Friday, July 01, 2005

The Great Government Land Grab: Personal Rights and Property Rights

This discussion, in desiring to probe the center of the eminent domain issue, will focus on the ideological underpinnings of the idea of private property and also the fact that these rights are as natural as the right of self-ownership. Three different perspectives will be presented and then integrated into a better and clearer picture of the origin of property rights in any free society.

The first perspective, and the foundation of property rights ideology in the United States, is that of seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). More specifically, in his 1689 Second Treatise of Government, Locke lays out the argument for the existence of property rights that influenced U.S. law and such documents as the Declaration of Independence. Locke's argument begins with the reasonable assertion that every man (his words) has property over his own person and, by extension, over "the labor of his body and the work of his hands (1)." He then goes on to state that:
  • "Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labour being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to (2)."

It is easy to extend this idea of property to such things as intellectual property, wage labor and other economic structures and factors that came into prominence in the centuries since Locke's originally conceived it. The premise is that people own their bodies and the labor and industry that they produce (of course, in a wage system, they trade this labor for money and not by direct production). When this labor is mixed with the raw materials of nature, be they concrete or otherwise, the laborer has a right to take possession of said property.

This conversion of labor into real property respects the self-ownership of the individual and also respects the exertion necessary to support oneself and flourish by the work of the hands and mind. Since this system of property ownership descends from the impetus of the individual, it can be said that it favors the rights of the individual over that of the collective, including the government and other people who did not work or labor for the particular property in question. It, and here is where eminent domain comes in, protects the property rightfully and legally gained by the individual from seizure by other people or the government. This shows a strong (I think) case against the government ever having the power to take the property of private citizens.

In a work composed in our own time, Murray N. Rothbard's For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, this idea is extended and given more texture by considering the implications of these ideas in the modern world. Rothbard agrees with the general principles set out by Locke, and further asks "if a producer is not entitled to the fruit of his labor, who is (3)?" Rothbard also argues, in an important extension of Locke, that property rights cannot be separated from human rights. He argues that those who agree in the protection of rights such as freedom of speech and expression who deny that people have rights to property have the tendency to treat human beings as ethereal abstractions (4). If a person truly has self-ownership (and only those who believe in slavery or servitude would believe otherwise), then this person must also have the right to sustain their lives by living off and from the environment, transforming and changing resources. To sustain the right of property in oneself, one must also have the right in the material world (5).

The implications for the eminent domain situation are strongly suggested by Rothbard's argument. If property rights are human rights, when they are violated, they cause much more of a problem than may be imagined. Eminent domain, as defined by judicial precedent and understood today, seems to be in ignorance of this idea of the right of people to property in themselves and the material world. It is indeed inhumane to deny these rights to people who diligently and honestly work and earn property by their mental and physical labor. Any state that would do so is abusing the rights of it's citizens.

Lastly, the logical conclusion comes from F.A. Hayek in his classic 1944 book Road to Serfdom. Hayek argues that:

  • "...the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not. It is only because the control of the means of production are divided among many people acting independently that nobody has complete power over us, that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves (6)."

Following his general argument in Road to Serfdom, Hayek introduces the idea of property rights as a necessary and important check on the power of the state to control the lives of individuals. This ownership must be de-centralized to prevent the state from gaining complete control over the property, and therefore the rights, of the citizenry.

Taken in consideration with yesterday's discussion, what can be said of the relation between eminent domain and property rights? This is answered simply enough in light of the preceding discussion: there can be no power of eminent domain in any form in a society of free individuals. Unless the citizens agree on the public use of the land to be taken, are paid a fair price and are not coerced into vacating their property and therefore cede their rights, this power should not be extended to any state. The right of the people to their property is sacrosanct and no government that respects the primacy of the individual and his/her rights would deny this idea. These ideas call into serious question the idea of eminent domain in a free society.

Next week, we shall look at the current situation in the light of these considerations; namely, the 2005 decision of the Supreme Court in Kelo v. New London. It's implications will be considered in the light of the aforementioned arguments concerning property, personal and natural rights.


  1. John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980), 19.
  2. Ibid., 19.
  3. Murray N. Rothbard, For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (San Francisco, CA: Fox and Wilkes, 1979), 35.
  4. Ibid., 42.
  5. Ibid., 43.
  6. F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 115.

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