To Be, To Have, and Man’s Rights to Each
Mankind’s right to property is not obvious. Property is not necessary for man’s existence; animals do not have property, but they survive and propagate, anyway. Aristotelians say that man has a right to have and to acquire property because these activities are inherent to his nature, and he has a self-evident right fulfill this nature. Theistic societies claim that God has given man the right to use the land however he wishes. Native American societies say they have a social contract with the land; they can own it for a time, but after they are buried, it will own them. Each of these justifications has its own possible set of objections; people continue to hold property, nonetheless, and they will most likely continue to do so evermore.
Societies that recognize property do not always recognize private property, nor do they need to do so. The members of early Christian societies held all property in common. In states such as North Dakota, people leave their keys in their automobiles for others to use if they have an urgent need for transportation. As long as there is enough property for everyone, sharing works, but at some point, two North Dakotans might need an automobile, or two children might want to sit in the front seat of that automobile. At this point, the interested parties can either fight over the resource (which is common in the case of the children), or they can forge agreements determining which resources belong to whom at what times. These agreements are called property laws. Property laws determine when a person has a legitimate right to acquire or to hold a resource.
Among societies which recognize property ownership, the just means of acquiring property include first occupation, improvement of resources through intelligence or labor, and purchase from a legitimate owner. Different situations require different applications of the rules. In a state of nature in which there is no government, the man who first encounters a resource can claim the rights to it. A man who devises a unique method of using natural resources can claim ownership of his idea; it is intellectual property. A man who reshapes the physical world for his own use has the right to the fruits of his labor unless he cedes this right in a contract with another person, such as an employer. Any owner of property can sell or give it to another person if both sides consent.
Theft is the acquisition of someone’s property without his consent. A thief has broken his social contract with the rest of the community. A man who is accused of theft is innocent until proven guilty. If the accuser does prove his right to the stolen property, he can justly use physical force to reacquire it because the thief is infringing upon the accuser’s rights. Though a traveler is not a citizen of any foreign society he visits and thus is not a party to their contract, he must learn and respect the society’s property laws while he visits, and he has a right to keep the property he brought with him to the foreign land.
The primary protector of personal property should be the government through property laws. To be legitimate, these laws must be fair, efficient, and enforceable. Fair laws are consistent; each person can acquire or exchange property using the same set of rules. Efficient laws allow a person to gain property in a speedy fashion with as few bureaucratic steps as possible. The government must be able to enforce its laws so that all of its citizens will respect them. If the codes do not meet these requirements, they will hinder man rather than serving him, and the government will have broken faith with the people. If this is the case, the laws are dead, and the people can circumvent them. Similarly, the government can punish a citizen who breaks his side of the social contract. The government can search property if it has a warrant and can seize property if the proprietor breaks the law. Expropriation should be a last resort, and the penalties for wrongdoing should be clear, consistent, and rational.
Of John Locke’s three self-evident human rights, life, liberty, and property, the third is typically the least inspiring and the most ignored. This is unfortunate because the just acquisition and use of property is central to man’s existence. Theft is a breach of contract and an attack on individual rights which must be redressed by the government. If the government ignores these offenses or tries to steal property itself, the people can justifiably ignore it or revolt against it, as did America in 1776. The government’s duty is to serve men, and if it does not serve them by protecting their property, it is not a government at all.