By Leslee Kulba- The concept of the Noble Savage, that humanity in its natural state knows no property, has often been debunked. Anthropologists agree that for the most part primitive cultures traded and even went to war – over lands, prisoners, and other possessions. Communism is supposed to restore humankind to the proverbial Garden of Eden, while eschewing any reference to the Bible as primitive superstition.
While Communism Lite, otherwise known as Socialism, functions as a form of government in homogenous cultures, like Nordic countries where most people have similar incomes, similar religious beliefs, and similar work ethics; most attempts at creating ideal societies, where everybody contributes according to his abilities and receives according to his wants, have failed after short order because one or another group seeks to game the system to get more than their fair share. In fact, in the late 1900s, it was common knowledge that regimes in Communist nations were being sustained through US Foreign Aid.
In their book, Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st-Century America, Timothy and Christina Sandefur explain to young Communists the value of property and, more importantly, the reason the Founders wanted to protect their posterity against too much of the worst in human nature accumulating in one place.
For starters, stuff is not necessarily bad. It is through stuff that people express themselves. What is charity without medicine, warm blankets, or time and knowledge; and how can one be said to gift that which does not belong to him? Those who disdain property may well have their own tattoo and clothes designed to make a statement. Ask them how they felt about Mitt Romney giving the gay kid an unwanted haircut.
But more than that, it has been demonstrated that property helps set up a routine so people can move on to better things. Property helps the craftsman with his trade, so he doesn’t have to wake up every morning and forge again his tools, which somebody else in the commune has snatched. Property, as with grandma’s precious things, also carries sentimental value. The movie Still Mine tells the poignant story of a man trying to build a home for his wife, who suffers Alzheimer’s; but having his attempts to live meaningfully blocked and blocked again by “petty, thoughtless rules imposed by unthinking bureaucrats.”
While “mine” is often said to be among the first words uttered by toddlers; college kids are slow to realize the things to which they feel entitled are provided by the blood, sweat, and tears of others, like their parents. When somebody ties himself to a desk, a field, or an assembly line forty hours a week for money, the quarter of his compensation he gives to government represents hours of his life, the labor of his hands, indeed a piece of himself he has sacrificed.
Early policy analysts like John Locke argued individuals were born with certain rights, and government was instituted to protect those rights. Otherwise, man would live by the law of the jungle. Whoever was meanest or sneakiest would prosper.
Government, by contrast, defined boundaries and consequences. By protecting property rights, it allowed people to be themselves and do their own thing without conflict. One might love a particular kind of music or garlic-laden recipe that others don’t want to share. A group may feel a particular sacrament scorned by neighbors helps them worship in spirit and in truth. Republicans might want to set their platform without Democrat involvement. Property rights represented “good fences” that gave diverse people “a right to create an identity for themselves by excluding those who disagree.”
Justice Robert Jackson argued, “The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy.” The Sandefurs wrote, for lack of a better word, “Property rights allow people to selfishly pursue their own dreams – while restraining harmful expressions of selfishness by requiring them to respect everyone else’s right to do the same.”
Restated, “Without the good fences that make good neighbors, people would be able to take things from each other whenever they wanted. Stronger people could take things from weaker people; majorities could dispossess minorities; unpopular people, religious dissenters, and nonconformists could suffer retaliation and persecution at any moment. Respect for differences would erode, and unpopular groups would suffer.”
A government that respects personal rights, then, automatically takes care of minorities, and therefore shouldn’t need special programs to score political points. Classic is the comment from runaway slave-turned-statesman Frederick Douglass, “I appear before the immense assembly this evening as a thief and robber. I stole this head, these limbs, this body, from my master, and ran off with them.”
As study after study shows, a government that protects personal property also promotes prosperity. In a free market, people produce and trade value for value. If they don’t want to buy something, they don’t, until the price is right. If the price is never right, the seller finds something else he can do that society values enough to buy. In so doing, the “invisible hand” helps everybody stay relevant as a contributor to society.
Government, which is supported by mandatory taxes and neither the harvest nor manufacture of goods, does not participate in economic activity, otherwise known as trade. When government inserts itself in the economy, it does so to force goods and cash to flow in ways other than traders want. The result is economic distortions; that is, inefficiencies that drive costs up for producers. To keep trade honest, government instituted to protect private property already has laws against fraud.
Ironically, though, our Constitutional Republic with its Bill of Rights is becoming more and more the agent of depriving people of property. It is as if the country has gone full circle. Instead of might making right, political connection is today’s mode of stepping on one’s fellowman to get to the top of the heap. But before proceeding, it is instructive to consider, “totalitarian dictators have always known that the destruction of private property is essential to their plans,” because property is part and parcel with the meaning of an individual’s life.
It is well-known the Nazis in Germany set about early on to confiscate property from Jews. Leaders in the Soviet Union also seized assets. Analyst Stephen Carson has written, “Aggression against external property usually precedes aggression against persons.”
