The Right to Property
The United States of America has a unique government in many aspects. While democratic republics are common in our modern world, the idea was radically different from any government or nation that surrounded it during the time of its founding. Its radical approach to individual liberty went on to inspire the liberation of countries all around the world.
In an effort to increase awareness and appreciation for the benefits of a free society, I’ve decided to start a blog highlighting these benefits. Some of these are more obvious than others, and some examples will apply almost uniquely to the United States while others will apply to all societies and people.
Today’s underappreciated value is the right to individual property and the right to protect that property.
You may be familiar with the phrase "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This phrase, found in the Declaration of Independence, was based on a philosophy known as natural law. Natural law states, among other things, that all human beings are born with certain inalienable rights, including the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to property. The phrase "Pursuit of happiness" found in the Declaration is actually a reference to individual property.
Property rights, as explained by natural law, is surprisingly similar to the children’s book The Little Red Hen. (If you haven’t read that, there is a link to an online version of the story in the notes below). It refers to an individual being entitled to the fruit of their labors. A farmer is entitled to the crops he grows. He can eat them, he can sell them, he can store them for the future. No one else is entitled to the crops that the farmer worked for. Similarly, the farmer has the right to protect his crops from those that would wrongfully take them from him.
Of course, personal property refers to much more than just crops, and the "fruits of one's labor" in modern society is typically money. No one is else entitled to the money that you earn.
This may beg the following questions: What about taxes, and what about charity? These are both questions that were hotly debated at the founding of the United States and since. While taxes existed (and were necessary) since the beginning of the United States, the income tax was a source of contention. Unlike other taxes, the income tax is a tax that deliberately takes away the ‘fruits of the labor’ of the individual. For this reason, it was actually ruled unconstitutional twice before it was eventually accepted in 1913. Is it right or wrong to have an income tax? Well, I’ll let you think about that one and do some research on your own.
As for charity, nothing was actually included in the United States constitution. However, there was an almost unanimous disdain by the founders for an economic practice known as leveling. Leveling was a common practice in Europe during the late 1700s that involved using the government to redistribute wealth among its citizens. The founders saw how leveling led to economic hardship, government corruption and oppression. With this in mind, it isn’t hard to jump to the same conclusion that one historian did: Taking care of the needy was the responsibility of anyone who could, so long as the government was not involved.
A modern-day testament to the dangers of ignoring property rights has been occurring in Africa. The South African constitution has a clause (Section 25) which states that the federal government can take privately owned land from its citizens as long as it is "just and equitable" to do so and as long as the landowner is given adequate compensation for their land. The problem comes in with defining what is just and equitable.
The ambiguity of that statement has caused problems for the people of South Africa. In an effort to prevent homelessness, land has been taken from landowners and given to those with nothing. While a noble concept, this clearly violates the "inalienable rights" that the landowners are born with. Can you imagine if someone came to your home and said that they were taking four-fifths of it away from you, but that you’d be paid? How would you feel? What if you didn’t want to sell your home or your car? What if you needed the property that was being taken away from you in order to make a living?
Now imagine that they don’t pay you after all. Just last year, an amendment was proposed to the South African constitution that would get rid of the just compensation requirement.
I share the example of South Africa to show not only a troubling trend in society’s views of personal property, but also to show that while things may not be perfect in the United States (or in other free countries), they could certainly be worse.
It is truly a blessing to live in a society where individual rights to property are honored more often than not.
Ideas for additional reading:
A brief history of the income tax
The meaning of ‘The Pursuit of Happiness:’
South African Constitutional Controversy
The Little Red Hen