Property Rights: The Root of Freedom

Published November 23, 2016

Summarizing The Commonwealth of Oceana, James Harrington’s controversial mid-17th century work of political theory, Daniel Webster wrote that “power naturally and necessarily follows property.” A free society, Harrington argued, requires that property may be owned and alienated by all citizens, and accordingly, that property ownership be not confined either to one “sole landlord” or a few. His ability to own property free from the old fetters of feudal society is the common man’s bulwark against the determined encroachments of the total state; that is, private property provides the individual with a sphere of autonomy into which tyrannical state power cannot reach.

A man’s home, as the saying goes, is his castle. For socialists and even many progressives, however, private property is an obstacle to be overcome, the source of the capitalist’s power to exploit, a privilege that must yield to broader social justice concerns. Because their philosophy treats private property as inherently anti-social, their conception of the good polity requires proactive state limitation of individual property rights. The question naturally arises whether we should accept the premise that strong protections for individual property must divide us from one another and promote economic injustice. Classical liberals and libertarians submit that just the opposite is true: Genuine social cooperation and community are fundamentally impossible without private property.

If the left’s criticism of private-property libertarianism is that, today, property is unjustly concentrated in the circles of the rich and politically connected, then this is in principle no failing of private property itself. Widespread ownership of property was and is the ideal of classical liberalism and libertarianism, a result to be attained not through planning and redistribution — which will, in practice, always favor incumbents and insiders — but through the operation of voluntary market exchange and proper homesteading

As John Médaille points out, socialism gathers wealth and property — and thus economic decision-making power — in the hands of the state’s small topmost bureaucratic class, analogous to the Inner Party in Orwell’s 1984. In his book Toward a Truly Free Market, he wrote, “When people hear ‘distribution of property,’ many automatically think, ‘Socialism!’ But nothing could be further from the truth. In a capitalist system, there are few owners of the means of production, but in a socialist system, there is only one, the state.”

Médaille’s book draws a distinction between capitalism as it currently exists — what many free-market conservatives and libertarians would distinguish as crony capitalism — and the ideal of a truly free market, in which property is more widely and evenly distributed.

Socialism tragically returns society to the unjust and undesirable state described by Harrington, in which the politically powerful hold all property and thus dominate social and economic life. The left must be reminded: Actual socialist regimes were the practical rebirth of feudal society, only worse. Once the people’s property was successfully confiscated, supposedly for their own benefit, the small coterie possessed of real political power, control of the state, did not proceed to usher in the promised utopia of liberty, justice, and equality — a brotherhood of workers, as it were.

Instead, they liquidated potential political dissidents — defined, of course, completely arbitrarily — and carried on with the customary practice of all political ruling classes to that point, enriching themselves and their friends at the expense of ordinary people. Private property was abolished only in name. As a matter of fact, it was merely stolen, transferred by the right of conquest to a new aristocracy, the socialists, whose methods, whatever their newfangled rhetoric, were as old as time. The workers, so exalted by the words of socialist leaders, were reduced to serfs, eating, working, and holding property only at the pleasure of their lords.

The lesson is plain enough: Absent of robust protection for the natural right to own property, there can be no freedom, no dignity, no privacy for the individual. In the United States, impositions such as property taxes, zoning restrictions, permits, eminent domain, and regulatory takings (just to name a handful) deny individuals the full use and enjoyment of their property. As more control and sticks in the property rights bundle change hands, transferred to agents of governments, those agents become the de facto owners of the subject property, thereby destroying the foundation of the private property system while maintaining it in name.

As Ludwig von Mises wrote in Omnipotent Government, the socialism of Nazi Germany “seemingly and nominally” respected private property but strictly dictated the terms on which owners could use and exchange it. The resulting system was, in principle, no less a form of socialism than Bolshevism, the “labels of [the] market economy,” which had been retained, notwithstanding. Like their socialist cousins, American progressives believe the individual’s “right” to his property is in fact only a privilege, granted by the state, revocable at the state’s discretion.

Libertarians disagree, arguing government ought to be confined to protecting people in the exercise of their legitimate rights. Charged with the protection of rights, historical governments have too often been their foremost violators. We extend prosperity and protect civil society and social cohesion not by undermining private property rights but by safeguarding them against their real enemies: predatory politicians and bureaucrats.

[Originally Published at American Spectator]