Less intentionally, government’s mere meddling in property rights destabilizes economies. In the Sandefurs’ words, “The uncertain climate caused by infringement of property rights, increasing regulations, and nationalizations” in Venezuela; and “decades of political instability and government seizure of foreign-owned investments” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are just two examples.
On a more local level, removing the rule of law makes going about business more of a gamble than a game of skill. When a city council can call for last-minute deal breakers that will cost developers tens of thousands of dollars; developers will begin spending more time on schmoozing and lobbying, because doing so will be in their economic interest. It should go without saying that schmoozing and lobbying take time and money from research, development, and production. They distort the economy by transferring wealth rather than producing more.
Worse, rent-seeking activities like these have what the Sandefurs call a ratchet effect. When one guy gets a special advantage, related interests have to lobby to get some of their fair share back to remain competitive, and the game plays up and down the supply chain and across industries.
Then again, note the Sandefurs, “the lobbying game tends to be won by those groups that are already wealthy and popular; poor people and members of unpopular minorities rarely persuade government to do their bidding. They are generally too busy working to spend their day talking to politicians and don’t have the resources to compete against well-organized interest groups.” They continue, “Disputes are settled by a softer variety of force: politics.
It is no longer a secret that eminent domain was used in a number of urban renewal projects as a form of humane ethnic cleansing. Government didn’t kill anybody, it just called for the bulldozing of black neighborhoods for public works projects.
But then the Kelo decision expanded the power to bulldoze to private developers. Michigan Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cooley explained, “The legislature, by declaring that public use meant whatever use would in some manner advance the public interest, had endangered all property owners because every lawful business does this. Every business reduces unemployment and increases the economic base of the community. In fact, just about anything can plausibly be described as having some sort of public benefit.”
Well-intended attempts in various states to limit the damage wrought by Kelo were largely coopted by organized and moneyed efforts so that the confusing resultant legislation was technically useless. In essence, the broader definition granted government the power to take property from whomever they chose, an activity otherwise referred to as theft. Remember, government was supposed to protect personal property from theft.
In the Sandefurs’ words, “A government that goes further and intrudes on the liberty of the people who trusted it to protect them puts the people at even more risk than they were before they created a government in the first place. At least then they could have defended themselves. Now, legally disarmed, they find themselves at the mercy of predators who claim to be their rightful rulers. That is why the government must be constitutionally limited: to protect the people from the rulers as well as from each other.”
They went on to say, “Government actions that take the property of some and give it to those able to muster more votes or win political favor transform law into the unpredictable, arbitrary use of force for private, not public reasons. This makes government into a kind of organized crime.”
Whereas eminent domain is not a day-to-day activity for most, smaller infringements on property rights occur much more regularly. A related example would be activities undertaken in the name of economic development. Attorney Jennifer Kruckeberg described things this way. “Corporations, using cities as their personal real estate agents, are proposing the following assignment: Find me your most prominent location, get rid of what is on it, help me pay for it, and maybe you will be lucky enough to have me move to your city.”
Other ways people are deprived of property rights is through planning and zoning and deals arranged for preserving natural areas, or conservation easements. These practices typically allow owners to continue paying taxes, fees, and insurance on their properties, while being restricted in their ability to use the land. Numerous stories are told of people who invest in land only to be cast out or denied their dreams due to a change in rules.
Now, there would be no crime were government to provide just compensation for their takings. Unfortunately, government bodies are often known to rig the system in their favor. Tactics include lowballing offers, timing announcements before holidays or too closely on the heels of the next stage in the process for people to lawyer up to navigate an uncertain process, delaying decisions to prevent lawsuits, upping antes, requiring environmental or historical studies, providing vague or ambiguous instructions, or evading restrictions on government power.
One case study told of an Arizona mining company that had its administrative buildings condemned, its mining activities turned into criminal offenses, its environmental permits stalled, its water rights withdrawn, and more – before the city finally exercised its power of eminent domain. The un-connected are lost in complicated, expensive, and time-consuming red tape. Many citizens go broke “exhausting their administrative remedies,” and others have died before they could have their day in court.
The fact is, governments can’t pay for all the property rights they take from private citizens. They are, in effect, getting a targeted few to pay off-budget for the projects lobbies and “NIMBYs who want to impose their own aesthetic preferences on a city” want. Taxes stay low, and individuals pay disproportionately, if not exclusively, for public goods like the preservation of scenic viewsheds, sidewalks on the other side of town, and even homeless shelters.
And when all the concrete or earth-conscious green materials are said and done, government will have missed their stated objectives. Columnist Wayne Curtis argues, “When redevelopers look at a neighborhood, they see not a comfortable place to call home, but a blank canvas where they can engage in a government-run extreme makeover. … The defining unit of a city isn’t its buildings. It’s the neighborhoods.”