Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"Replacing Property"

Every so often we get a softball thrown at us — and we don't mean those cannon shots thrown by real softball players. You see one of those coming, duck and cover. No, we mean an enquiry or a published piece that fails to define basic concepts properly, especially our natural rights to life, liberty and property. Messing up on any one of these is fatal, and people usually go for three out of three.

Anyway, today we got off a carronade at a columnist who tripped up on the role that private property played in the political thought of the Founding Fathers of the American Republic. The writer seemed to think that "the guys" didn't have private property in mind when putting together the new country. You just know we had to say something about that. So we did:

Dear Sir and/or Madam as the Case May Be:

Your column, on replacing property as a source of wealth creation that appeared last week is a cause for some concern. While well-written, I believe it gives misleading information about property and the role that ownership of the means of production played in the founding of this country — and why the lack of widespread direct ownership is at the root of many of today's economic, social and political problems.

First, it must clearly be understood that "property" is not the thing owned. Rather, property is, one, the natural right that every human being has to be an owner, simply because he or she is a human being endowed with inherent (inalienable or absolute) rights. Two, property is the bundle of socially determined rights that define how one's ownership is to be exercised in certain circumstances or conditions of society. Three, we cannot limit our understanding of "property" to land and real estate. We must include industrial and commercial assets as well as land — and clearly distinguish between income-generating assets and consumer assets such as a primary residence.

Second, the Founding Fathers relied heavily on the political thought of John Locke and Algernon Sidney, whose writings were specifically directed toward demolishing the "divine right of kings" theories of Sir Robert Filmer and Thomas Hobbes. Locke and Sidney based their theories in part (Locke almost entirely) on the natural right of every person to be an owner, both of his or her labor, and of land and capital, and to control and receive the income generated by what is owned.

In contrast, a fundamental precept of divine right theory is that "the sovereign" is the ultimate owner of everything in the country. This effectively abolishes private property. As Locke observed, "For if any one shall claim a Power to lay and levy Taxes on the People, by his own Authority, and without such consent of the People, he thereby invades the Fundamental Law of Property, and subverts the end of Government. For what property have I in that which another may by right take, when he pleases to himself? (Second Treatise on Government, § 140.)

As George Mason of Gunston Hall stated in his draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights of June 12, 1776 (which served Thomas Jefferson as a model for the Declaration of Independence less than a month later), "That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, [when they enter into a state of society,] they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

The bracketed phrase, "when they enter into a state of society," was added later over Mason's protests because "all men" included slaves — and the plantation owners, while they wanted liberty and security of property for themselves, were not anxious to lose their property in human beings. Thomas Jefferson probably left property out of his list of inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence because he wanted to avoid the slavery issue.

Thus, "a property holders' democracy" was far from being, as you state, "not something the Founders originally advocated." On the contrary, it was at the heart of everything they were trying to do.

Third, as Daniel Webster observed in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820 during the debates over whether the franchise should be extended to non-owning white males, "power naturally and necessarily follows property." As Benjamin Watkins Leigh concurred in the Virginia Convention, "Power and Property can be separated for a time by force or fraud — but divorced, never. For as soon as the pang of separation is felt . . . Property will purchase Power, or Power will take over Property."

Fourth, lack of access to ownership of capital, whether in the form of land or industrial and commercial assets, created a situation in the early 1890s when for the first time in American history a determinant number of people did not own capital, and gained income only by selling their labor. This, as far as Frederick Jackson Turner was concerned, meant the end of democracy ("The Frontier in American History," a paper delivered at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893).

Fifth, Judge Peter Stenger Grosscup of the United States Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit Court (one of Theodore Roosevelt's "Trust Busters") pointed out in a series of lectures and articles between 1900 and 1914 that the loss of small ownership of land and artisan workshops was not being made up by widespread ownership of corporate equity with the rights of property, and this endangered the survival of democracy. What was needed was something along the lines of an "Industrial Homestead Act," as Ronald Reagan called for in a speech to the Young Americans for Freedom in July 1974.

Sixth, in 1919 in the landmark case Dodge v. Ford Motor Company (204 Mich. 459, 170 N.W. 668) Henry Ford used his political and economic power to strip minority owners in the Ford Motor Company of virtually all rights, especially the all-important right to receive dividends. This made "ownership" a farce for most people, and disconnected the benefits of ownership from ownership, vesting control in what one authority termed a non-owning economic dictatorship.

In The Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx defined socialism as "the abolition of private property." If you are interested in a viable proposal that would restore meaning to private ownership and vest all Americans with "the means of acquiring and possessing property" as well as securing the rights of existing owners, you might want to investigate "Capital Homesteading," a proposal of the Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ), a think tank located in Arlington, Virginia.

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