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Elementary Lessons in Property Rights

Elementary Lessons in Property Rights

4 Mins
March 30, 2011

“A man’s home is his castle.”

Americans recently learned that this is more than a mere cliché; it’s a profound philosophical principle that is under fire from the very institutions that are supposed to protect it.  

Most Americans were appalled by the Supreme Court’s Kelo v. City of New London ruling that allows governments to take private property for other private uses. The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” In law and tradition this has always meant that governments could take land under eminent domain only for unique and necessary government functions or infrastructure such as roads and courthouses. But government planners in New London, Connecticut, wanted to bulldoze the houses of certain families in order to build in their place other houses or businesses that they thought would be better for the community.

It is necessary to understand just which mistaken or malicious principles are undermining a traditional bedrock of American freedom so that a firm foundation for our liberty and homes can be restored.

Your right to property starts with you, the individual. The basic question is: “Who owns you?” If you answer, “No one; I own myself,” then the next question is: “How, exactly, do you expect to have personal autonomy, to take your life into your own hands, to realize your own dreams, if you are not allowed to have exclusive control over material possessions?” The answer clearly is: “You can’t.”

In the past, private-property ownership was very visibly a matter of life or death since the majority of individuals farmed for their sustenance. Today, most of us purchase our food from stores and own property because we wish to have a home of our own in which to live, to enjoy ourselves, to raise a family, to entertain friends, and to do otherwise, as we wish. We add furniture, decorations, and gardens to make our homes suit our own needs. A home is where we feel comfortable. That's why there are so many clichés, like "Make yourself at home!" and "I've come home!" What is more intimate and personal than one's home?

The right to own property is essential for freedom. Without that right we'd each be at the mercy of others. That's why in society with others we demand a right—that is, a moral sanction to act for our own survival and well-being, as long as we don't initiate force against others. And that means we have the right to acquire property, and to use it and dispose of it as we each see fit. We are kings of our own castles and need no sanction from our neighbors, "society," or government; indeed, the central purpose of government is to protect our rights from aggression by others.

The basic question is: “Who owns you?”
So how did we reach a point where the Supreme Court endorses the power of governments to take our property, as long as they make up some kind of excuse that it is for a "public use?" To begin with, those who endorse such plunder erase the distinction between the private and the public. They maintain that every private action potentially has some social consequence; your house sitting on your land bars some other use of that land that might be of value to others. Further, every government action somehow benefits some member of the "public," even if it is at the expense of others. This means there's no such thing as the "private." Thus, everything is a matter for public concern, and such matters should be subject to collective and societal, rather than individual and personal, decision making. You only hold your property as a social trust, and if society decides that there's some better use for the property—well, you don’t really own the property anyway. Of course, the implication of this illogic is that you do not own your own life.

This is the philosophy that informs the paternalist political elites of New London and elsewhere. They see themselves as a new ruling elite who manifest the will of the people. "L'état, c'est moi!" These planners either put the good of an abstract collective—the city—ahead of the rights of the individuals who make it up, or they abrogate the rights of some individuals in order to give the undeserved and the unearned to another group of individuals in the name of survival and “economic development.”

One is tempted to say that a city that can only survive by stealing from its own citizens does not deserve to survive. But it’s not the city that does the stealing. Just as there are real flesh-and-blood victims, there are real flesh-and-blood thieving, criminal politicians who are responsible for abrogating their job of protecting the rights of individuals.

The sad situation created by political elites shows another cliché in fact to be a profound political insight: “Good fences make good neighbors,” meaning that social peace and harmony are the state of affairs when property rights and all other liberties are respected. But when decisions about private matters are made collectively by a majority vote or by elites claiming to speak for the majority, they result in a war of all against all, of groups battling to secure and use political power to force their vision of a good society on others at the destruction of individual lives and social cohesion.

Americans who were shocked by the Kelo decision must assert the absolute right of individuals to their own property. This means small entrepreneurs and giant Walmart, owners of small houses and millionaires with huge mansions. It is the principle of property, based on the principle that one has a right to one's own life, that can stand between the individual and the government bulldozer and wrecking ball. Only when citizens insist that their elected officials enforce this principle will our lives and our homes be safe.

Edward Hudgins
About the author:
Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins, former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society, is the founder of the Human Achievement Alliance and can be reached at ehudgins@humanachievementalliance.org.

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