We Hold These Rights, Part III: What Is Our Right to Property?

by Scott Huggins

Preface: In three weeks, I’ll be going to a conference on the Bill of Rights, sponsored by The Bill of Rights Institute, on Civil Liberty and the Constitution. As part of this conference, I have been asked to read a number of historical documents, written by the framers, their mentors, and those who lived, legislated, and worked within that Constitutional frame. This resonates deeply with me, as I have been struggling for some time now with concepts such as “rights,” “freedom,” and “justice.”  What follow are my thoughts.

As I read further into the documents of our founders and their influences, I find myself compelled to broaden my definition of the term “property.” All my life, I have been taught by my family, my church, and my schools to think of property as mere objects. Things. To treat a person as property is tantamount to slavery, and nothing — literally, no thing — could be as important as a human life.

This was not the mindset of our founders:

“This term in its particular application means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.” In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage. In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property. In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”

— James Madison

Note that Madison did not consider his thoughts as unimportant as his property. He considered his property as important as his very thoughts: “every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.

The italics are not mine. The implication is vast: If you have a right to it and value it, it is your property, so long as your possession of that property does not deprive anyone else to their right to 1) value such a thing and 2) have a right to such a thing. At first glance, that seems contradictory. If I own an apple and eat it, you can’t eat it too. But that’s not the statement. The statement is that if I own an apple and can eat it, it must be possible for you to own and eat apples as well. I have no right to own all the apples everywhere.

Further, the implication for the legitimacy of any sort of market manipulation is not good. I don’t know all of Madison’s opinions on everything, but we do know as a matter of historical record that one of the primary motivations behind the American Revolution was the British homeland’s systematic refusal to allow the American colonies to sell and buy freely on the international market, using their own ships and setting their own prices. Jefferson complains of laws being passed denying the American colonists the right to manufacture their own goods.

I am uncertain what the founders’ arguments would be, but I question seriously whether we can differentiate between a government that passes laws preventing us from the use of our own property, and a business interest that makes it impossible to acquire or use property. If it is immoral and unjust to pass laws that establish monopolies and exclude others from them, then it seems to me equally immoral and unjust to allow such monopolies to exist without passing laws against them. The founders seem to be upset that they are being excluded from, as it were, the democracy of money, the idea that my money is just as good as yours. Yet monopolies and market manipulators regularly exclude others from this democracy by price-manipulation. I myself have little patience for the corporate-phobia that runs rampant through popular culture, but one hardly needs to believe in vast, shadowy corporate conspiracies to dominate the world to see this process. When speculators drive up the price of oil (or anything else) simply because they believe (or fear) that the price will rise, their money is better than ours, because they will pay less today than they will force us to pay tomorrow. They never intend to use this property. They intend merely to sell it to us again when we need it, and at a higher price.

I suggest that this cannot be the right to property. G.K. Chesterton, at the opening of the 20th century, spoke of those who denied rationality as purveyors of “the thought that destroys thought.” In the same manner, those who advocate the right to speculate and manipulate prices wholesale are trading in the property that destroys property. It is, ethically, theft disguised as property. It is a counterfeit of property, just as sure as the thief is the counterfeit of the producer of wealth. It denies the right to own property just as surely — more surely, if the drug trade is any example to us — as the most draconian laws.

I have more to say on property in rights, but this post is long enough.

Somewhere In Orbit