Posts tagged private property rights

Column on Live and Let Live–not in Silverado

Live and Let Live: not in Silverado

Tibor R. Machan

Where I live quite a few neighbors are what are affectionately called Tree Huggers. What such neighbors, by no means even the majority, have in common is that they oppose anything that remotely resembles development (e.g., including a tiny wine tasting structure one of their neighbors wants to erect). But of course their main targets are any new homes that might be built, not to mention any groups of homes someone might build on his or her rightly owned land. It makes no difference at all that the members of the Tree Huggers do not own the land on which the development might occur. No sir. They don’t mean to actually purchase such places, to put their money where there mouths are, only to prevent those who own them to make use of it, especially built any homes there.

It has been a long fight around the globe to establish the institution of private property rights. In most previous eras monarchs owned the realm and ordinary people were sometimes privileged to live and work on it. Private property rights, while always discussed by some political theorists and economists, had for centuries been denied to the bulk of the population. Only select folks could own land and built on it as they deemed desirable. The rest were, essentially, serfs or at least men and women without their rights acknowledged and protected in the law.

Then such developments as the establishment of the United States of America changed things somewhat. The doctrine of individual natural rights was worked out and implemented on the American continent and a few other places, although the assignment of private property had always been controversial. Still, the idea that ordinary citizens could own property–from a shack all the way to a huge ranch or factory–caught on. And when this occurred the liberty of millions became more secure then ever before. On your own land you can do as you will and if the law backs this up, you can be secure in what you choose to do. It is this realm of individual choice–applied to single individuals or voluntary groups of them–that served as a basic liberator. Churches, businesses, homes, recreation facilities, communes, kibbutzes, farms, ranches, and so forth could all exist with substantial legal protection–that, at least, was the idea even if not consistently and fully implemented. But it gained respect and that itself was a big leap forward in the realization of human liberty and independence, not to mention productivity and prosperity.

But this idea never quite became widespread enough public policy. Even the U. S. Constitution mostly assumed it, although it is mentioned in the 5th amendment. And many state constitutions make explicit mention of it and its protection in the law.

Yet, the idea and its institution met with much resistance from those who believe that they may run roughshod over other people and what belongs to them, just as the monarchs did all along when they wouldn’t recognized the private property and other rights of the people who lived in the realms they often brutally ruled. Fancy arguments had been invented and deployed to rationalize the ongoing violation of private property rights. For socialists like Karl Marx and Frederick Engels the denial or abolition of private property rights was a necessary step toward their ideal collectivist system, one in which a few people get to plan how everyone else is to live, work, create, etc.

In our era, at least in the West, it is under the guise of caring for the environment that many eagerly violate individual private property rights. In Silverado, a canyon community in Orange County, California, the Tree Huggers carry on this crusade to plan the lives of others, never mind that they have no proper authority to do so, only sometimes the legal power they have immoral obtained. In protest of this, I have placed a bumper sticker on my car that reads: “Share the Canyons,” indicating that it would be right and proper not to interfere with people who want to come to live here and make use of their land and other property in peaceful ways.

Many of my neighbors have stopped to comment on and quite interestingly approve the idea on that bumper sticker. As long as one doesn’t use one’s property to invade someone else’s or injure another person, there is every reason to uphold and respect private property rights–for everyone. Everyone has a right to liberty and without private property no liberty can flourish, only permissions and privileges granted to people by their more powerful neighbors.

Recently I was picking up my mail at the tiny post office in Silverado and as I was getting back into my vehicle someone from behind shouted out asking what my bumper sticker meant. I told him that it means that whoever can obtain, via free exchange or any other voluntary means, a piece of property in the canyon ought to be at liberty and welcome to do so. Upon having said this the person who posed the question started to shout at me, angrily voicing the idea that he doesn’t want anyone to come into his canyon and do stuff he doesn’t welcome. I don’t recall exactly the sentences he shouted at me but I do recall that he kept repeating the phrase “my canyon” over and over again. It was amazing, actually, since there were a few other canyon residents standing by, observing this, not to mention me who lives there as well. But evidently with no self-awareness whatsoever this person kept shouting as if the canyon community belonged only to him.

