On Liberty and Property


The Founders understood that a respect for personal property is closely linked to individual rights and liberties within society.  According to James Madison, the term property encompasses “every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to everyone else the like advantage.”  Property, therefore, encompasses far more than material possessions.  It includes such things as a man’s talents, intellect and personal security.  Under this definition, any government that seizes a man’s rightful property is violating that man’s liberty.

Liberty and property are ultimately inseparable.  This is most clearly seen in the arena of intellectual property: if men are not allowed to think, how can they ever be free?  A man’s ownership of his own skills and talents is also closely connected to liberty.  Any system which denies a worker the right to use their talents within the market hampers that worker the chance to improve his or her own life through innovation and hard work.  Governmental economic planning, which assigns citizens to specific labors without regard for personal desire or innovation, violates each citizen’s possession of his own talents, and thereby destroys both economic and personal liberty.

The accumulation of large amounts of property by a few individuals is generally frowned upon by society in general, leading to popular calls for increased taxes upon the rich.  However, just as each worker should have the right to labor for his own profit, every man, regardless of his wealth, should be able to enjoy the fruit of his own work and ability.  Extremely high taxes are no more appropriate for the rich than for the poor: every citizen’s property must be respected if this country is to remain free. 

At this point, it is important to note the final clause of the earlier quote from Madison: “property… leaves to everyone else the like advantage.”  The wealth of some citizens should never necessitate the poverty of others.  Free-market economies do indeed contain both rich and poor citizens, but every citizen should have at least the opportunity achieve prosperity.  In cases of oppression and abuse, outside intervention may be required to allow each citizen this opportunity for prosperity, but the government can never guarantee wealth to all.  Such a government would have no respect for either property rights or the purpose of government in general, which is not to provide people with property, but to bring an order based upon right, not upon brute force, into society, thereby creating the conditions under which property is secure.

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