Friday, September 01, 2006

Property Rights and Human Rights

In a letter to the editor of the Charlottesville Daily Progress, which appeared on Thursday, Uriah J. Fields of Albemarle County uses the complaint of one-time state legislative candidate Rich Collins against a local property owner to assert that Collins' First Amendment rights were violated.

I have written about the Collins case before, shortly after it hit the news ("Candidate Rich Collins Arrested," May 15, 2005, and "Update on Trespasser Rich Collins," May 24, 2005). Mr. Fields' letter made me want to revisit the issue, because he shows in his writing how widely the concept of property rights is misunderstood.

Fields writes

... since it is the public who patronizes shopping centers and makes it possible for them to exist, they should not be designated as private property. Shopping centers are “property in common” and should be designated as such.

Much too often property rights are allowed to trump human rights. This must cease.

The deprivatization of shopping centers needs to become a priority issue for politicians in Virginia who have been elected by the people to, among other things, safeguard their First Amendment free-speech right.

Whether Fields actually believes that shopping centers should be owned by the government is somewhat beside the point. He may be a socialist, or he may not be. He can try to defend his views in favor of that failed political and economic system if he likes.

What I want to focus on is his statement that "property rights are allowed to trump human rights," as though he is talking about two separate and incompatible categories.

The fact is, human rights do not exist in the absence of private property. Property rights are human rights because the rights we are talking about in the phrase "property rights" do not inhere to the property (whether real estate, intellectual property, capital goods, or the clothes on one's back) but to the human beings who own that property.

As UCLA economics professor Armen A. Alchian has noted in The Concise Encylopedia of Economics:
One of the most fundamental requirements of a capitalist economic system—and one of the most misunderstood concepts—is a strong system of property rights. For decades social critics in the United States and throughout the Western world have complained that "property" rights too often take precedence over "human" rights, with the result that people are treated unequally and have unequal opportunities. Inequality exists in any society. But the purported conflict between property rights and human rights is a mirage—property rights are human rights....

Private property rights do not conflict with human rights. They are human rights. Private property rights are the rights of humans to use specified goods and to exchange them. Any restraint on private property rights shifts the balance of power from impersonal attributes toward personal attributes and toward behavior that political authorities approve. That is a fundamental reason for preference of a system of strong private property rights: private property rights protect individual liberty. [Emphasis added]
As it happens, George Mason University economist Walter Williams addresses this issue (from a somewhat different angle) in one of his most recent syndicated columns. Dr. Williams invokes one of the Founders to conclude his column:
John Adams warned, "The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. Property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist."
I could continue by citing John Locke and other notable philosophers about the importance of private property to liberty, but I thought this remark of poet e. e. cummings (which I found in a handy reference on my shelf, 20,000 Quips & Quotes, compiled by Evan Esar) put it nicely:
Private property began the instant somebody had a mind of his own.
That's what it's all about: the autonomy of the individual against the all-encompassing state or tribe. Private property is not opposed to human rights; it is what makes respect for human rights possible and their protection mandatory.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, we have property rights? I thought the police could seize whatever they want.