Just like the old monarchs, who believed they ruled the realm. Right here in the United States of America, a country founded on the abolition of monarchical rule! Go figure!

Column on Making versus Owning

Making versus Owning

Tibor R. Machan

Now it is obvious to most of us that one need not make something so as to own it, fair and square. No one made one’s eyes, kidneys, and other organs and limbs yet they belong rightfully to the person who has them, no one else.

Beyond this of course one way to come to own something is by creating it, like a table or musical composition. So often making something makes it one’s own. But that’s not the only way one can come to own something. One can receive something as a gift! It then belong to one, no one else. One can find something that’s been abandoned or that’s just out there in the wilds. Unless someone else has come upon it and laid claim to it, one can come to own it this way, as well. Certainly if I find a gold nugget on an unowned desert or mountain, I can come to own this and no one may thereafter take it from me with impunity.

While all this would seem to be plain common sense, it needs often to be reiterated because the failure to keep it in mind provides would be confiscators of private property the warped idea that they may get stuff from us if only we didn’t make it. This notion of the public ownership of unearned or unmade holdings has tyrannical consequences.

Those who spread the ruse that we cannot own what we haven’t produced hope to persuade us that they, on the other hand, can. This is, of course, fallacious thinking, the fallacy of the non sequitor–it doesn’t follow! But because ownership and production or creation are so closely associated in our minds, it sounds like there may be something to the idea. There isn’t! And it is vital to remember it because otherwise the notion can unleash tyranny, Draconian and petty, all over the place. The promoters of the notion that you must have made it so as to own it would like nothing more than have you hand over to them whatever you didn’t come by via earning or making it. But it is clear, once considered carefully, that nothing like that follows. They have no right to any of it, you do.

There is, of course, no reasonable doubt that when one makes something one is very likely its owner, although there are quite a few exceptions. If I hire you to be my scout for valuable resources and you come up with such, it is very like that these will belong to me, not to you. What belongs to you is the salary I promised you for your scouting services. But what you discovered will rightfully be mine. (I might also have lost all my investment in you had you come up empty handed!) Also, if you came across some valuable item in my backyard while attending one of my festivities, what you found would not be yours but mine, although you need not call to my attention that you did find it.

Let’s just conclude from these minimal reflections that ownership–the right to private property–can be a fairly complicated matter. While its foundation is simple enough in most cases, its elaboration in a complicated society required a nuanced legal system, with a solid tradition of property law. This is why it is vital that no legislature or court be tolerated when it distorts private property rights (e.g., via misapplied doctrines like eminent domain). And in order to prevent the corruption of the principle of private property rights in a complex society, the citizenry–via research and scholarly centers, schools, punditry, think tanks and so forth–needs to be vigilant. Otherwise the sophistic enemies of freedom will triumph.

And those sophists are not resting, believe me. All one needs to do is read some of the publications–journals, magazines, newsletters, blogs, etc.–produced by these sophists to learn just how diligent they are in their efforts to unravel the private property rights system that had been developed over time under the influence of the classical liberals.

Column on Why The First Amendment?

Why the First Amendment?

Tibor R. Machan

It has puzzled me for some time why campaign contribution is considered a First Amendment constitutional issue. If I write out a check to some candidate, I am not talking, writing an essay, carrying some poster in a parade or anything that could be construed as speech or writing, so the freedom to speak or write is moot in this context. What I am doing is making use of my own money or resources and that, of course, in a bone fide free country everyone has the right to do. Like sending money to the Red Cross or Haiti’s earthquake victims. This should all be considered under the protection to the right to private property. My money, therefore my decision how it will be used. Unless I use the money to violate someone’s rights, there can be no objection to my use of it.

Suppose, now that I have started a company and others are voting stockholders in it and we have decided, by following faithfully the legal bylaws, to spend some of our resources on supporting some political measure or candidate. Why should this be anyone’s business other than those whose funds are being used? Why, moreover, is this thought to be a first amendment issue? It has nothing to do with religious freedom, with writing editorials or books, or pamphlets that express some viewpoint. It is giving what belongs to us, the corporation–that is to say, a bunch of incorporated free citizens citizens with full rights recorded in the Constitution–to the organization. And free men and women may not be barred from doing this.

