Life, Liberty and the Right to Property

Since the 2010 Index of Economic Freedom published by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal warned that, “Government interventions in financial markets and the automotive sector have raised concerns about expropriation and violation of the contractual rights of shareholders and bondholders” in the United States, it is prudent to explore the necessity and the importance of the protection of property rights even as the question is largely ignored in modern day discussions about the proper role of government.

The United States Declaration of Independence, adopted by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, asserted the “self-evident” truth that men are equally endowed “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), principal author of the Declaration, took inspiration here from George Mason’s (1725-1792) Virginia Declaration of Rights which was adopted unanimously by the Virginia Convention of Delegates on June 12, 1776. It claimed:

That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

As much as people should have the right to pursue happiness, it is unfortunate that no explicit protection of the right to acquire and possess property, as expressed by Mason, was written into the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson however was no less convinced of both its necessity and righteousness.

Writing on April 24, 1816 to French economist and businessman Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (1739-1817), Jefferson opined that “there exists a right independent of force; that a right to property is founded in our natural wants, in the means with which we are endowed to satisfy these wants, and the right to acquire by those means without violating the similar rights of other sensible beings.” He argued against the democratic expropriation of property in the same letter, stating that “the majority, oppressing an individual, is guilty of a crime,” and breaks up the very foundations of society.

In the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms, issued by the Second Continental Congress on July 6, 1775, Jefferson explained what well-defined, legally protected property rights had brought about in his country: “The political institutions of America, its various soils and climates, opened a certain resource to the unfortunate and to the enterprising of every country and insured to them the acquisition and free possession of property.” Almost thirty years later, delivering his second inaugural address before the nation on March 4, 1805, then-President Jefferson decreed that “equality of rights [be] maintained, and that state of property, equal or unequal, which results to every man from his own industry or that of his fathers.”

“To every man from his own industry” — compare that to the marxist idiom, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” which condemned so many nations to impoverishment if not outright starvation during the last century.

The United States were founded upon the very premise that each man is entitled to his own life and the fruits of his own labor and for well over a century, as Jefferson predicted, those freedoms brought forth a prosperity which man hadn’t known for hundreds of years.

Yet as the United States and the rest of the Western World industrialized, the significance of the protection of property rights was either disputed or neglected. French politician and self-declared anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) showed marxists the way in 1840 when he professed that, “Property is theft!” — a slogan happily reiterated by antagonists of the state up to this very day.

Although far from radical as Proudhon was, twentieth century Keynesians and similar do-gooders have given rise to the notion that private property is really not private at all; that it belongs to “society” which has mysteriously “granted” individuals to hold property in the first place.

In her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, philosopher Ayn Rand warned against what she callled the “fraudulent alternative” offered by modern day collectivists — that of “human rights” versus “property rights,” as though one could exist without the other. “The doctrine that ‘human rights’ are superior to ‘property rights’ simply means that some human beings have the right to make property out of others,” wrote Rand who declared that “no rights can exist without the right to translate one’s rights into reality — to think, to work and to keep the results — which means: the right of property.”

In “Man’s Rights,” published in The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), Rand again stressed the inseparability of the rights to life and property; the latter being the “only implementation” of the former.

Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.

Rand added that the right to property is a “right to action,” not the right to an object. “It is not a guarantee that a man will earn any property, but only a guarantee that he will own it if he earns it.”

That is the full meaning of “the pursuit of Happiness.” No man is born in the United States, entitled to happiness or the efforts of others. Yet each man is born with the right to produce and trade for his own sake; to pursue happiness on his own terms, for, as Jefferson noted, America insures both the unfortunate and the enterprising “the acquisition and free possession of property.”

“To every man from his own industry” was and ought to be the guiding principle of proper government in the United States. A government dedicated to upholding such standard of justice will allow its nation to prosper whereas the very opposite wrecks havoc upon a country as half a century of Communist rule in Eastern Europe amply demonstrated.