Private property has been the object of attack ever since the first non-producer enviously viewed the fruit of the labors of the first producer. The institution of private property has been condemned for perpetuating every manner of social injustice imaginable. Marx and Engels called for the abolition of it, and Pierre Joseph Proudhon, a social-theorist contemporary of Marx, declared, "property is theft."1 But how can one steal if there is no concept of property? How can anything belong to everyone, or everything to no one?
For years there has been a long and tireless argument about property rights versus human rights. Yet even a small child could figure out that property has no "rights." Only humans have rights. However, the rights which humans have are "property."
In an article entitled "What is Property?" William W. Bayes points out that the fundamental right for a human is the right to his own life. He owns his life. "His life does not belong to any other person or group. The thing owned is his body, and the related right to act, or property right, is the right to live. Now, matter is eternal, but human life is not; life must be sustained by procuring and consuming the means of subsistence. If we agree that man has a right to live, we must agree that man may use the mental and physical faculties to procure those means. Since the means (food, clothing, shelter, and the like) do not usually lie readily at hand, he must find or grow the food, manufacture the clothing and build the shelter. In short, he must produce."2
It then must follow that if production is necessary to life, and you own your life, then what you produce must belong to you, or there is no meaningful right to your own life. As Bayes points out, "a corollary of the right to produce is the right to keep that which one has created. If one may keep this product, it follows that one may consume it, exchange it for goods or services offered by someone else, sell it, or give it away. He may do all these things because the right of the producer is anterior to that of any other person or group. [Emphasis added] To assert that he does not have a primary right is, in effect, to deny him any right whatever. It is to say that he holds his property by sufferance of anyone (including a government) who is stronger than he, and that it is proper to plunder. But if it is proper to plunder from the producer, then it must, a fortiori, be proper to plunder from one who has himself plundered. It must then follow that only might can make right — one may take from another when one has the might, and one may keep only what one has the might to defend. Unless a person is prepared to accept the `might makes right’ philosophy, he must respect another’s right to live, to produce, and to consume, keep, exchange, sell, or give away that which he has produced."³
Property does not consist merely of real and personal possessions. Dr. Bayes continues, "Intangible, or incorporeal, rights which we Americans value as priceless, such as those guaranteed by the Constitution, being things owned and involving the right to act, are property. This means that such rights as the rights to free speech, to worship, to peaceful assembly, and to due process, are all property. If they are property, then the rights involved are essentially property rights. There is no right which is not property, and there is no property which, if not a right in itself, is not a fruit of the exercise of a right."4
That rights themselves are property is a legitimate part of our political heritage. John Locke asserted that we have property in our persons as well as in our possessions. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that "government may not violate, directly or indirectly, ‘the property which individuals have in their opinions, their religion, their persons and their faculties’."5
At this point Bayes makes an observation: "It is interesting to note that many professors who do not share this traditional view of property pay it unwitting tribute when they insist upon ‘academic freedom.’ For so-called academic freedom is nothing more than the right to hold (i.e., to own) opinions and to utter (to use and enjoy and dispose of, as property) those opinions. If they are paid for a speech, an article in a periodical, or a book, they are being paid for the articulate expression of their expert (or perhaps merely interesting) opinion. It is absurd to suppose that they should receive payment for something that was not theirs to sell, not their property. The property lies in their opinion which is fortified and given commercial value by their expert background knowledge and their ability to express that opinion clearly and interestingly."5
The individual’s right to do as he may wish with his own property does not include the right to do as he may wish with someone else’s. The fact that an individual owns a baseball does not mean that he has the right to hurl it through someone else’s window. This is not a limitation of property rights by "society" or by the State; it is merely the recognition of the equal property rights of other individuals.
For example, the abolition of slavery was not a limitation of property rights, as some would have us believe, for no such "right" existed in the first place. The institution of slavery was not an exercise of property rights, but a violation of them in that a slave was denied the right to control his own life. The abolition of slavery did not limit property rights; it affirmed them for all people of all colors.
In his history of the Plymouth colony, Governor Bradford describes how the Pilgrims farmed the land in common, with the produce going into a common storehouse. For two years the Pilgrims faithfully practiced communal ownership of the means of production. And for two years they not only nearly starved to death, but there was also great discontent with the system:
For the young-men that were most able and fit for labour and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children, with out any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in divission of victails and sloaths, than he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injuestice…7
Governor Bradford wrote that "famine must still ensure the next year also, if not some way prevented." The "some way" decided upon was the introduction of the institution of private property, and the results were dramatic:
By this time harvest was come, and instead of famine, now God gave them plentie… And in the effect of their perticular private planting was well seene, for all had, one way and the other, pretty well to bring the year aboute, and some of the abler sorte and more industrious had to spare, and sell to others, so as any generall wante or famine hath not been amongest them since to this day.8
The Virginia colony had similar experience. Captain John Smith wrote:
When our people were fed out of the common store, and laboured jointly together, glad was he could slip from his labour, or slumber over his taske he cared not how, nay, the most honest among them would hardly take so much true paines in a weeke, as now for themselves they will doe in a day…9
Without property rights, no other rights can be secure. When property is controlled by the State, rights are not rights at all, since their exercise is conditional, depending ultimately upon State approval. To argue to the contrary is to say that there are no rights —merely favors to be given to you or taken from you as determined by some one or some group.