I have heard it exclaimed that corporations are not individuals with rights. But why not? Corporations are established and maintained by individuals with rights, no different from teams or orchestras. I always think of these when this issue is raised–surely those groups are composed of individuals with rights and thus when they make a collective decision voluntarily, they are exercising their individual rights. Can’t see why not. And if we have some resources we have pooled among ourselves with which to conduct business and decide that some of the funds should be spent on making a contribution to some cause, political or otherwise, who in earth could have any just authority to stop us? No one.

And all this is a matter of property rights, like my giving my car to some group soliciting such “in kind” contributions (as many now are). Or giving it to some friend. When I do this I am exercising my right to private property–doing what I choose to do with what belongs to me. And if I am part of a large group like a corporation, with all kinds of internal rules establishing how decisions about using and disposing the company’s funds must be made, and these rules are followed, why would anyone from the outside get to have a say about where our funds may or may not go (so long as the recipient is no outlaw)?

All the fuss about the various US Supreme and other court rulings pertaining to campaign contributions would, I believe, subside once the matter were put into the right framework, namely, the exercise of the right to private property. It is not about free speech but about freedom to use what belongs to one as he or she–or they– see fit.

Maybe the reason this approach has been so widely ignored is that people who favor the freedom to be able to spend one’s money how one wishes to do it lack confidence these days in the Constitutional status of the right to private property, a right only mentioned in the Fifth Amendment and implicit in several others that prohibit government to embark upon various intrusive policies–unreasonable searches and seizures or the like. Sadly only the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution amounts to a flat out, nearly unambiguous statement of individual rights, comparable to what is found in the non-legal Declaration of Independence. So in order to secure the right of private property despite its neglect in the U. S Constitution, supporters have decided to try to convert the First Amendment to one that defends private property rights. But this tactic has proven to be muddled and confusing and, ultimately, disingenuous.

Column on Choice & Rights

Choice and Rights

Tibor R. Machan

It’s about who is to choose! Our rights identify the realm of our choices, where we and not others get to decide about how things go. When rights are violated, the violator deprives the rights holder of his or her proper, morally justified authority to chose.

So often both defenders and critics of private property rights get this wrong. They contend that property rights are mostly about who gets to have something. And while that’s part of it, the more important matter is who gets to choose what happens to something.

If the politicians and bureaucrats extort 40% of my earnings I do not get to decided what happens to this. I might have squandered it, yes, just as that enemy of private property rights Karl Marx argued. But I could also have done something else, such as sent part of it to a charity, contributed it to some innovation, stashed it away so my kids might get it when they grow up, or sent it to a political candidate I support. But this is just what the confiscators of my resources prohibit me from doing. They want to destroy my proper authority to use my resources and use it themselves.

Check me out. In all cases of taxation what happens is that the taxed lose the opportunity to allocate the resources that belong to them and those who tax gain this opportunity without any consent from the taxed. But why should they? Democracy doesn’t justify such confiscation, nor does being some monarch or bureaucrat or whatever, only our permission would. We are supposedly equal in having rights, including private property rights. No one else may, therefore, take what is mine or yours or anyone’s and start deciding what happens to it however good intentioned that tax-taker might be, however noble are that tax-taker’s goals. This is why it is so important to understand that private property rights are about our choices to do one thing, another, or yet another, not primarily about having wealth, about greed or such.

But that is just what the enemies of private property rights, starting with Marx, cannot stomach–our having the opportunity to use and dispose our labor and its results. They want it! This despite all that talk about how labor belongs to the laborer. No, that is not what the taxers believe. They believe, and many of them have actually said this, that your time and labor and skills belong to society! And they, of course, must be the representatives of the people, of society.

But that is a ruse, just as when kings claimed that they are the representatives of society or God or History. No, these folks represent only themselves and when they tax you and me and the rest and deprive us of the choices our rights entail, they are extortionists, thieves, or robbers. But most of all they remove from us the opportunity to exercise free choice with what belongs to us.

