Column on Private Property Rights as Human Rights

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

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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