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
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, save only 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.
Expressed more accurately, the issue is not one of property rights versus human rights, but of the human rights of one person in the community versus the human rights of another.
Those who talk about two sets of rights apparently want to discriminate between property income and labor income—with the implication that the rights to rental and investment income are inferior, as a class, to the rights to income from wages and salaries. Actually, this is an unwarranted assumption. It must be evident that all persons have rights which are entitled to respect. Safeguarding such rights is essential to the wellbeing of all. This is the only just principle. Thus, the problem is not to establish priorities on human rights in the community, but rather to determine what the respective rights are in the particular cases under dispute. This is the real problem in human relations, and it is one that calls for the exercise of wisdom, restraint, and true administration of justice under law.
What Are “Property Rights”?
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.
The ownership of property is the right for which, above all others, the common man has struggled in his slow ascent from serfdom. It is the right for which he struggles today in countries emerging from feudalism. The sense of this right is so deep-rooted in human nature, so essential as a stimulant of productive effort, that even totalitarian regimes have been unable to abolish it entirely.
It is a mistake to belittle the importance of property rights. Respect for these rights is basic to organized society, and the instinct of individuals to acquire property is at the root of all economic progress. Unless people can feel secure in their ability to retain the fruits of their labor, there is little incentive to save and to expand the fund of capital—the tools and equipment for production and for better living. The industrial development of this country, which has given us the highest standard of living in the world and has made possible a miracle of production in war and peace, is dependent upon the observance of property rights. Who is going to work and save if these rights are not recognized and protected?
The right to own property means the right to use it, to save it, to invest it for gain, and to transmit it to others. It means freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and from deprivation without due process of law or without just compensation. It might also be fairly taken to imply a limitation upon taxation because “the power to tax involves the power to destroy.” For a like reason, it should imply assurance against governmental dilution of the money whereby the government takes property which otherwise could be claimed by wage and salary checks and other credit instruments. Further, it should insure against other measures so burdensome or restrictive as to prevent the employment of savings in legitimate productive enterprise with a reasonable prospect of gain. Violation of any of these rights can nullify, in whole or in part, the right to property.
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 of 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 what some present-day politicians seem to have forgotten: A man without property rights—without the right to the product of his own labor—is not a free man. He can exist only through the generosity or forbearance of others.
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 men and upon which the state shall not infringe. . . .
What Are “Human Rights”?
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 workweek, 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.
The “Right” to a Job
To point out these characteristics of the so-called human rights is not to deny the reality nor belittle the importance of the social problems they represent. Some of these problems are real and important. They are also complex, and in this further respect they are different from the rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
There is no great difficulty nor danger in declaring that certain individual rights shall not be tampered with by the government—and in adhering to that principle. It is quite another matter to say that the government shall seize the property or curtail the freedom of some of its citizens for the benefit, or the supposed benefit, of others. To adopt this view is to cast both the government and the citizen in radically new roles, with far-reaching effects on economic behavior, political practices, and individual character.
Consider, for example, the so-called right to a job. This is a fine-sounding phrase that evokes an emotional response. It creates a mental image of an unemployed worker and his family suffering hardship through no fault of their own. No one would deny the reality nor the seriousness of that, especially when the unemployed worker is multiplied by millions. To find the best remedy, however, is a difficult matter, and it is not made easier by the use of such misleading catchwords as the “right” to a job. One man’s “right” to a job implies an obligation on the part of someone else to give him a job. Who has any such obligation?
An economy of private enterprise functions by means of voluntary contracts entered into for the sake of mutual advantage. Jobs arise from such contracts. The obligation to fulfill his contract is the only right any person can have to a job. Both sides of the contract have to be fulfilled. The employer’s job—his side of the contract—is to anticipate what the consumers will want in the market place. His capacity to offer jobs to employees depends upon how well he understands the market pattern of consumer preferences. He has no right of control over the market. There is a limit to his capacity to provide jobs. And in the final analysis, an employee’s so-called right to a job is determined by what consumers think the product or service is worth to them.
As with the “right” to a job, so with the other so-called human rights. These are not rights in the constitutional sense of respect for privacy; they are, instead, social programs which the government has undertaken or has been asked to promote. These programs, unlike true rights, are selective, coercive, complex, and experimental. Hence, they need to be carefully considered each on its own merits with due regard to the serious threats they may involve to the real and basic human rights that have enabled free men to build a society with the highest level of material well-being ever achieved anywhere.
Triple Threats to Private Property
On the economic side, the gravest threat is that productive enterprise will be so burdened and impeded by high taxes, prohibitions, red tape, and controls that industry will stagnate. Without the products of industry, social programs of any kind become empty promises. New political powers and functions increase the cost of government and drain manpower from farms and factories into administrative bureaus. The great bulk of the money for benefit payments to favored groups must be taken from those who produce by putting forth their own efforts or by investing their savings. Min-imum-wage rates wipe out the entire lower range of job opportunities in the business world. Only the government, with the power to tax, can pay more for labor than it is worth. Maximum-hour laws further limit the opportunity to be productive. Artificially pegged prices and wage rates interfere with the normal market process of gearing production to the maximum satisfaction of consumer wants.
On the political side, the increase of power multiplies the opportunities for the abuse of power and the harm that can be done by such abuse. High tax rates expose taxpayers and collectors to strong temptations. The disbursement of billions of dollars in public funds opens new avenues for favoritism and corruption. This system of political distribution of the wealth of a nation encourages government by pressure groups, with the favors flowing toward the groups with the most votes. Demands for more liberal benefits on the one hand and for tax relief on the other converge upon the public treasury. Deficit financing and currency depreciation tend to become national habits which feed upon the savings of individuals and wipe out the means of production and progress.
On the human side, the individual citizen discovers that it is increasingly difficult to get ahead by enterprise and thrift—increasingly profitable to join in the scramble for governmental favors and handouts. The sense of relationship between services rendered and payment received grows weaker. Personal initiative and self-reliance give way to an attitude of: let the government do it. Free citizens tend to degenerate into wards of the state.
These are not imaginary effects, but real ones. They are visible here and now. They are the consequences of placing social programs, mislabeled “human rights,” above the real human rights, disparagingly called “property rights,” which underlie the productive strength of free men.