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Libertarian Lessons: Property Rights


Borrowing heavily from the Whig philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all of us have the right to our lives, to our liberty, and to the pursuit of happiness. Less than a century earlier, Locke had offered a similar theme, with a slight difference: He stated that we have a right to our property. Jefferson’s alteration was not a rejection or diminution but rather an enhancement of Locke’s earlier proclamation, by subsuming property rights in the broader category of pursuing happiness.

Private property is critical if individuals are to be free and happy. Locke explained, in his Second Treatise on Government, that the foundation of this essential right lay in the fact that “every man” first and foremost “has a property in his own person,” which “no Body has any right to but himself.” This leads inexorably to a complete rejection of human bondage or any institution that makes one person the resource of another. We are ends in ourselves.

But we must do more than simply be. We must act, in order to gain that which we believe (correctly or incorrectly) is necessary to enhance our lives. We must pursue happiness, turning circumstances, events, and environment to our advantage in the hope of achieving some desired goal. “Whatsoever then [a human] removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own,” Locke concluded. By that action an individual creates his property, in the form of real estate, chattel, valuables, keepsakes, money, or investments.

Property, then, was among the highest ideals of a free society – a manifestation of one’s efforts in the pursuit of happiness and a bulwark against the world’s uncertainties; a home provides shelter from the elements, and a surplus of corn will see us through the winter. Humans need to be secure in the knowledge that whatever they earn, produce, invent, or inherit, will not be destroyed or expropriated. Such instability breeds atrophy, or prodigality, by discouraging savings and innovation.

Limited as we are in time, resources, intelligence, or opportunities, the fruits of our labor are a vital reflection of how we spend our days and what we do to make them worthwhile for ourselves and those around us. Marxists scoff at the importance of property rights (coveting others’ property for redistribution), but individual ownership of property provides for our spiritual as much as our material well-being, in that it relies on and satisfies the mental/emotional capacity and drive required to produce for our own survival. Other fundamental rights, like free speech, likewise depend on respect for private property: Try running a newspaper when any bandit or bureaucrat can seize your printing press.

Without private property the pursuit of happiness becomes impossible. Values are meaningless if the things we want to have and keep in our lives have no moral or legal security against the plunderer. The law of the jungle renders the accumulation of property so precarious as to make it extremely unlikely, except for the strongest and most vicious in our midst. According to Locke, humans remove themselves from this “state of nature” and seek out like-minded, peace-loving individuals because they wish to “unite for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties, and estates….under government.” The primary justification for government, as both Locke and Jefferson understood, was to “secure” our rights – including our property rights – against any who would violate them.

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