On Independence Day, as we celebrate our American heritage, we are mindful, as we should be, of the individual rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and secured by the Constitution.
More often than not, our rights-talk focuses on what generally are referred to as "political" rights, such as the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, the right to trial by jury, and so forth. Less often is the focus on property rights, which, if not ignored completely, are frequently relegated to second-class status.
While I want to be careful not to be misunderstood as denigrating in any way the importance of so-called political rights – because obviously they are essential to our conception of individual liberty – I wish to highlight in this Independence Day message the importance our Founders also placed on securing property rights. And I wish to suggest, if only briefly, why securing property rights is as important to our personal well-being, and our nation's well-being, as the protection of political rights.
The Constitution, of course, provides that the government cannot deprive us of "life, liberty, or property," without due process of law. Nor shall "private property" be taken for public use without just compensation. So, the Founders certainly recognized the importance of property in the Constitution itself.
But it is important to understand that for many of the Founders, there was no meaningful distinction between political and property rights. They were of equal importance. Indeed, they were inextricably intertwined. Hence, in his famous essay, "Property," James Madison, often referred to as the Father of our Constitution, said, "in its larger and juster meaning," the term "property" includes "everything to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage."
Thus, Madison continued:
"[A man] has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights. When an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions."
And then Madison emphasized the importance of government's property-protection role for all property rights of whatever sort, whether tangible or intangible:
"Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own."
The protection of property rights is essential to the functioning of our free market capitalist economy and increases the overall economic and social well-being of all citizens. As the late Armen Alchian, emeritus professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, explained:
"Under a private property system the market values of property reflect the preferences and demands of the rest of society. No matter who the owner is, the use of the resource is influenced by what the rest of the public thinks is the most valuable use. The reason is that an owner who chooses some other use must forsake that highest-valued use—and the price others would pay him for the resource or for the use of it. This creates an interesting paradox: although property is called 'private,' private decisions are based on public, or social, evaluation. The fundamental purpose of property rights, and their fundamental accomplishment, is that they eliminate destructive competition for control of economic resources. Well-defined and well-protected property rights replace competition by violence with competition by peaceful means."
Furthermore, under a rule of law regime, property ownership provides the necessary protected realm of freedom – a freedom sanctuary if you will – in which creativity, entrepreneurship, and initiative can take root and flourish independent of government in a way that benefits not only the individual but also society at large.
In concluding his essay on "Property," James Madison declared:
"If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights: they will rival the government that most sacredly guards the former; and by repelling its example in violating the latter, will make themselves a pattern to that and all other governments."
Thus, as we consider the liberty we enjoy, embodied in the words of the Declaration of Independence and secured by the Constitution, we should not forget the signal importance of protecting property rights of all kinds, whether in real or personal property in land or goods, or intellectual property created by marrying the creativity of our minds with our individual initiative.
Indeed, on this Independence Day, we should not forget that property rights are inseparable from the other rights secured by our Constitution and the rule of law.
From all of us at the Free State Foundation, whatever your rightful disposition, or disposition regarding rights, we wish you a happy and safe Independence Day.