By: John Nabholz Private Property: At first glance the phrase conjures a mental picture of a sign posted on the side of the highway with foreboding on the other side, perhaps mean dogs, or sketchy neighbors. And yet, this simple, intuitive right is so foundational to the worldwide decline of poverty, that our society as we know it would not exist without it. The “natural” right to property is so fundamental to Capitalism that it is often overlooked and lately, even maligned as an evil. Fortunately, its importance is proclaimed by the Republican Party of Arkansas as the fifth of its ten principles listed in the Party Platform.
The right to property is intuitive, because we are taught this by every father and mother from a time before we can even talk. “Oh,” you say, “we are taught to share first.” Perhaps so, we are taught to share, but immediately before or after that we are taught not to take from others without their permission. Babies will be taught that if there is something they want, that their playmate is not inclined to share, that they should offer another toy in exchange.
It is the same with private property. Absent the right of private property, capitalism and the free exchange of goods and services would not exist. Both communism and socialism fail because of their failure to respect the fundamental right of private property as greater than the needs of the collective as they (the state) may choose to define their need. There are many liberal intellectuals who point to entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates with a disdainful slant, as if the possession of great wealth was inherently evil. This implies that somehow their wealth was either the cause of poverty or that re-distribution of their private property is a potential solution to world poverty.
The rights of private property were well understood even before the time of Adam Smith, the father of capitalism. As far back as the time of Aristotle in Greece, he could see firsthand the “tragedy of the commons.” Aristotle said, “what is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care.” It makes sense: if something belongs to you, you will take better care of it and be a greater steward than if something belongs to the common collective.
The right to property is not “given” by the state, but rather the state only exists to protect our rights to property. Often referred to as “natural rights” or “vested” rights, the right to property is considered to have existed before our constitution. Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was taken from John Locke’s treatise where he discussed how the state existed to protect “life, liberty and property.” Locke believed that “the fruits of one's labor are one's own because one worked for it.” He viewed this as a natural right, or a right that existed in a state of nature that predated societies or government. John Adams went so far as to say, “Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist,” underscoring how fundamental this right was to the success of the freedoms we enjoy as citizens of the United States of America.
John Locke believed that the rights to property began with your own body and includes your right to one’s conscience, to one’s freedom, and in one’s labor. None of these natural rights could exist without the right to the things you produce, including your ideas. We live in a physical world, and our rights do not exist only in the tiny spaces in our minds, but in the physical objects and intellectual ideas that have value and belong uniquely to each person.
The funny thing about property rights is that some believe that an increase of one’s right to property will lessen or somehow diminish the common good. This implies that property is finite and any increase by one person decreases the common or individual condition of everyone else. This belief denies human creativity and the impact of labor on a physical world that is finite. It is my belief that a near infinite amount of material wealth and human wellbeing for all of mankind is trapped, waiting to be freed by hard-working people and entrepreneurs, who, by their free will, create a better world. By improving their property with their labor, it increases in value for them but also for all of society as we barter and trade for some of these newly developed riches. It may be counter intuitive to some but the seemingly selfish right to property allows the investment of labor and ingenuity that ultimately enriches everyone. If you multiply this improvement across an entire society, it will explain how seemingly selfish capitalism has removed more people from abject poverty than any system known to man.