Monday, January 5, 2009

Does the Wall Street Journal Understand Private Property?

A short time ago the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial by Mr. Ronald J. Pestritto declaring that Roosevelt was not a conservative, and seemed to be an enemy of private property. The only problem with the editorial was that the Roosevelt in question was not FDR, but Teddy. Unfortunately for Mr. Pestritto's thesis, he based his assertion on the text of a speech given by Teddy in 1910, which text was published in Volume 17 of the Rough Rider's collected works, and was thus easily checked. Mr. Pestritto, by dint of a little creative editing, took Teddy's explication of the traditionally limited exercise of private property, and turned it into an attack. Naturally, we couldn't let that go by, so we sent the following letter to the Wall Street Journal. For some reason they didn't reply.

In his article on Theodore Roosevelt ("Theodore Roosevelt Was No Conservative," WSJ 12/30/08, A11), Mr. Ronald J. Pestritto misstates Roosevelt's position. The speech he cites, "The New Nationalism," was published in a collection titled, Social Justice and Popular Rule, Vol. 17 of "The Works of Theodore Roosevelt," New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926, pp. 5-22. The speech was given on August 31, 1910 before members of the "Grand Army of the Republic," an organization of Union veterans of the Civil War. Mr. Pestritto writes, "It was the Republican TR, who insisted in his 1910 speech on the 'New Nationalism,' that there was a 'general right of the community to regulate' the earning of income and use of private property 'to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.'"

The passage Mr. Pestritto cites comes on page 17. The full, correct text is, "The man who wrongly holds that every human right is secondary to his profit must now give way to the advocate of human welfare, who rightly maintains that every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it."

On his own initiative Mr. Pestritto inserts "the earning of income" in the middle of the quote, implying that Roosevelt was in favor of redistribution to equalize income. Yes, Roosevelt was in favor of a graduated income tax, but, as he makes clear on p. 14, because he believed — wrongly in my opinion — this was the only way to prevent the harm caused to individuals and groups by economic power concentrated in the hands of a small elite.

Mr. Pestritto's chief error, however, lies in his misunderstanding of private property, and his indifference to the inevitable abuses associated with economic monopolies — public or private. Roosevelt's position is simply a restatement of the common law rights of private property, not to be confused with the natural right to private property. The right to be an owner is absolute and inalienable in every human person. That is, every human being has the right to own, and not be subject to monopolizing barriers to equal ownership opportunities.

What an owner may do with what he owns, however (the rights of private property) is necessarily limited by the wants and needs of the owner, other individuals and groups, and the whole of society. That is, no one may legitimately use his possessions to harm others. As Roosevelt stated on page 11, reinforcing his position that private property should serve private individuals and not the State or an economic elite, "The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man's making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it."

By attempting to attack Roosevelt on this point, Mr. Pestritto implies that the right to own is limited to an ownership elite, while the exercise of property is unlimited, even to the extent of monopolizing access to ownership in a manner that prevents others from participating as owners in the economic process. Mr. Pestritto's position suggests that an owner may do as he wishes, without regard to any harm that may be done to other persons and their property and other rights. Mr. Pestritto might want to heed the warning Roosevelt gave to those who oppose any sort of limit on their self-will while restricting the proper exercise of rights by others: "Those who oppose all reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism." (p. 20.)

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