Posts tagged property rights

Column on Property Rights and the Free Press

Property Rights and the Free Press

Tibor R. Machan

Not as if the point hasn’t been made often by now, but repeating it may be of some benefit: without a firm protection of the right to private property, the rights to freedom of speech, press, religious worship, etc., are under constant threat.

The most recent demonstration of this is happening in Argentina, although Venezuela has served as a recent case in point also. As reported by the BBC, “Argentina’s government wins control of newsprint supplies, amid a long-running feud between the president and a major media group…” It appears that the legislature caved in to pressure from the president of Argentina and basically nationalized all the supplied that are needed to run an independent press. As the BBC put it, “The legislation, which passed in the lower house last week, says the production, sale and distribution of newsprint is of national interest.”

Of course, even if true, nothing follows about how the government ought to wrest control of the “production, sale and distribution of newsprint.” If anything, if it is true and “the production, sale and distribution of newsprint” is in the national interest–allowing that this means that it is generally an important part of the society–it is least secure when government takes control of these matters. The same principle holds for education–its importance by no stretch of the imagination justifies placing it under government jurisdiction.

What too many folks do not grasp is that governments are agencies run by some members of a society and it is most unwise to put these members in control of nearly anything, let alone the dissemination of knowledge and information. If there is a solid enough constitution in place, firmly upheld, perhaps the protection of individual rights might be placed in the hands of the government, provided the government can be kept impartial as it adjudicates disputes, protects rights, etc. But that itself is called into serious question by examples such as the Argentinian case, where instead of protecting property rights, and thus the right to freedom of the press, government is the main violator of them.

Ironically, it is those on the political Left who are most hostile to private property rights. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels made this clear in The Communist Manifesto where they declared that the very first task of socialists is to abolish private property rights. Yet it is just such cantankerous folks as communists who most need the protection of their private property rights, otherwise their many opponents will have no trouble invading their spheres from which they are mounting their challenge to the status quo. (This itself suggests quite strongly that the Left’s political viewpoint is quite confused!)

All this also calls to mind how fiercely some of the Left’s most prominent platforms decry the claim that America is in any way exceptional. Yet it really is, as exemplified in the now sadly fading American tradition of serious respect and legal protection of the right to private property.

In its eagerness to undermine free market capitalism, the Left is willing to sacrifice its major bulwark against those who would oppress it. But it just will not work–without the protection of private property rights, there is no freedom of the press and no effective political freedom either, the freedom needed to institute change in society’s political institutions which the Left is so hell bent on doing.

Of course, much of this is relatively novel in the annals of politics across human history and the globe. The more usual state of affairs is that which we now see in Argentina and many other countries where dissent is eagerly being suppressed by the thugs who rule. Perhaps in time the vitality of the right to private property for all kinds of human endeavors–economic, educational, religious, scientific, journalistic, etc., etc.–will be widely recognized. But as with freedom on all fronts, that requires eternal vigilance.

Column on Republicans are Disarmed

Republicans are Disarmed

Tibor R. Machan

In the current Democrat-Republican fracas Democrats want to ignore fiscal prudence and claim they are doing it for the poor and needy. Republicans, in turn, claim they don’t want higher and more taxes because of their speculative contention that taxing takes resources away from the market where jobs are created, especially by the rich who would spend what they have if its not confiscated from them.

When it comes to the strength of the two sides’ arguments, the Democrats win because they have the moral high ground, given that the Republicans lack a moral case in favor of their position. But there is one. But Republicans are as wedded to confiscating other people’s resources as are Democrats, only perhaps not as much of it as Democrats. The bulk of the members of each party believe in taxation for the goals that are dear to them. And with that premise, the Democrats have the upper hand since their goals are more compassionate, caring. Yes, the Republicans do embrace the virtue of prudence but in hard times generosity or charity trumps prudence. We all go out of our way to stand up when times are tough to help out, even if this is risky. People will jump into troubled waters to rescue someone even if they might perish. Not perhaps if they know they will perish but if they only might, the risk is worth it.

