Property Rights and Liberty

No real liberty can exist unless people have the freedom to take possession of the things of the world and to control the use and enjoyment of them. The government’s official support for this freedom is known as the law of property.
Legal “property rights” are, in effect, a government-backed guarantee that the coercive power of the state is there to back up people’s freedom to control their own possessions and exclude others from them. However, property rights are not the same as liberty rights (probably one of the reasons why the Framers of our Constitution always referred to them separately).

What is more, property rights are not always favorable to liberty. Indeed, an essential part of property is the right to exclude others. As a result of the right to exclude, every individual faces a world in which nearly all of the land and other things are off limits.

Before property, human beings had a natural freedom to walk the earth and to use whatever they needed. Now, because of property rights, the freedom to walk the earth is largely confined to narrow corridors of “public” space (such as streets) that crisscross a gigantic patchwork of privately appropriated land. The law of trespass is a deduction from the natural freedom of every man, woman and child. This does not make property rights a bad thing, of course, but they are at odds with liberty. And if we are TAKING LIBRERTY SERIOUSLY, this fact needs to be recognized. The law of property is, like most laws, in some degree at odds with liberty.

There are, of course, compelling practical reasons why governments have allowed the land and things of the world to be carved up and distributed among billions of private owners. For one thing, without a government-backed guarantee of exclusive control, the savings, investments and markets required for our present levels of material well-being would surely not occur.

Without property rights, moreover, only the strongest would be able to hang onto any significantly valuable possessions. With a system of property rights, however, the government stands ready to prevent the stronger from taking things just because they can. Thus, even the weakest among us can enhance their lives by acquiring and holding assets. As a result, when property rights are widely distributed, the overall result is actually to increase liberty. Even though the government protection of property is imperfect, it is a tremendous advance.

There is, however, a risk. Government itself is a powerful player in the competition to control the things of the world, Experience has shown that the people who wield the government’s power can all too easily forget that the government’s role is to protect private property rights, not to trample or disregard them. Again, no real liberty can exist unless people are allowed the freedom to make decisions about the use and enjoyment of the things of the world that are in their possession. When government does not give due respect to private property, liberty is in danger.