The Pathos of Politics (78) Private Property

Private Property

At one time in the world there were woods that no one owned. ~ American writer Cormac McCarthy

Based upon natural law, private property was originally thought by classical liberals to be an inalienable right. The march of economic ‘progress’ had liberals observe that control of property meant denying liberty to others.

One of the most hotly debated phrases in the 1776 Declaration of Independence was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those more conservative than Jefferson argued that the phrase should be “life, liberty, and property,” just as John Locke had written.

Accordingly, liberals demoted this once natural right to a secondary position. Property became a social right: one that may be granted, regulated, or denied based upon perceived societal needs. Eminent domain, a long-standing legal principal, follows this value priority.

Liberals challenge private property as lacking a link between it and human well-being. Natural rights are those necessary to lead a decent life. Something which is denied by one to another is not just. If equal treatment is a moral virtue, then subjection without consent has no moral basis. Hence Jefferson’s insistence on “pursuit of happiness” as a natural right, but not “property.”

11 years after Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, a less liberal group of men met in Philadelphia to write a new constitution. Scant mention was made of the rights of citizens in 1787. Indeed, it was only in 1791, in adopting the 5th Amendment, that any general statement of inalienable rights appeared in the constitution; and then the reference read “life, liberty, and property.” Conservatives were clearly in control of the country.

The transformation in the United States from revolutionary liberalism to conservatism leading the political pack was astonishingly quick. Only in dire economic crises, or facing outrageous social injustice, have liberal inclinations stirred the nation. As a general rule, those on the left of the political spectrum emphasize human rights, while those on the right lean toward property rights.

It is not that liberals lack appreciation of property. Ask a liberal whether a seller should be able to discriminate against a buyer on a racial or religious basis and the answer would be an emphatic “no!”, as this would violate fairness from a human rights standpoint.

Conversely, a conservative would uphold property right as preeminent. A seller may sell to whomever he pleases; it is, after all, private property to use or transfer as seen fit.