Modern liberalism and private property rights

I get along with modern liberals as people; I really do. Many of them are far more willing to entertain new ideas than other types of thinkers, and in general they have a passion for justice which is commendable. Ultimately, however, I find that their political philosophy is, at best, confused.

There is perhaps no area of liberal [1] confusion which is more important than that of private property rights, for while the Left steadfastly guards natural rights, most of them hold that there is no such thing as a right of private property. Left libertarians claim the same thing. I have heard some of these latter folks posit that only the government can enforce private property rights, and that therefore they are an instrument of tyranny. (For a rebuttal of this view, see, yet again, Murray Rothbard’s _Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature_.[2]) Other leftists hold property rights in malodorous contempt because they smack of capitalism, wealth and all that other nasty stuff. Finally, there is the anarcho-communist view of common ownership, which clearly would not have room for an ethic of private property ownership.

Some conservative readers might presently be feeling pretty good about themselves. “I voted for Ronald Reagan, and he was in favor of the free economy, including property rights!” Well, the problem with modern conservatism is that it is, in general, so utilitarian that it makes John Stuart Mill look pedantically consistent. I was lamenting to a Republican friend the fact that some libertarians do not accept the notion of private property rights. “What??? Private property rights are what create wealth,” he retorted.

I don’t have a problem with what he said; I do, however, have a problem with what he didn’t say. It is true, and quite a good thing, that private property rights create wealth, encourage responsibility, etc. But to defend property rights from this angle only is to be utilitarian, and to be utilitarian is to set oneself up for defeat at a later time on as-yet unforeseen utilitarian grounds.

Richard Weaver, who, like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, is worshiped by many but heeded by few, called private property the “last metaphysical right.” The adjective is what’s operative here: metaphysical. Man’s right to private property is natural, moral, and even perhaps divinely instituted.


John Locke wrote that man takes ownership of objects when he mixes his labor with those objects and transforms them in some way. This is where the libertarian principle of “homesteading” comes in: On a previously unclaimed piece of land, a man takes ownership by transforming that land in some way. He might till a field, build a house, or plant trees. In all of these, and in many other, ways, he has mixed his labor with the piece of land, and so the previously unclaimed (this is key!) land now belongs to him.

The acquisition of money is similar. A man goes to work, exerts himself using his body or his mind, and accepts payment in return for his services. (This payment is usually in the form of money rather than in a share of what he produces; this is a point of controversy in some quarters but too much of a can of worms to open here.) You, therefore, have a metaphysical right to your income. So, for instance, when someone robs you at gunpoint, or the government taxes you (but I repeat myself), your rights are being violated.

Even if one were not to grant that private property rights are natural rights, it would nonetheless be philosophically difficult to draw anything more than a nominal distinction between them. Since private property rights are a function of mixing labor with objects, and since labor is done by the human body, then private property rights are bound up with the human person. I make money by producing widgets, and I produce widgets by using my body, which, given the concept of self-ownership, is mine. If, therefore, by some perverse occurrence, I would be deprived of my private property rights, what would stand in the way of my losing my natural rights?

This is, ultimately, the problem with the modern liberals’ rejection of property rights: it flies in the face of their very commendable passion for natural rights. When one shoe drops, the other will follow shortly thereafter. In the early 20th century, property rights were dealt a serious blow by the amendment to the U.S. Constitution which made allowance for the income tax.[3] And how many rights have we lost since then? Bar owners in the city of Philadelphia, for the most part, can’t even decide if they want to allow smoking in their establishments. It is now banned in all but the smallest watering holes by city fiat. And what about warrantless wiretapping? Is this not a logical outcome of the dissolution of property rights? I should think so.

Finally, we ought to consider one of the aspects of ownership, which is the owner’s entitlement to make decisions with his belongings. For the sake of simplicity, let us imagine a society in which there are no property rights whatsoever. How will decisions be made about anything? Who will have the right to determine who is to wear this red shirt, or who is to drive that blue car? This problem exists in direct relation to the refusal to recognize private property rights. A better way to put it is that freedom thrives in direct proportion to respect for private property.[4]

When it comes to land, we can often say to a potential aggressor, “Hey, buddy, my property line is here, and you dare not cross it.” In a certain sense, this is the function of all types of private property rights. It’s the resource we have to say to each other, and, more importantly, to the government, “Hey, pal, this is my domain. Scram.” If this last metaphysical right is not restored, our hopes for all the other rights become much more bleak.


[1] I am using “liberal” throughout to denote modern liberalism, and not to reference what is sometimes called classical liberalism.

[2] Rothbard discusses the utilitarian implications of this. As to the claim that only the government can defend private property, the short answer is, of course, that the owner can take care of this.

[3] This amendment was passed through a democratic process. Nevertheless, those who voted at that time did not have the right to forfeit the rights of future generations. One is reminded of Thomas Paine’s retort to the insufferable Edmund Burke on similar points in the 18th century.

[4] It should be noted that an ethic of freedom based on private property rights does not constitute a libertine Weltanshauung. This is because, while person A has the right to use his property as he wishes, he has no right to aggress against the property of person B in the process, and person B has the right to defend himself against any aggression on his property.


One Response

  1. You might check out this comment in response to a post on my blog about Thomas Paine, regarding close interpretation of Locke. In any case, I don’t know of any liberals that reject property rights outright, as in advocating the abolition of the system of private ownership. We simply do not take the radical libertarian position that taxation to provide for the public welfare constitutes a violation of basic human rights.

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