Clichés of Progressivism, Part 9
It is not the right of property which is protected, but the right to property. Property, per se, has no rights; but the individual—the man—has three great rights, equally sacred from arbitrary interference: the right to his life, the right to his liberty, the right to his property…. The three rights are so bound together as to be essentially one right. To give a man his life but deny him his liberty, is to take from him all that makes his life worth living. To give him his liberty but take from him the property which is the fruit and badge of his liberty, is to still leave him a slave.
—U.S. Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland
Tricky phrases with favorable meanings and emotional appeal are being used today to imply a distinction between property rights and human rights.
By implication, there are two sets of rights—one belonging to human beings and the other to property. Since human beings are more important, it is natural for the unwary to react in favor of human rights.
Actually, there is no such distinction between property rights and human rights. The term property has no significance except as it applies to something owned by someone. Property itself has neither rights nor value, except as human interests are involved. There are no rights but human rights, and what are spoken of as property rights are only the human rights of individuals to property.
What are the property rights thus disparaged by being set apart from human rights? They are among the most ancient and basic of human rights, and among the most essential to freedom and progress. They are the privileges of private ownership which give meaning to the right to the product of one’s labor—privileges which men have always regarded instinctively as belonging to them almost as intimately and inseparably as their own bodies. Unless people can feel secure in their ability to retain the fruits of their labor, there is little incentive to save and expand the fund of capital—the tools and equipment for production and for better living.
The Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution recognizes no distinction between property rights and other human rights. The ban against unreasonable search and seizure covers “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” without discrimination. No person may, without due process of law, be deprived of “life, liberty or property”; all are equally inviolable. The right to trial by jury is assured in criminal and civil cases alike. Excessive bail, excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments are grouped in a single prohibition. The Founding Fathers realized that a man or woman without property rights—without the right to the product of his own labor—is not a free man.
These constitutional rights all have two characteristics in common. First, they apply equally to all persons. Second, they are, without exception, guarantees of freedom or immunity from governmental interference. They are not assertions of claims against others, individually or collectively. They merely say, in effect, that there are certain human liberties, including some pertaining to property, which are essential to free citizens and upon which the State shall not infringe.
Now what about the so-called human rights that are represented as superior to property rights? What about the “right” to a job, the “right” to a standard of living, the “right” to a minimum wage or a maximum work week, the right to a “fair” price, the “right” to bargain collectively, the “right” to security against the adversities and hazards of life, such as old age and disability?
The framers of the Constitution would have been astonished to hear these things spoken of as rights. They are not immunities from governmental compulsion; on the contrary, they are demands for new forms of governmental compulsion. They are not claims to the product of one’s own labor; they are, in some if not in most cases, claims to the products of other people’s labor.
These “human rights” are indeed different from property rights, for they rest on a denial of the basic concept of property rights. They are not freedoms or immunities assured to all persons alike. They are special privileges conferred upon some persons at the expense of others. The real distinction is not between property rights and human rights, but between equality of protection from governmental compulsion on the one hand and demands for the exercise of such compulsion for the benefit of favored groups on the other.
Paul L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman, from 1956 to 1987.
Used with the permission of the Foundation for Economic Education.