Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Forgotten Right

The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If ‘Thou shalt not covet’ and ‘Thou shalt not steal’ were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free.”

– John Adams (1787)[1]

It is starting to become apparent to even the most disinterested observer that something much bigger than even a worldwide recession is happening. The seeds of revolution have taken root. Iceland led the way by taking to the streets to force regime change through peaceful demonstration. The French are currently protesting en masse against their government’s bailout of the banking system. One would be na├»ve to think that these are isolated incidents. It is apparent that these are just early warning signs of a worldwide cauldron that is about to boil over, catalyzed by the financial and economic cataclysm that will plunge untold millions into poverty and desperation.

While I applaud the peaceful demonstrations going on in France and Iceland, I also recognize that they are premature. As did Americans in the last election cycle, these Europeans are demanding “change.” However, also like Americans in the last election cycle, they have failed to first answer the crucial questions, “From what? To what?” They have not looked within to assess who they are, what their society is, and what they want it to be. Therefore, they run the risk of simply replacing one oppressive tyranny for another.

Likewise, we will never regain our freedom in America until we address the fundamental problem in our society. I say “the problem,” because at the root of all of what we perceive as a myriad of problems, including the police state, the welfare state, the warfare state, the military industrial complex, the Wall Street oligopoly, the high cost of healthcare and education – everything – there is one philosophical problem that ultimately leads to them all: the repudiation of property rights.

It is likely difficult for most 21st century Americans to absorb this statement, based upon the fact that they have been told now for generations that property is about greed, that accumulating property is oppression, or even that “property is theft.” However, let us look back at the philosophers who inspired our founders and see what they have to say about property. Of course, as I have written here, the primary philosophical basis for the American Revolution came from Locke. What did Locke have to say about the purpose of government?

““The great and chief end, therefore, of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”[2]

Certainly this statement must be startling to most 21st century Americans, who believe that they are supposed to look to their government to fight unemployment, manage the economy, ensure access to healthcare, promote democracy abroad, and pursue a myriad of other ends outside of protecting property. Surely, Locke has over-emphasized property rights here, has he not? Certainly he is alone in his simplistic assessment of the role of government, is he not?

He is not. In seeking guidance on how to construct our government, the American founders also looked to the ancients, particularly the Roman Republic. There, we find Cicero writing,

“For the chief purpose in the establishment of constitutional state and municipal governments was that individual property rights might be secured. For, although it was by Nature's guidance that men were drawn together into communities, it was in the hope of safeguarding their possessions that they sought the protection of cities.”[3] [emphasis added]

The conditioned response of Americans today is to view these ideas as a defense of one class of people at the expense of another. We have been trained to associate “property” as a concern of the “property class,” or in more common American terms, “the haves,” as opposed to the “have nots.” This is a great deception that has lead directly to our ruin. In fact, it is the poor and those of modest means for whom property rights are most important. It is they who, not possessing significant material wealth, must all the more jealously guard the property that they do have. In the end, however, we are all property owners when one considers the most fundamental, most important property of all: our labor itself.

We learn from Locke that all property has its roots in labor. In order to survive, man must work to produce the means of his survival. This is true for people no matter what their financial circumstances. The doctor, the lawyer, the construction worker, the janitor – yes, even the Wall Street financier – must sell his efforts to his fellow man in order to acquire the means of his survival. Therefore, whoever has control over the individual’s labor has control over the individual’s life, and control over the individual’s future. If I steal all of your possessions, you can acquire more. However, if I appropriate your labor, I own all of the property you can ever or will ever acquire. This is an undeniable reality that we have lost sight of, to our peril.

America was founded upon the idea that each individual had an unqualified right to the fruits of his labor.[4] This more than anything was what the founders meant when they spoke the word “liberty.” It was the extent to which this right was respected that made America different than every other society in history, before or since. This was the great secret that made America the engine of prosperity and innovation that it was. This is what made America the land of opportunity to change one’s lot in life. It was this right that gave birth to the American dream.

However, we no longer hold this right up above all others. Instead, we have become a society that is based upon competing groups seeking to plunder each other via the force of government. The rich plunder their neighbors with corporate bailouts, subsidies, and regulatory fascism. The middle class plunder their neighbors with Social Security, Medicare, and criminal unions. The poor are forced to accept legal plunder that they do not want and which provides them with the most miserable quality of life, when the stolen capital that underwrites it could employ them all if it weren’t seized from its rightful owners. Of course, these examples are only the tip of the iceberg; there is much, much more. Virtually every political movement in America is based upon a promise to provide its followers with other people’s property.

This scenario is neither unprecedented nor has it been unrecognized by the great lights of liberty. Bastiat wrote,

“Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter — by peaceful or revolutionary means — into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.”[5]

This vision of Bastiat’s has become reality in America. However, it cannot go on forever. Fortunately for humanity, a society based upon legal plunder is ultimately unsustainable. Just as respect for property rights provides the means to prosperity, violation of them leads to poverty and want. As force replaces voluntary exchange, productivity decreases, and subsequently more force is required to plunder even more. This cycle repeats until society is reduced to an authoritarian nightmare, the first signs of which are becoming apparent in the former “land of the free.” If the people wake up, the nightmare can end. If they continue to slumber, the nightmare can get much, much worse.

This is the great truth that we must rediscover before any revolution can be successful. Before we commit to “change,” we must answer the questions, “From what? To What?” The answers to those questions must be “from a nation of looters to a nation of free individuals who acquire property in the only civilized manner: via voluntary exchange." We must reject the use of force as the means to pursue our happiness, and renew our faith in freedom. Once this great work has been accomplished, let the revolution begin.

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[1] Adams, John A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America (1787)
[2] Locke Second Treatise Ch. IX, Sec. 124
[3]Cicero, Marcus Tullius De Officiis Book II Chapter XXI
[4] “Individuals” who were included in the system. Of course, the founders recognized but did not remedy the obvious contradiction to this inherent in slavery.
[5] Bastiat, Frederic, The Law