Independence and the Right to Private Property

Joseph C. Phillips
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Posted: Jul 05, 2010 12:01 AM
Independence and the Right to Private Property

The right to private property was one of the central issues involved in the American Revolution. The colonists’ cries of “taxation without representation” were but protests of what they saw as an unjust taking of private property.

The Declaration of Independence charges the King of England with engaging in 10 acts of abuse, of which half are offenses against private property. Most significantly, the Declaration lists the pursuit of happiness as one of man’s primary inalienable rights. The founders believed that liberty, happiness, and property were inextricably tied together.

Over the years, the American occupation with private property has not receded. Indeed, the question of private property remains a central part of our national political conversation. The political rhetoric may not always reflect it, but if one scratches the surface of arguments surrounding universal healthcare; entitlements; budgetary deficits; business regulation; cap-and-trade, or even abortion, one will find an argument involving the God-given right to private property.

The founders, of course, did not understand property simply to mean one’s possessions. Property was understood to include the fruit of one’s labor; it included a man’s conscience—the things he believed and thought, and the ideals he held dear. James Madison wrote that individuals have a property, “In their opinions and the free exercise of them.” As well as “a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions and in the profession and practice dictated by them.” In short, “as man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”

The founders were then of the same mind as John Locke, who wrote in his “Second Treatise on Government:” “The great and chief end therefore, of men united into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”

Some Americans continue to share the belief that the right to private property is sacrosanct--other Americans, not so much.

In a 2001 radio interview, a young Barack Obama lamented that the Warren Court had not been more radical and had not addressed the redistribution of wealth, which is to say the redistribution of private property. Obama continued to opine that the Constitution was a charter of “negative liberties,” which failed to declare, “What the federal or state government must do on your behalf.” The truth is that when read through the lens of the Declaration, the Constitution lays out the manner in which the government will carry out the commission with which government has principally been charged: protecting each citizen’s private property!

It is truly a tragic sign of the times, that to be in favor of private property is increasingly viewed as being extreme. Witness the manner in which the New Left demonizes the political right, sneering that Republicans view all regulation of business as evil. Like so much of the current political rhetoric, this claim is wanting for lack of truth.

Regulation is not a zero sum question. The choice is not to be made between regulation and lawlessness. Rather, the question is one of the manner and extent of any proposed regulations. Are the regulations prudent and do they preserve the government mandate to protect the lives, liberties, and private property of each individual? Or is it bureaucratic micromanagement--an attempt to redistribute property, and/or choose economic winners and losers? That is the issue, and it is no wonder that the New Left chooses to put up straw-men rather than argue the merits and morality of its specific regulatory propositions.

Like the founders, conservatives believe that the free market must be regulated by the rule of law and by those civil institutions responsible for building and maintaining an individual’s character. In other words, any business must conform to both criminal and civil laws, (which must be enforced), must be held to contractual obligations, and must respect the private property of other citizens. Conservatives also share the conviction of the founders that citizens raised with a sense of Judea/Christian morality and educated in civic virtue--as opposed to moral relativism and secular progressivism--will tend not to need the eyes of Uncle Sam looking over their shoulder.

There are, alas, a great many Americans that tend toward the progressive view that in order to achieve “social justice” the government ought to own, well, everything.

John Adams perhaps put it best when he said: “The moment the idea is admitted into society, that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”