John Locke Update / Research Brief

Roy Cooper’s self-serving distinction between people and property

posted on in COVID-19 Series, Economics, Property Rights

“Let me be clear about one thing: People are more important than property.” – Gov. Roy Cooper, Twitter, May 31, 2020

Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted this statement amid the riots in Raleigh and other cities around the state on the weekend of May 30. The apparent purpose of his tweet was to downplay the moral outrage that many were expressing over the looting and destruction of buildings and businesses in several of North Carolina’s downtown districts, including Raleigh and Fayetteville. The clear message that he was sending was that it’s only property that was being destroyed, not people’s lives.

Cooper’s dichotomy between people and property has been a common theme expressed on the Marxist and anarchist left since its beginnings in the 19th century. Karl Marx saw property as the way that capitalists exploited the “working class.”  In that same vein, the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon declared that “property is theft,” a cry that has been picked up by many contemporary left-wing anarchist movements that consider Proudhon to be their intellectual father. Cooper’s attempt to separate property from the people whose lives depend on it, consciously or not, is in this tradition.

The fact is that humanity and property are inseparable. To show disrespect for peoples’ property is to show disrespect for people.  And to the degree one’s property is destroyed or taken away, so too is his or her life.

As opposed to Marx, Proudhon, and Cooper, philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand makes the argument quite logically. Writing in the tradition of John Locke, Rand points out in the essay “The Meaning of Capitalism” in Capitalism the Unknown Ideal that:

“Man has to work and produce in order to support his life…If he cannot dispose of the product of his effort [his property]…he cannot dispose of his life. Without property rights no other rights can be practiced.”

This connection between people and their property – what Rand called the “product of their effort” or what we often call the “fruits of their labor” – is considered so fundamental, it forms the foundation of the North Carolina Constitution. The Constitution’s “Declaration of Rights” (Article I, Section 1) states that “all persons…are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis added.) The N.C. Constitution recognizes that a person’s wellbeing, his right to not only liberty and the pursuit of happiness but to life itself, is inextricably connected with his rights to property, “the fruits of his own labor.”

This is particularly true of the kind of destruction that occurred in cities across North Carolina on the weekend of May 30. The destruction of businesses is an especially egregious form of property destruction and denial of property rights. It is equivalent to breaking a baseball player’s throwing arm or a pianist’s fingers. It takes away a person’s right to make a living, that is, to realize the fruits of his or her labor. In other words, it destroys a person’s ability to sustain his or her life.

When we say that the destroyed property in downtown Raleigh or Fayetteville is the means by which its owners “make a living,” we mean that quite literally. It is how they make a life for themselves and their families. In this case, when Cooper tells us that “people are more important than property” he is making the nonsensical statement that people are more important than their livelihoods. It is livelihoods that were destroyed by the criminals who roamed the streets of North Carolina’s cities under his watch. The statement demonstrates wanton callousness toward the wellbeing of the citizens of the state that he was elected to represent.

But business property of the type that was damaged, looted, and destroyed (and whose importance was diminished by Cooper) plays an even broader role in people’s lives. This was all property that serves as a platform for advancing not only the wellbeing of the business owners, but also the wellbeing of the employees of those businesses and their families, and the customers of those businesses who depend on the products and services that they sell. To discount the importance of the restaurants, clothing stores, pharmacies, and other establishments that were destroyed is to discount the importance of these people.

The fact is that the importance of property is derived directly from its role in advancing people’s wellbeing. It stems from the value that people place on it. The relationship between people and the role that property plays in their lives in providing housing, a means of financial support, and a place of employment, worship, and schooling, is undeniable. Indeed, property is an essential ingredient in advancing every form of human wellbeing.

It is unreasonable to think that Gov. Cooper’s statement was made in ignorance of all this. It is more likely that the purpose of Cooper’s statement was to draw attention away from his failure to protect the property rights of many of the state’s business owners. In doing so, he exposed his true belief, which is not the nonsensical idea that people are more important than property, but that, in fact, some people are simply unimportant.

In June 2019 Roy Cordato retired from his full time position as Senior Economist and Resident Scholar at the John Locke Foundation and currently holds the position of Senior Economist Emeritus at the Foundation. From January 2001 to March 2017,… ...

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