Walter E. Williams

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent 5-4 ruling in Kelo v. New London, statements have been made about property rights that are demonstrative of the paucity of understanding among some within the legal profession. Carolyn Lochhead's July 1st San Francisco Chronicle article, "Foes Unite in Defense of Property," reports on the coalition building in Congress to deny federal funds to cities that use laws of eminent domain to take private property for the benefit of another private party.

 But it's the article's report on a statement made by a representative of People for the American Way, lead opponents to constitutionalists being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, that I'd like to address. According to Ms. Lochhead's article, "Elliot Mincberg, the group's legal director, said the case [Kelo v. New London] had been brought by the Institute for Justice as part of an effort by conservatives to elevate property rights to the same level of civil rights such as freedom of speech and religion, in effect taking the nation back to the pre-New Deal days when the courts ruled child labor laws unconstitutional." To posit a distinction between civil or human rights on the one hand and property rights on the other reflects little understanding. Let's look at it.

 My computer is my property. Does it have any rights -- like the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Are there any constitutional guarantees held by my computer? Anyone, except maybe a lawyer, would agree that to think of property as possessing rights is unadulterated nonsense.

 So where do property rights come in? Property rights are human rights to use economic goods and services. Private property rights contain your right to use, transfer, trade and exclude others from use of property deemed yours. The supposition that there's a conflict or difference between human rights to use property and civil rights is bogus and misguided.

 Let's go back to my computer example. Suppose someone steals my computer. Hasn't he violated my rights to my property and hence, my human or civil rights? Or, alternatively, if I throw my computer through your window, it's not my computer that's violated your human rights; it's I. Why? Because I've used my computer in a fashion that infringes on your human rights to your property.

 That it's bogus to make a distinction between human, civil and property rights can be seen in another way. In a free society, each person is his own private property; I own myself and you own yourself. That's why it's immoral to rape or murder. It violates a person's property rights. The fact of self-ownership also helps explain why theft is immoral. In order for self-ownership to be meaningful, a person must have ownership rights to what he produces or earns. A good working description of slavery is that it is a condition where a person does not own what he produces. What he produces belongs to someone else. Therefore, if someone steals my computer, he's violated my ownership rights to my computer, which I earned through my labor, and therefore my human or civil rights to keep what I produce.

 Creating false distinctions between human rights and property rights plays into the hands of Democrat and Republican party socialists who seek to control our lives. If we buy into the notion that somehow property rights are less important, or are in conflict with, human or civil rights, we give the socialists a freer hand to attack our property.

 As President John Adams (1797-1801) put it, "Property is surely a right of mankind as real as liberty." Adding, "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."


Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
 
TOWNHALL DAILY: Be the first to read Walter Williams' column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com daily lineup delivered each morning to your inbox.