Some have tried to refute these points by the fairy tale that all wealth belongs to society, the people, or even the government. Again, these are lies. Sure, our resources are acquired with a lot of support from and cooperation with others, including the lawmakers who enacted sound principles way before we were born. But that’s all irrelevant. Artist, too, paint with colors that have existed way before they started to use them but these colors, once made into pictures, become theirs and no one else has the authority to intrude on what they do with it, not unless it involves the violation of another’s rights somehow.

It is best that whenever politicians and their cheerleaders speak “for us” it is recognized that they are speaking only for themselves and all that talk of “we” or “the people” or “Americans” or “humanity” is meant to disguise this fact. It’s time they are stopped in carrying out this gross deception. If not, they will continue to shut off our choices in life and imposing theirs on us all.

Column on a Bit of Good News

A Bit of Good News

Tibor R. Machan

It came from New York State, that bastion of modern liberalism and American statism (Senator Chuck Schumer’s fiefdom)! As The New York Times reported on Friday, December 4, 2009, “In a 3-to-2 decision, a panel of the Appellate Division of [NY] State Supreme Court in Manhattan annulled the state’s 2008 decision to take property for the [Columbia University] expansion project, saying that its condemnation procedure was unconstitutional.” And how right that is! The Times goes on reporting, “The majority opinion was scathing in its appraisal of how the ‘scheme was hatched,’ using terms like ‘sophistry’ and ‘idiocy’ in describing how the state went about declaring the neighborhood blighted, the main prerequisite for eminent domain.”

Not that this has the legal capacity to undermine that equally sophistic and idiotic ruling by the U. S. Supreme Court back in July 2005, in the case of Kelo v. City of New London, CT, where the good city fathers condemned private property so as to lease it to some big prospective tax payer (a scheme that ended with the property lying there unused to this day). But it may just slow down the perverted progress of the reactionary use of eminent domain law, placing a small monkey wrench in that evil bulldozer.

Private property rights are the bedrock of a bona fide free country. Just for starters, the rights to freedom of religion and the press directly depend on it–if private property can lawfully be taken by state agencies, based on spurious, subjective grounds like blight, any religious or journalistic practice not approved of by state agents becomes vulnerable to censorship or worse. The right to private property, if respected and competently protected, renders it possible for the right to liberty to be secure in innumerable realms. Liberty’s legal defense requires it. With such a right given legal recognition and protection, dissidents and minorities have the ability to escape retaliation from an angry majority that finds the dissent and refusal to join them to thwart its agenda.

If the history of authoritarian and totalitarian rule has taught anything, one vital fact is that this right, identified throughout human history–by the likes of Aristotle and Thucydides and, later more systematically by the English philosopher John Locke (who taught the American founders about it)–is the major bulwark against tyranny. Of course the right to one’s life is more basic and if it is ignored and violated as it is by the institution of slavery, then all bets are off and the law of the land deserves zero respect, let alone obedience. But the right to private property is nearly as fundamental as that since if one has no legal right to keep others out of one’s own realm, one is for all practical purposes being placed into servitude, almost made a slave.

This is why the Kilo decision by the U. S. Supreme Court was such a catastrophic blow to liberty in the United States of America and why even a short step away from it, as the NY Appellate Division’s ruling took, can only be a welcome development where human liberty is concerned. But it should by no means lead to complacency!

Everywhere in legal circles, not the least in President Barack Obama’s team of legal associates, basic rights are under full assault. These rights are dismissed as mere creatures of government (as they were in the time of full blown monarchies where they king was seen as having the authority to grant or withhold them and the idea that they might be natural to human community life was scoffed at). Yes, Virginia, in the current administration’s legal opinion, forged by the likes of Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, individual rights are void and done for, mere inventions as per the permission government may or may not grant its subjects!

With the New York Court’s ruling a bit of hope has become justified. But as with liberty in general, here, too, eternal vigilance is the price and other courts and potential guardians of human liberty must not relent as they work hard to reaffirm that Americans–indeed, all human beings–are sovereign agents and have basic rights, among them the right to private property.