If, however, the Republicans took a principled stand against extortion and defended the idea that it must be those who own the resources who decide what should be done with them—whether to give it to the needy or invest it in productive endeavors, for example—then there would be a chance for them to win this argument. For, while people often sympathize with compassionate intentions and policies, they generally do not sympathize with coercing others to make them compassionate. Indeed, they sense that one cannot make other people do what is right—they must choose to do the right thing, whatever that happens to be.

What the Republicans ought to do is insist that whatever help people need in this country—or indeed anywhere—it must be given freely, not at the point of a gun. That theme may sit well with most American citizens since it is, after all, the centerpiece of the country’s political philosophy. Freedom! Republicans miss out on standing up for it against Democrats and come off as merely having a different scheme up their sleeves, one that seems like cronyism to Democrats and their supporters. Don’t tax the rich because it is an inefficient way to help the poor! This comes off as a bogus idea and it is to cave in, too, instead of to stand up for something really different.

The entire history of political oppression rests on the theme that important goals, like helping the needy, require oppressing people, forcing them to labor for the greater good, for society, for the public interest. It has almost always been a ruse, of course, but it is difficult to rebut unless one has a sound alternative, namely, insisting on everyone’s right to decide how one’s labor and resources should be made use of. It isn’t about wealth but about choice!

What the Democrats and their supporters want is control over everyone’s resources. They have argued this position for centuries. They still argue that it isn’t really your wealth at all, it belongs to society, the public, and in a democratic republic its allocation must be left to politicians. Not true but sounds plausible enough.

Several of the major intellectual advocates of the Democrats’ way make this point quite explicitly. Consider the books The Myth of Ownership, by Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy, and The Cost of Rights, by Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes. And the Democrats’ base, the Left, has for all its existence denied that people have a right to the products of their labor, let alone what they come by through luck. Property rights are the first to be abolished in Marx and Engels The Communist Manifesto. It is basic for the Left, including for the somewhat softer, watered down American version of it we find among the thinkers who forge the Democrats’ public philosophy.

Republicans, if they want to win, must attack this directly, not with supply side economics but with Lockean individual rights. Until that happens, they will remain losers.

Column on Tea PArty vs. ACORN, etc.

Tea Party versus ACORN, etc.

Tibor R. Machan

It looks like the way the Right despises ACORN, the Left does the Tea Party. It may not even be so much about their political stances, although that is part of it for sure. It is sad, though, that supporters of Mr. Obama had no problem with–indeed were proud of–his history of community organization but forget about this completely as they deride the Tea Party. And I am not just talking about Leftist talk show hosts and hostesses but snooty publications like The New Republic and The New York Review of Books. Instead of celebrating this clearly democratic phenomenon, the Left is demonizing it.

It is one thing to be against the ideas of some organization, quite another to be against organizing itself. Why would organizing be proper and commendable for Leftist causes but not for those of the Right? The Tea Party isn’t some criminal gang burning down building, upending cars, and so forth–they march, mostly, and now and then shout out loud.

But I suppose what is good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander, right? Well, let me add something then to objections against ACORN. Unlike the Tea Party phenomenon, ACORN has a history of freely dipping into public funds in support of its activities, never mind that these are certainly not approved of by all the taxpayers whose funds are being used by the organization. So while the Tea Party has that integrity about it, namely, supporting its mission by voluntary means, the means it advocates for solving problems in society, you cannot say this for ACORN and a whole lot of other Leftists outfits that have no problem with using their critics’ funds.

This is something about which the Left has been very hypocritical over the years I have been aware of its political efforts in America and even before. On the one hand the Left, or most of them, opposed, say, the War in Vietnam and wanted to be able to refuse to pay the portion of taxes that funded this war. Yet when it comes to the Right’s objection to government funded abortion clinics, this doesn’t sit well with them at all. Indeed, whereas many on the Left would wish to withdraw government funding of whatever it is they oppose–subsidies to industries, bailouts, etc.–they seem to have no problem with using such funding for their own objectives.

But this is nothing very new, vis-a-vis the Left’s political philosophy. From as long as there has been a Left, the official position has opposed the individual’s basic right to private property–the first on the list of what must be abolished, according the Marx and Engels in their The Communist Manifesto. But at the same time the Left insists that the labor of the working classes is being ripped off by capitalists in the employment relationship.

