We hear a lot about “rights” these days. The left tells us everyone has a right to “free” healthcare and education. The right tells us everyone has a right to a job in a factory that pays enough to support an entire household. All these supposed rights have one thing in common: they require taxpayers to subsidize them.
So, there must be something wrong there.
I break down at length the relevant Enlightenment philosophies in my book, Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? But the gist is this: the dominant philosophy in America’s first century and a half was what we’d today call “libertarian.” And that philosophy is based wholly upon property rights.
“Property rights” can be a confusing term. People sometimes use it exclusively to mean rights pertaining to real estate. Others expand it to include movable property, like money or “stuff.” This latter definition is supported by ubiquitous references to “life, liberty, and property” going all the way back to the founders. But that expression is ultimately inaccurate in describing what its source, John Locke, meant by “property.”
Property includes life and liberty as they are all components of the ultimate property right, ownership of oneself. Once you accept that all individuals own themselves, the rest of the rights naturally follow. If you own yourself, it is up to you what you direct your body to do or not do, what your mind thinks or doesn’t think, what you say or don’t say. This is liberty, a component of property, rather than a distinct right.
But what about money, land, and “stuff?” Let’s face it, this is the basis for most conflict. Most political conflicts in human history were ultimately over how wealth is “distributed.” And the libertarian answer is, “It’s not.”
You have a right to all the wealth you legitimately own. Legitimate ownership is established in any of three ways. 1) You “homestead” a physical resource, meaning you expend your labor to take possession of it directly out of nature (land not currently owned by someone else). 2) You obtain the wealth through a voluntary exchange with its previous owner. Or, 3) you create the wealth by combining your mental and/or physical labor with materials obtained through 1) or 2).
The basis for ownership of a homesteaded resource is labor. A tree standing in a remote forest is not an economic good. It cannot be made into a two by four or a table until someone applies his labor to cut it down and transport it to a sawmill.
Labor isn’t just the mental or physical effort to work. It is also the time. Human beings have a finite amount of time during their lives. When the logger cuts down the tree to bring it to the sawmill, the sawmill owner isn’t just buying the tree. He is buying the tree plus some portion of the logger’s life. That is how the ownership was established. The logger exchanged part of his life to convert the tree from a remote object that could not be used by others to an economic good that can.
This is why the logger not only owns the good, but has a better claim than anyone else could possibly make. No one else has traded any part of his life for that good. Even if the logger employed other people to assist him, he has exchanged another good (money) for that labor and still retains the only claim upon the log he sells to the sawmill.
There are some who contend no one has a right to simply appropriate resources out of nature and take ownership of them. This was Rousseau’s contention. If the resources in nature belong to everyone in common, then permission is needed before resources are appropriated out of the commons. The property rights argument is that this permission is not necessary as everyone has an equal right to spend their labor to similarly appropriate resources.
Putting philosophy aside, it should be apparent to anyone the permission argument just doesn’t work. As Locke said, “man had starved” if such a permission were necessary. The first generation of humans would have been the last if they waited for the consent of everyone else before hunting and gathering.
Property rights do work and they apply to every conflict we have today. Do people have a right to healthcare? First, ask, “What is healthcare?” Answer: it is the labor or the product of the labor of others. It’s someone else’s property. So, of course, no one has a right to it unless they obtain it in a voluntary exchange. Ditto education, housing, food, clothing, etc.
This is where the government employs a shell game to allow people to rationalize theft. They don’t propose to enslave the doctor, the teacher, the contractor, or the grocer. Instead, they expropriate money from the taxpayer and use that to obtain healthcare, education, housing, etc. for those the government deems need them.
Nothing changes when money is expropriated vs. when land or stuff is expropriated. Money is “stuff.” It’s just another good for which people exchange their property. We may be forced by the government to use the Federal Reserve’s rotten money, but it’s a good all the same. So, if someone traded her property to obtain it, then taking it away by force to give to someone else is stealing.
But what about the populist right’s contention that everyone has right to a high paying job, which must be supported by tariffs? This is merely adding another shell to the shell game. If a person truly owns wealth, they have a right to exchange that wealth with anyone they please, including foreigners. Either that’s true or they don’t truly own the wealth. They also have a right to accept any price they and the seller agree upon.
Tariffs and other trade restrictions violate this property right. They forcibly override the price agreed upon by buyer and seller with a higher price in order to incentivize the buyer to pay that price to a government-connected domestic seller. Call it “stealing” or “infringing liberty” as you wish; it’s ultimately violation of a property right. That’s how you know it’s wrong.
Jefferson was a Lockean. He often called Locke one of the three greatest men who ever lived, along with Bacon and Newton. But he and other founders did us a disservice by talking about a myriad of distinct rights. There is only one right: property. Every human conflict can be reduced to one question: Who has a property right in this case and who does not? There is always an unambiguous answer, government propaganda notwithstanding.
Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that the sole purpose of government was to secure our inalienable rights, including those to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That whole famous preamble was really a summary of Locke’s Second Treatise. Locke said substantively the same thing but didn’t confuse the matter by talking about distinct rights which couldn’t all be named. Rather, he simply said,
“This makes him willing to quit a condition, which, however free, is full of fears and continual dangers: and it is not without reason, that he seeks out, and is willing to join in society with others, who are already united, or have a mind to unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name, property.
The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.” [emphasis added]
This is what it all boils down to. All the soaring language about liberty, free speech, free enterprise, freedom of religion; it all boils down to property. You have a right to what you legitimately own and nothing more.
The purpose of a government in a free society, according to those who set up the American system, is protecting your property from those who would take it away without your consent. Period.
So, government had one job: protect property. 245 years were more than enough to evaluate its performance. Perhaps it’s time to give another system a chance to do that one job better.
What do we have to lose?
Tom Mullen is the author of Where Do Conservatives and Liberals Come From? And What Ever Happened to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Part One and A Return to Common Sense: Reawakening Liberty in the Inhabitants of America.