Saturday, October 10, 2009

Property Rights are Human Rights

Tibor R. Machan

A sad confusion that has once again made its way into general circulation is that the right to private property is a mere invention designed to legitimate greed and obscene riches. Actually, this is like claiming that the right to life is a mere invention designed to legitimate crude selfishness and unrestrained personal ambition. And actually there is something to this but nothing insidious, nothing bad in the end.

One's right to one's life is indeed a moral and political bulwark against others making use of one against one's will. The right to life is the principle by which slavery and involuntary servitude are morally and politically rebuffed, so they ought to be part of the legal system of any civilized, just human community even if they can be unwisely, imprudently applied by some. Greed is far more rife among those who would violate this right, even of the very fortunate and rich, for once anyone is subject to the willful intervention of others, there is no limit--it is an easy slippery slope. Kind of like the idea that well, very tall or healthy people should have their rights less vigilantly respected and protected then others since they are, well, so much better off and others need to be able to subdue them when in need. This is the old and wholly misplaced egalitarian--Procrustean--impulse, cutting everyone down to one size. Of course, it also means that those who supervise and administer the cutting will have far greater--unequal--powers over other people than will those whom they regiment about for this egalitarian purpose.

The way the attack on the right to private property gains some minimal moral mileage is by associating it with ruthless self-indulgence, say the activities we have recently witnessed by Bernie Madoff. Yet, of course, what made Madoff the criminal he is was precisely that he violated this right of thousands of trusting clients.

Besides that, the right to private property is most vital for those who are struggling to build up a nest egg, some resources beyond the minimum. And while sometimes what results is enormous wealth--Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are contemporary cases in point--mostly this right secures for people a decent, ongoing livelihood, not a whole lot more. Yet common sense suggests that most of us would welcome more and that there really is nothing wrong with that.

It is mostly the vice of green envy that motivates people to begrudge that this right gets at least a bit of respect and protection in modern societies, one that is of course very tentative. The wealth redistribution juggernaut just will not leave people's property in peace. The simple fact that some have unmet needs gives demagogues like Michael Moore the ammunition to attack the system of capitalism which, if it did exists at all, would be based on strict protection of private property rights. (Instead, of course, what is ubiquitous is not capitalism but state corporatism and the out of control welfare state, a welfare state the beneficiaries aren't poor unwed mothers, as the caricature would have it, but massive powerful institutions such as universities, farming conglomerates, corporations and all who are savvy at lobbying the government!)

The source of private property rights, judging by the most famous defender of the principle in modern political philosophy--yes, Virginia, it was also defended in ancient times, for example, in Aristotle's Politics--the English classical liberal John Locke, is that one is a sovereign individual, a self-governing, independent moral agent not to be bullied by others, not for others to manipulate, intrude upon or even nudge (a recent preferred public policy device of President Obama's favorite legal advisor, Professor Cass Sunstein). You and I and every human being is properly in charge of his or her life, not other people who may gain from that life only if you and I and anyone else chooses to be helpful and generous. Indeed, being helpful and generous would not be moral virtues if one didn't get the chance to be so freely, at one's own initiative--governments cannot make people decent!

It used to be thought that you and I and other people belong to a monarch or czar or some hotshot bully but this has been thoroughly discredited by the likes of Locke. Only now it is being brought back under the guise of fostering communities and avoiding the fallout of rugged individualism. But this is all a ruse aimed to intimidate any resistance there may be to the demagoguery that would enslave us, make us into serfs, once again. Let us hope it is competently resisted.

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