James Madison was right about property rights
Constitution Day (September 17) commemorates the 1787 signing of the document that established the United States of America. But like the victim of a terrible accident, the government that was formed that historic day in Philadelphia is hardly recognizable today, and the heart that propelled it — the principle of individual rights — is on life support.
Ironically, what started as a government of radically limited powers now mandates that the nation’s schools “hold an educational program on the United States Constitution” on the holiday of its signing.
In fact, the best “educational program” comes from James Madison, the man who scoured political thought and history to create the blueprint for our government, earning him the title “father of the Constitution.” He has a crucial lesson for us on property rights.
To prepare for his lesson, let’s contrast today’s treatment of our First Amendment rights with that of property rights.
People would be shocked if the president of the United States said: “I do think at a certain point you’ve made enough speeches,” or “you’ve given enough sermons” or “you’ve authored enough books.” Virtually all Americans would protest such remarks and boldly assert that it’s a free country, so they can say, preach or write whatever they please.
Yet the president can get away with saying: “I do think at a certain point, you’ve made enough money.” And he can get away with seizing and redistributing our money in order to “spread the wealth around,” with only a minority shouting in disbelief at the outrage. These dissenting voices have been unable to stop a century-long growth of the welfare state.
Consider the onslaught against property in recent years: The city of New London, Connecticut can seize Susette Kelo’s house and land to sell to a shopping mall developer. Congress appropriates billions of our dollars and redistributes them to the companies of its choice, including failing banks, auto manufacturers and solar panels producers. And businesspersons like Warren Buffet blithely suggest that the wealthy be taxed more.
Are these attacks on our possessions accepted because the right to property is a lesser right, one that isn’t inalienable like the others?
In his article “Property,” Madison emphatically says no. He explains that our right to property is as untouchable as our freedom of speech, press, religion and conscience. In fact, he views the concept of property as fundamental, pertaining to much more than merely our material possessions.
In the narrow sense, Madison says, “A man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property.” But in a wider sense, “A man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them … in his religious beliefs … in the safety and liberty of his person … in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.”
He then concludes: “[A]s a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”
This statement represents a profound expression of the individual’s sovereignty over his possessions of every kind: spiritual, intellectual and material. According to Madison, a human being is master of his mind and body, his beliefs and possessions, his person and property. It is all the province of the individual to create and control.
Madison argues that there is no parceling of rights. Our rights to life, liberty and property are indivisible. The reason for this was explained with unusual clarity by Ayn Rand two centuries later: “The right to life is the source of all rights — and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life.”
Government, according to Madison, is “instituted to protect property of every sort,” and is judged solely by this yardstick: “If the United States mean to obtain or deserve the full praise due to wise and just governments, they will equally respect the rights of property, and the property in rights.”
But what does our current government do? Instead of respecting our material property at least as well as it does our other rights, its redistribution of wealth, strangling regulations on business and deeply ingrained entitlement mentality are blatant assaults on our right to property. As Ronald Reagan famously remarked: “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”
It’s as if Madison looked into the future as he observed: “When an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected.” That is precisely our current situation.
Today, the huge onslaught of regulations such as Dodd-Frank, Obamacare and the EPA’s controls on energy production has brought us almost to the point of economic paralysis. Buying and selling homes, as well as autos, has all but halted. Companies are hoarding cash and not hiring as they fearfully watch the latest attempts by government to control them. The stock market is epileptic, with seizures up and down triggered by the latest political and economic news. With these curtailments on our right to acquire, use and control our property in the economic realm, the very essence of our liberty — the right to free action — is lost.
Even worse, government’s violation of property rights isn’t limited to the economic realm. Because our rights are interconnected, it’s spreading to all aspects of life.
Consider the trial balloons we’ve already seen to limit free speech, such as the so-called “Fairness Doctrine” or “Net Neutrality.” Or consider the expanding government grip over deeply personal areas of our lives, such as regulations on what fats or sugars we eat, what physicians we see, what health insurance we buy, what treatments or drugs we’re allowed to have — and what our children may bring to school for lunch.
Because our rights can’t be divided, if we lose one, we could lose them all. That’s why we have to fight against government intrusion in the free market with the same moral certitude — and the same fire-in-the-belly — that we’d have if the government invaded our homes without a warrant, or forbade us to peacefully assemble. We have to treat the government’s encroachment on the economy as we would an encroachment on our opinions, beliefs and conscience.
On Constitution Day, let’s remember Madison’s lesson on the full meaning of property — and fight for our right to property as if our life depended on it, because it does.
Gen LaGreca is author of Noble Vision, an award-winning novel about the struggle for liberty in healthcare today. Marsha Familaro Enright is president of the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, the Foundation for the College of the United States.