So it seems the right to private property is just fine and dandy when it comes to the labor of the proletariat! However, when it comes to governing actual socialist societies, the Left has no problem with treating labor as anything but private property. No labor is public property; so that the East Germans who were attempting to flee the country could be considered thieves because they were stealing labor from the public! (This is one excuse the government gave for shooting those trying to scale the Berlin Wall back in those days!)

Maybe this is just another feature of a substantially pragmatic political outlook–never mind any principles, just forget ahead any which way you can get away with. Here is how it was put by Lenin: “Only one thing is needed to enable us to march forward more surely and more firmly to victory: namely, the full and complete thought of our appreciation by all communists in all countries of the necessity of displaying the utmost flexibility in their tactics. The strictest loyalty to the ideas of communism must be combined with the ability to make all the necessary practical compromises, to attack, to make agreements, zigzags, retreats, etc.” [Lenin, "Left Wing Communism," 1920].

Column on Property Rights and Gun Rights

Property Rights and Gun Rights

Tibor R. Machan

Over the years the distinction between public and private spaces has become obscured. Which is why Starbucks is finding it so difficult to insist that customers do not carry weapons while in their establishment. It is because over the last several decades a doctrine of public accommodation has developed in the law such that when some area is adjacent to a public sphere—a street or road or park—it no longer enjoys private property rights, the authority to determine what happens there.

It all came about because of the impatience with racially discriminatory merchants and costumers. If they were understood as having firm private property rights, they would have to have their racist practices protected by law, which the courts were unwilling to sanction (unlike the protection of porn!). In particular, in a decision by the United States Supreme Court, handed down invalidating a law enacted by referendum in California pertaining to the right of people to sell their property to whomever they choose, Justice Byron White explained that the California law (Art. I, Sec. 26) enacted via Proposition 14 (in 1964) “authorized private discrimination,” even though, he added dubiously, only “encouraging, rather than commanding” it. (Actually it only tolerated it!) He added:

The right to discriminate, including the right to discriminate on racial grounds, was now embodied in the state’s basic charter, immune from legislative, executive, or judicial regulation at any level of the state government.

And for him, a loyal modern liberal justice, that was unacceptable! Yet that is exactly what is entailed in the notion of a right—its exercise, wisely or unwisely, is shielded from others’ interference. Justice White himself made this evident, albeit disapprovingly, when he observed: “Those practicing racial discrimination need no longer rely solely on their personal choice. They could now invoke express constitutional authority, free from censure or interference of any kind from official source”. And what’s wrong with that? Its the same with everything else objectionable the constitution protects, such a flag burning.

Notice that by prohibiting racial discrimination as a matter of legal mandate, the court removed the issue from the realm of morality or ethics. How could one freely make a personal choice to discriminate (or not) if government has the legitimate power to stop one from discriminating not as a government official but as a private citizen, within one’s private domain? If I want to restrict the potential buyers of my home to only Mormons or White Protestants or Hungarian refugees, that ought to be my business, no one else’s. But no, the Supreme Court of the supposedly freest country of the world chose to prohibit bad choices by its citizens. That is exactly like censorship by the government, plain and simple. And recall how so many American commentators were appalled at how Muslims reacted to the Danish cartoons that made fun of Islam! For Muslims what the cartoonists and the papers that published them did was every bit as awful as racial discrimination was to Justice White and his colleagues on the Supreme Court.

Now back to Starbucks and gun rights. Turns out that because the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment protects individual Americans who want to own and carry firearms, this now means Starbucks isn’t free to decided about whether its costumers may do so in its coffee shops. Why? Because these shops are “affected with the public interest,” because they are located on streets which are public spheres and because government regulates them. Here are proprietors who want to apply their own, possibly sound standards of safety within the establishment they own and aren’t permitted to do so because, well, the property is no longer deemed to be really theirs at all but part of the public sphere (square).

Slowly and surely everything in the country will come under public—that is, government—jurisdiction, treated as if it were a courthouse or some other sphere where public administration goes on. The logic of the slippery slope is inescapable here. Moreover, if public officials make bad decisions, they will drag the entire country down since there will not be any private sphere left where those like the owners of Starbucks could institute practices that could well make better sense than what the public officials insist everyone must adopt.

