Property Rights Redux
Tibor R. Machan
A little while ago I had occasion to spend time with some fine legal minds. For one thing, they were all convinced that the right to private property is central to a just legal order. And many of them were involved in striving to get this idea established and strengthened within the American legal system, in the various ways that’s possible to do through the legitimate avenues of advocacy, litigation, scholarship, and so forth.
I missed, though, one thing in the discussions that I heard, namely, a clear articulation of why a legal system should incorporate a firm commitment to the right to private property. Sure, the American founders appear to have been pretty firmly committed to the idea—although when they switched from “property” to “the pursuit of happiness” in their list of basic, unalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence, they opened up a good deal of room for controversy about just how loyal they were to the idea. Still, it isn’t often enough considered why this principle mattered to them so much and why others, who champion the free society, think so highly of it.
The issues isn’t moot at all. Among many American historians there is a persistent notion that the founders favored the right to private property for personal, economic reasons. They were land owners—Washington, especially—and so given a central place to the right to private property was a kind of self-interested project, not really one of principle. This was the theme of the historian Charles Beard, which held sway among many for decades and is still prominently featured in history classes from high schools to universities. His book, An economic interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (The Macmillan Co., 1913), advocated this view. And, more generally, the heavy influence of Marxist thinking on how history is understood among many academics keeps the idea alive—when people support an institution, public policy, or law from which they reap benefits, they must do so because of those benefits, never mind whether the idea has universal merit.
Unless this is rebutted, the principle of private property rights will forever be suspect no matter how much benefit it produces for a society in prosperity, technology, innovation, and so forth. Even apart from academics, most people think that unless an idea has independent moral and political merit, it just isn’t quite up to snuff. While they may not fully subscribe to the Kantian notion that “it is the thought that counts,” for most of them the thought does matter. A principle, in short, should gain principled support and not just be accepted because it is practically useful.
Defenders of the free society do need to revisit the issue of why is the right to private property important in a society. Is it because its adoption will make most of us richer? Is it because it will facilitate the growth of knowledge and scientific inquiry? Is it because the arts are better of in a rich society? Is it perhaps because in a rich country people can be more environmentally responsible? Or is there something even more fundamental about this right, given human nature and community life?
I have always found the last of these the most important reason for championing the right to private property and the economic system of capitalism that rests on it. Property rights are the foundation of freedom of choice. To be prudent, courageous, charitable, generous, philanthropic, and kind one needs to have command over resources. When others are authorized to expropriate one’s labor and resources, they are in charge of one’s life and conduct. One’s life slips from one’s own grasp and personal responsibility and the chance of morally significant action disappear.
The story is a longish one, of course, and can only be hinted at here. What is crucial is that underlying all the economic, legal and related support for the right to private property, it is remembered that a moral justification is required and, indeed, available.