Navigating the World of Property
“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Rights and Lefts
As you travel the path of peace and liberty, you will find that many advocates of the
Unfortunately, in the U.S. and many other places, the rights to liberty and property are increasingly under attack in the name of protecting other more nebulous "rights" such as free college education or free birth control. This is a gross misunderstanding of what “rights” actually are as well as a flagrant violation of the
Rights are claims or entitlements to things or actions. Libertarians usually divide rights into two categories, negative and positive. Negative rights are freedoms from the actions of others while positive rights are obligations for others to take action. For libertarians, your negative rights to life, liberty and property are inalienable in that no other person can make a reasonable claim to them. Positive "rights", on the other hand, only exist by mutual agreement, or contract, between two people or parties. You have the right to eat, for example, but cannot compel someone else to feed you. In order to eat, you must agree to a trade with the grocer or convince them to provide you food through their charity. Non-signatories to such an agreement are under no obligation to abide by its requirements. Thus, despite its confusing name, “negative rights” are in fact positive in that they are in accord with the
Without the recognition of property rights, other rights such as the freedom to speech, assembly and religious worship cannot be protected. Unfortunately, when the government “owns” large swaths of incorrectly labeled “public” land, the protection of even these basic rights becomes distorted.
People have become so used to the repeated violations of property rights by governments that they rarely consider the costs and ultimate outcome of such violations. A better understanding of and a more rigorous support for property rights would actually serve to decrease hostilities and conflicts.
Let us first consider the right to a free press. It seems fairly obviously that a free press is heavily dependent on private property. In order to publish a newspaper, a person or group traditionally had to make a large capital investment in the printing machinery, newsprint and other materials as well as a building to house the equipment. Once printed, they next had the matter of distribution. In order to obtain widespread distribution, they needed to pay for transport either through capital investment in trucks and other vehicles or by hiring the labor and capital of others. Once a distribution method was established, however, they still encountered other property protections in that they could not force the publication into the homes of others. Even if distributing the publication for free and leaving it at the very threshold of a person’s home, there was never any compulsion by the targeted recipient to read or “consume” the publication.
The right to free speech, while not requiring the intensive capital investment of printing, also depends on property. You cannot, for example, enter someone’s house in order to make a speech without their permission. In order to express your opinions verbally, you must either 1) obtain your own property through purchase, rent or charity and then invite others to join you, 2) be invited onto the private property of others to express your opinions, or 3) rely on the existence of public property. These "public" properties are of course not owned by the public at all but are instead entirely controlled by governments.
It is in the reliance on so called “public” spaces that we can clearly see how easily governments can interfere with the right to speech. In the United States, for example, Margaret Sanger was arrested in 1912 for giving a lecture on birth control. In 1918 Eugene Debs was arrested for making a speech against the war and was sentenced to ten years in prison. More recently, both the federal and local governments have taken to establishing Orwellian named “free speech zones” during events such as political party conventions and presidential speeches. These "zones" are situated far away from the event attendees, effectively suppressing speech and the right of assembly.
In a similar manner the former USSR, while proclaiming the right to religious expression in its constitution, severely curtailed its actual practice through its extensive control of property and the means of production. By confiscating church property and by controlling all schools and printing presses, the Soviet government made the actual practice of religion extremely difficult.
Property Under Attack
From these examples, then, it should be clear that the fundamental rights to speech, the press, assembly and worship are in fact dependent on the recognition and protection of property rights. Unfortunately the very concept of property is under attack in the United States and elsewhere as business owners are penalized by state and local governments for deciding how they wish to operate and by selecting the customers they wish to serve.
A fundamental proposition of the
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, for example, Studio 54 was a popular night club in New York. The lines were often very long to get in and the club was blatantly discriminatory in its admission policy, giving preferential treatment to the rich, famous and\or beautiful. No government at any level thought to press charges against the club for said discrimination at that time, although they were busted for tax evasion (the government does have its priorities).
Fast forward to 2015: When a bakery in Oregon chose not to create a wedding cake for a lesbian couple for religious reasons, the state fined the business $135,000 for alleged damages. A court in Colorado ruled against a bakery in a similar case from 2012.
Unfortunately, politicians and pundits have conflated cases like this into arguments over freedom of religion and\or speech. The issue is more basic then that. As detailed in this section, the rights of speech and religious expression are dependent on the more fundamental rights of property and self ownership, core elements of the
The Liberating Power of the Free Market
Support for the free association of individuals and groups is a hallmark of the
The opposition by libertarians to aggressive government implementation of supposed remedies for past discrimination is sometimes misunderstood to be de facto support of racial and other forms of discrimination. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was in fact the free market forces that libertarians enthusiastically support, and not plodding moves by the US federal government, that most aided the removal of “Jim Crow” laws and other forms of government institutionalized segregation in the southern U.S. and throughout the country. It was only when the African Americans of the southern United States began to harness the peaceful, nonaggressive power of the marketplace that other informal and State sanctioned barriers began to fall.
A few years after the formal abolishment of slavery in the United States in 1865, racial segregation laws that had existed prior to the Civil War were reinstituted in a number of southern states. To say that there were a lot of hard feelings among the whites of the Deep South after the war would be the understatement of the century. The oxymoronically named “Civil War” resulted in the death of over 620,000 US citizens with the brunt of the physical destruction occurring in southern cities such as Atlanta, Georgia. Using the power of the State, a number of whites extracted retribution by curtailing the rights of blacks to vote and by placing harsh restrictions on businesses in their interactions with black customers. Racial segregation at the federal level increased in the decades that followed as well. In the 1910’s President Wilson, the first President from the south since the Civil War, formally institutionalized racially segregated departments and offices at the federal level.
In the face of local, state and now federally instituted segregation laws, the peaceful forces of the free market slowly worked to break down the walls. These forces became particularly strong following the end of the Second World War.
Prior to the war, the African American runner Jesse Owens had electrified the world at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, challenging Hitler’s claim of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals. Unfortunately the US government, oblivious to irony, continued to segregate whites and blacks throughout World War II as it fought the forces of fascism in the supposed name of freedom.
The introduction of the first black baseball player, Jackie Robinson, to the major leagues in 1947 was one the first significant post war demonstrations of the free market’s ability to tear down walls of separation through economic incentives. Robinson’s manager, Leo Durocher, clearly understood this when he informed his initially less than enthusiastic players "I'm the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What's more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded."
Another type of market force, the threat of losing customers and revenues, also helped to break segregation. The use of sit-ins and boycotts, such as those that occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, put financial pressure on companies such as Woolworths to eliminate their racial segregation polices.
Unfortunately government operated institutions, such as public schools and the voting box, are less susceptible to market forces as government often has a de facto monopoly on these operations. Fortunately, a third feature of the free market, that of invention and innovation, provided an additional force to end segregation. It is difficult to overstate the impact of broadcast television on public opinion in the 1950’s and beyond. As television ownership in the U.S. accelerated from 9% of homes in 1950 to 87% by 1960, the full ramifications of government sanctioned segregation laws, and its violent defense of it through beatings, police dogs and fire hoses, rapidly accelerated public pressure on governments at all levels to rescind segregation laws.
- Property rights are the foundation for other rights such as speech, assembly and the press.
- In the United States, civil rights groups used the power of the free market to dismantle institutionalized segregation at the federal, state and local levels.
- Technical innovations such as television and the World Wide Web have been instrumental to challenging the power of the State.