One of the ways a free society deals with dubious practices by private citizens is to protect the liberty of those who find fault with such practices to protest, including by refusing to allow them in their own private spheres such as their places of business. But because this principled approach does not immediately do away with some of the despicable practices of the citizenry, such as racism in commerce, the eager beavers have now thrown the baby out with the bathwater, sacrificed individual liberty for the sake of coerced decency. This is exactly like when others abandon liberty for the sake of security. Plague on them both

Column on The Myth of Surplus Wealth

The Myth of Surplus Wealth

Tibor R. Machan

Over the last couple of decades a colleague from a famous university has challenged me about my view that everyone has the unalienable right to private property. Now this position, derived from such sources as John Locke, the American Founders, Ayn Rand, and many others in the classical liberal, libertarian political tradition, amounts to the idea that in a just human community every adult human being is free to pursue prosperity in the form he or she desires–material wealth, intellectual resources, land, items produced by humans or nature, and so forth. The right to private property is a right of action, an extension of the more general right to liberty: everyone must be left free to pursue wealth, to take those peaceful actions that could result in prosperity (although there is no guarantee that they will). And this right to freedom of action is itself based on the yet broader right to one’s life. Life is an ongoing process of action which, for human beings, needs to be initiated by the living agent. We have to do stuff to live, in short. And having the right to live entails being free to do so.

Now this critic of my thinking has argued against this idea at least in cases when some people are in dire straits, in serious need of resources through no fault of their own. And that certainly can happen, although it is far more likely to when people are oppressed, barred from taking the action needed to prosper, than when they are not imposed upon by others, especially by armed governments. What he has been maintaining is that if those in dire straits are forbidden to take from those who have what he dubs surplus wealth, then they are effectively not in possession of their own right to liberty. As it is sometimes put, those without resources are effectively in bondage. They lack the freedom to take the actions that could advance their lives. And this means that although everyone has the unalienable right to life, liberty, property and so forth, those in dire straits actually do not.

In particular my critic has stressed that those in dire straits, in serious need through no fault of their own, may not be stopped from taking some of the surplus wealth of the wealthy. And this, indeed, is roughly how people justify not just ordinary but progressive taxation–the wealthy must give up some of their wealth to those in dire straits because only that way will the latter be able to enjoy their own basic rights.

I have replied to the criticism in a variety of ways. One is by pointing out that the absence of resources is not the same as the violation of rights. I have no resources to buy myself a yacht but I do have a right to buy myself a yacht and no one would be authorized to stop me from doing so if and when I become wealthy enough to do so. In other words, I have the right to liberty to seek a yacht for myself by peaceful means, although, again, I may not succeed.

Indeed, this is pretty plain since one may be struck down by all sorts of natural impediments–disease, calamity, earthquakes, hurricanes, and so forth–for which no one is responsible and so no one may be penalized or fined for having caused them. Those who encounter such natural impediments are, well, unfortunate, that is for sure. But this does not authorize them to impose any burdens on those who have not deserved it even if they are, indeed, in a position to alleviate the hardship. They may and probably should request help, support, assistance, and so forth. They may even organize campaigns to urge that their bad luck be addressed by their fellows. But they have no rightful authority to take anything from them, not even so called surplus resources–an idea that is, in any case, vague and subject to systematic abuse. (Is my second kidney an article of surplus wealth? My second eye? My back-up golf set? My collected vintage cars?)

It isn’t true that surplus wealth makes no sense at all but only the most intimate knowledge of someone could enable us to tell if that person is in possession of wealth that he or she can easily do without. Maybe the individual is saving for a rainy day, for a time when he or she will be giving this wealth away to relatives or favorite causes. Maybe such an individual is powerfully enriched, psychologically, by holding on to wealth beyond what others may consider reasonable.

Having the right to private property means, in large measure, that the individual with that right is the one who is free to decide to what purposes his or her property will be devoted. It is a matter of who is to choose. Without this basic, unalienable right one’s freedom of directing one’s life is undermined not by natural causes, which can impeded anyone, but by others who are at liberty to refrain from doing so and, given this right, ought to so refrain.