February 28, 2012
To My Fellow Citizens:
“No Taxation Without Representation!” was a great rallying cry of the American Revolution, but it’s easy to forget why. To tax a person without his or her representatives’ consent violates what the Founders understood to be one of the most sacred of our natural rights, the right to property. The right to property is one of the pillars of limited, constitutional government.
The Declaration of Independence says that we are endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” “Among these” tells us that this list is not exhaustive. There are other fundamental rights that individuals never give up when they join society. The right to property is one of those. As James Madison said at the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829, “the rights of persons and the rights of property are the objects for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated.” For the Founders, property is a right of all individuals and every bit as important a “personal right” as freedom of speech or religion.
What exactly is the right to property? Some people today seem to think it means being entitled to an equal amount of income or wealth – or at least a minimum amount of those. Others talk as if it means “fairness” or “equal opportunity,” by which they mean having the same likelihood of financial success as every other person. But it is neither of these.
As the Founders put it in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776, every person has the right of “acquiring and possessing property,” and using and disposing of their property as they think best, so long as they don’t harm someone else’s life, liberty, or property. The right to property can’t mean that you are entitled to receive a certain amount of money from someone else – what if they don’t have it? Who would you take it from? It also doesn’t mean having the same likelihood of making money as another person. Some people start off with economic or family advantages that others don’t have, which may give them a better chance to make money than you or I will ever have. To level all of those advantages, government would have to take their property simply to give it to you or me, which violates their right to possess property – one of the very rights government is created to protect. As Publius says in the celebrated Federalist 10: The protection of the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, “is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results.”
Understood in light of the Founders’ view of property, economic “equality” and “fairness” mean having the law protect your property the same as everyone else’s. As Madison emphasized to his fellow countrymen in a 1792 newspaper article called “Property”: “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort…. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.”
According to Madison, this means that it “is not a just government … where arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies deny to part of its citizens the free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations.” Government-created monopolies aren’t merely economically foolish; they are fundamentally unjust. So are regulations that favor one industry over another or laws in which “unequal taxes oppress one species of property and reward another.” Madison’s words remind us that your property is part of you, so when government treats some property unfairly, it is treating some person unfairly. By Madison’s standards, much of our current tax law is not only complicated and foolish but downright wrong.
The Founders’ idea of property used to inform Americans’ constitutional thinking, but too many people (especially in government and the academy) have gotten away from it. Instead of embracing property as a right of all individuals that can liberate them from poverty and oppression, they see it as a malevolent force that must be controlled by a powerful government. They don’t understand that labor and property are not naturally opposed – everyone, even the poorest person, has property because he owns his own labor and has the right to sell it to support himself and acquire more. They support “People Over Profits!” not realizing that profits are made by serving people – at least in a free market built on respecting every person’s right to property. They demand to know: “Are you for money or man?” not understanding that by protecting the right to property, government is for money and man.
Much of what government does today involves redistributing and restricting property, violating people’s rights to acquire, possess, use, and dispose of it as they think best. If we have any hope of restoring the Founders’ vision of limited, constitutional government, we must regain their understanding of the right to property. When we do, we will see clearly again, as Madison declared, that “[i]f the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments,” it will “equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights.”