by Brian Balfour
Senior Vice President of Research, John Locke Foundation
Leftists like to create a dichotomy between human rights and property rights. This was on display during the 2020 summer of riots when many progressives dismissed the burning and looting of buildings as “just property damage,” as if to distinguish damage to property from “actual violence.”
Of course breaking a window is not the same as physically assaulting a person. But reading between the lines of such pleas reveals an effort to draw clear distinctions between human rights and property rights.
This is a false dichotomy, however, that serves to threaten our freedom and destroy our rights. Because, as economist and political philosopher Murray Rothbard put it: “the only human rights, in short, are property rights.”
How can one make such a claim?
In his book 1970 book “Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market,” Rothbard began his explanation with two key points. “(P)roperty rights accrue to humans and humans alone,” he began, followed by “the ‘human right’ to life requires the right to keep what one has produced to sustain and advance life.”
The starting point for the undeniability of property rights is self-ownership. “In the first place, each individual, as a natural fact, is the owner of himself, the ruler of his own person,” Rothbard wrote, adding that such rights are “each man’s property right is his own being, and from this property right stems his right to material goods that he has produced.”
John Locke also famously weighed in on the topic of property rights in his classic 1823 book “Two Treatises of Government.”
“(E)very man has a ‘property’ in his own ‘person.’ This nobody has any right to but himself,” Locke wrote. “The ‘labour’ of his body and the ‘work’ of his hands, we may say, are properly his.”
As such, Locke argued, the fruits of a man’s labor indisputably belong to him: “Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”
Similarly, North Carolina’s state constitution includes the right to “the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor” along with the rights to life and liberty in Article I’s declaration of rights.
Property rights and human rights are therefore not only intrinsically linked, but human rights fail to exist without property rights. For instance, Rothbard noted, is the right to free speech. The human right of free speech supposedly means people have the right to say what they want. But where? “He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing,” Rothbard responded.
Imagine if the government owned all the printing presses, radio and podcasting equipment, lecture halls, etc. The only speech allowed under such circumstances would be that which the government officials allowed. No property rights, no free speech rights.
“In fact, then, there is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech,’ there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners,” Rothbard concluded.
Slavery, murder, and assault are wrong because they violate the individuals’ property right of self-ownership.
And what about the concept of self-ownership? Who objects to that?
Anyone advocating for individuals to sacrifice their property or otherwise alter their behavior in service of the “common good,” that’s who.
Implicit in this notion is that individuals must be obedient to any rules or mandates that benefit “society” or the “collective,” oftentimes declaring that the common good overrides each individual’s property rights. Never mind that what is “good for society” is inevitably determined by those holding political power and typically benefits the ruling class rather than society.
How can something determined to be a “common good” justify the erosion of your human rights; i.e. property rights? To justify it, the individual’s right to self-ownership must be violated.
On what grounds? If you don’t have ownership over yourself, who does? “Society”?
Society is a collection of individuals, so saying that “society” has at least partial ownership over you leads to the notion that people don’t fully own themselves but have partial ownership over everyone else. An absurd — and immoral — concept to be sure.
Property rights are not something to be sealed in a separate compartment from human rights or deigned to be lesser than human rights. Human rights are property rights. Attempts to belittle or otherwise erode property rights are a violation of your core human right of self-ownership. Anyone interested in preserving freedom must advocate for preserving property rights.