Column on “I earned it, it’s mine”

On “I earned it, it’s mine!”

Tibor R. Machan

In my political circles quite a few people, both now and in the past, defend the right to private property, to individual ownership, based on the idea that whatever one earns–or creates, or makes, or produces–surely is one’s own property and others have no right to it. And up to a point this carries conviction but it doesn’t at all go far enough. There is a lot that one owns that one hadn’t earned, made, created, produced or the like. It still is one’s private property and no one is authorized to take it from one.

Let’s start with the simple cases. How about one’s second eye that another may well have great use for? Or one’s second kidney? Or indeed one’s heart if one is some kind of no good, lazy loafer and another who’s an ambitious genius with noble aspirations to save the world could make good use of? Then what about what one was given as a gift or has inherited? Not always earned at all! Or what about what one has found, free and clear?

There are quite a few political philosophers and theorists, even moralists, whose views imply that if you didn’t earn it, others are entirely free to take it from you. And if what you own is not being put to proper use, then, too, it can be confiscated by the authorities and transferred to someone who is deemed to make wiser use of it. The famous City of New London, CT v. Kelo U. S. Supreme Court case (of July 2005) whereby a bunch of city bureaucrats confiscated private property from citizens and gave it to others was decided on such spurious grounds.

Now, to start with, nothing at all follows about other people having the authority to take from one something one hasn’t come by through hard work, through having earned or produced or made it all. It is a complete non-sequitor. Yes, one way to come to own something is by having produced or earned it but there are others, including having been born with it, having it as part of one’s very identity as the human individual who one happens to be, or having been given it. That’s enough. Others just have no warrant for butting in, however great their goals, be it the will of the people or of wise leaders or anything like that.

Private property rights flow from one’s having an unalienable right to one’s life, a life that is one’s own and no one else’s, not the family’s, not the tribe’s, not the clan’s, nor of the nation or community or some other group of other people who already own exactly what they have a right to, namely, their own lives.

So having come by something without having stolen or extorted it from someone is plenty of warrant for owning it. And then, of course, if one has put one’s mind to making good use of something no one else owns, that is also an excellent reason to be deemed its owner.

All this propaganda in favor of collective, public or community ownership is, in fact, mostly a ruse by various private individuals who want to confiscate the property of other private individuals under some kind of guise that they represent the public or the general will or some fathom thing like that. No, those groups are no more than a gang of other people who want what doesn’t belong to them and wish to sell the idea through the myth of the superior importance of the greater numbers. But there’s no substance to it–millions of people can all be plain thieves, lead by hoodlums who just want to come by stuff by violent means.

The right to private property applies not only to owning what one has created–although few of us create something entirely anew, from scratch–but also to what emanates from us, from who we are. So if by total accident I am a good-looking bloke and can cash in on it by getting a paid gig on the cover of GQ, nobody is justified robbing me of my proceeds, not my neighbor, not the government, no one.

Some defenders of our private property rights are tempted to link ownership rights to some kind of merit but that’s a trap, for we are not always the owners of things, including our lives and limbs, as a matter of merit. It is still who we are, sovereign individuals, and what we own and others better keep off.

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