

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2 Blaine Dunning { 01.03.11 at 11:41 am }

Your property can be seized by Government, for not paying your taxes, for some community project and so on. You have the title and can fight any level of Government from taking your property from you. The founders would probably done many things different if they could have seen how much power we would surrender to Government. They also probably would have made things even harder for Government to overreach their intended purpose. We must defend our rights from Government for they seem to care little of our rights.

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3 Eltopia Frank { 01.03.11 at 11:21 pm }

My reaction to:

“As this system withered, the common man developed property rights, and with property, gained political voice. The Enlightenment preached that all men possessed God given rights, including the right to own property. By the second half of the eighteenth century, most British subjects equated property rights with liberty because they had seen that one followed the other.

In their view, prosperity and broad distribution of wealth depended on the protection of private property. ”

I will hazard a reaction to the author’s statement that follows:

“As this system withered, the common man developed property rights, and with property, gained political voice. The Enlightenment preached that all men possessed God given rights, including the right to own property. By the second half of the eighteenth century, most British subjects equated property rights with liberty because they had seen that one followed the other.
In their view, prosperity and broad distribution of wealth depended on the protection of private property.”
The author seems to confuse and mix terms, such as “the right to own property” and “the protection of private property.”

The two are not the same thing at all, and the distinction is critical to understanding what goes on in the real world, as opposed to the great political maps of the propagandists.” (By propagandists I mean to include, perhaps, Mr. James D. Best.)
“The right to own property” likely implied different meanings to the serve and the nobility.
To the serf, “the right to own property” likely meant the possibility of legal ownership of property, assuming, of course, that he were able to overcome the many other obstacles to ownership. Protection of that ownership would mean that someone could not drive him off his land, if he were successful in procuring it.
To the nobility, on the other hand, “protection of property” might well mean the protection of the nobility’s exclusive right to property ownership.
The serf’s ongoing battle to protect his right to ownership includes the possibility of holding onto his property through reasonable efforts, a possibility that is ever more tenuous, as the recent deluge of foreclosures testifies.
The nobility’s (or the modern equivalent) right to ownership may well imply the right to ever rising wealth, as attested to by all believable accounts of the trends of distribution of wealth. To the noble, property protection means the right to control the means of production, free of government interference, which in turn means his right to control government. He’s fine with allowing the serf’s to “have a say” in government, so long as they don’t “have control” in government, and therefore in determining who has the rights to control production as well.

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4 Eltopia Frank { 01.03.11 at 11:26 pm }

I will hazard a reaction to the author’s statement that follows:

The author seems to confuse and mix terms, such as “the right to own property” and “the protection of private property.”

The two are not the same thing at all, and the distinction is critical to understanding what goes on in the real world, as opposed to the great political maps of the propagandists.” (By propagandists I mean to include, perhaps, Mr. James D. Best.)
“The right to own property” likely implied different meanings to the serve and the nobility.

To the serf, “the right to own property” likely meant the possibility of legal ownership of property, assuming, of course, that he were able to overcome the many other obstacles to ownership. Protection of that ownership would mean that someone could not drive him off his land, if he were successful in procuring it.

To the nobility, on the other hand, “protection of property” might well mean the protection of the nobility’s exclusive right to property ownership.

The serf’s ongoing battle to protect his right to ownership includes the possibility of holding onto his property through reasonable efforts, a possibility that is ever more tenuous, as the recent deluge of foreclosures testifies.

The nobility’s (or the modern equivalent) right to ownership may well imply the right to ever rising wealth, as attested to by all believable accounts of the trends of distribution of wealth. To the noble, property protection means the right to control the means of production, free of government interference, which in turn means his right to control government. He’s fine with allowing the serf’s to “have a say” in government, so long as they don’t “have control” in government, and therefore in determining who has the rights to control production as well.

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5 James D. Best { 01.04.11 at 3:52 pm }

Eltopia Frank says, “He’s fine with allowing the serf’s to “have a say” in government, so long as they don’t “have control” in government, and therefore in determining who has the rights to control production as well.”

The government should never “control production.” Throughout history and across the globe, governments have had an abysmal record in controlling production. Free markets are the only way to protect liberty and allocate production. Eltopia Frank confuses legal ownership with control. If a small group controls production and hogs the benefits, then it doesn’t matter if property is collectively owned legally.

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6 Eltopia Frank { 07.06.11 at 9:20 am }

Re: “If a small group controls production and hogs the benefits, then it doesn’t matter if property is collectively owned legally.”

Well, James, it seems to me that the notion of supposed free markets is a myth, and that with the present free enterprise system “a small group (controlling) production and (hogging) the benefits,” is exactly what we do have. Many writers are pushing for supposed “free” enterprise, when in reality they want no such thing, nor should they when the result is monopolies and the very limited control that free enterprise is said to prevent. In fact, “free” enterprise always leads to slavery of one stripe or another, which may be the reason that neither Democrats nor Republicans have every really wanted free enterprise.

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7 Eltopia Frank { 07.06.11 at 9:25 am }

:Very limited control,” I think I meant to say something like, the control that is limited to a very small group. I might add, it is limited to a primarily wealthy elite, and their pawns and dupes. Enron should be enough of an example to point out that government controls are needed, but nope, people don’t get it, and politicians are glad that they don’t, because they have to answer to the powered interests, or to face the consequeneces.

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