In his book, Fruits of Fascism, Herbert L. Matthews quotes Mussolini as declaring: "Property is not only a right, but a duty. It is not an egoistic possession, but rather a possession which should be employed and developed in a human and social sense." And as Matthews observes:
That, in Fascist terminology, came to mean that private property, like everything else, had to be placed at the service of the State, and one may well ask to what extent the institution (private property) was infringed upon by taxation, forced investments, and the whole structure of governmental interference which told a man what he should produce, how much, with what labor and at what price. In short, can there be a private property under a totalitarian system? Individuals are left with the title to their property, but since they can only use the property in certain ways specified by the regime, it becomes a form of state property as does everything else.10
To what extent private property is being placed at the service of the State in this nation today can best be contemplated on the basis of a few current examples.
In 1972 the voters of the State of California passed by initiative the Coastal Zone Conservation Act which set up "Coastal Commissions" with almost unlimited, dictatorial powers. The Act defined the Coastal Zone as extending from the Oregon to the Mexican border, as far out to sea as the outer limit of the State jurisdiction and as far inland as the highest elevation of the nearest coastal mountain range. This tremendous area includes such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. A portion of the initiative reads: "The People of the State of California hereby find and declare that the California Coastal Zone is a distinct and valuable natural resource belonging to all the People."¹¹ And if such preemption of millions of acres of private property were not enough, there is not one word in the language of the coastal initiative which refers to compensation for the expropriation of private property rights.
A former member of a California Regional Coastline Commission, M. Bruce Johnson, writes in Reason magazine:
A land owner came before the Regional Coastal Commission on which I served and requested a permit to construct a condominium development on four acres on the California coast. The application was denied at a public hearing on the grounds that the erection of said buildings would obstruct the view of the water from the nearest State highway. The fact that a scenic drive already existed between the water’s edge and the parcel was dismissed as irrelevant. Inasmuch as any structure — not just the proposed condominiums —would obstruct the view from the nearest State highway, I inquired whether there was any permissible use of the land. The Commission’s staff responded that the four acre parcel might be used for a golf course or a cattle ranch. Ever played a round of golf on a one hole course? Or heard of a viable cattle ranch with four head of cattle?
Other projects have been blocked following staff recommendations for denial on the grounds that "the project would remove alternatives available to any agency in the area of planning." In other words, the right to use privately owned land belongs to the State, not the individual. The inescapable conclusion is that the owners of these parcels have been stripped of virtually all of their property rights without compensation. They retain only the title and the liability for taxes.¹²
Another example of this concentrated power concerned the proposed expansion of the San Diego Gas and Electric Company’s atomic power plant at San Onofre. An official of the Atomic Energy Commission confirmed that the expansion plans were reviewed and approved by at least 33 federal, state and local (environmental and safety) agencies. It took San Diego Gas and Electric Company three years and almost $228 million in modification costs to receive approval from all of the necessary agencies. Yet on December 5, 1973, the Coastal Commission (which was voted into existence long after San Onofre’s expansion was in the review stages) was able to veto the action of its Regional Commission and end the plans for expansion. Although the energy crisis and public opinion later caused these eleven men to reverse their ruling, the fact that they had the power to make such a ruling is inconsistent with the principles of a free country.13
Still another example of this Coastal Commission’s power involved AVCO Community Developers, Inc., in Southern California. This large industrial conglomerate proposed to develop their coastal acreage with a combination of spacious condominiums (45% under county maximum density requirements), tennis courts, pools, public golf courses, etc. Beyond this, they made available to the county 34 acres of ocean front property for a public beach. The privately-owned land was completely graded for construction before the Coastal Commission was empowered. In order to proceed with construction, AVCO had to apply to the newly formed commission for the necessary permits. They were denied.
AVCO was then caught between the conflicting demands of two government agencies. On the one hand the county demanded that AVCO finish the promised public beach by a certain date, while on the other hand the Coastal Commission denied the required permits to complete the work. In the meantime, the company paid (and is paying) $15,000 a day in taxes on the unused land.
In an effort to save the rich top soil from erosion during the rainy season, AVCO proposed that the commission at least allow them to seed their own land with grass. This was also denied as it was feared by the commission that AVCO, as a result of having put more money into the development, would then have a stronger legal case. Two years have passed and the land, which is a vicious eyesore, continues to erode each rainy season until now, even during light rain, the ocean becomes brown from the washed-out soi1.14 Is this protecting the environment or the commission’s power?
Without a doubt, many Americans, particularly urban dwellers, are becoming increasingly concerned about the social ills caused by overdevelopment: traffic congestion, air and water pollution, urban sprawl, to mention but a few. But giving government more power to cope with these problems has not worked and government empowered to dispense favors usually ends up corrupt, inefficient, and dispensing these favors to those with "influence."
What are some possible answers to these problems? Adjust property taxes so a farmer’s land won’t have to be sold to developers in order to pay these taxes. Insure that property rights include the right to develop one’s own land, but not the right to harm others by polluting the air, contaminating the water or causing an intolerable level of noise. Jeopardizing or causing harm to another’s life or property would be illegal in a free society.
In effect, this is just what the Supreme Court declared in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette: "One’s right to life, liberty, and property… and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to a vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections."15
If this were not true, any legislation the majority could agree upon would be "legal," whether it would be forced sterilization for members of a particular race, euthanasia for everyone over the age of 65, or limiting the freedom of speech to those considered "responsible."
The initiative creating the California Coastal Commission and similar such proposals before Congress not only regulates a person’s private property according to the vote of the majority, but there is no compensation for any damages incurred by the implementation of such regulations. The State controls your property. You just have the title.
The adjoining article is reprinted by permission from The Incredible Bread Machine. A book of that title by R. W. Grant was first published in 1966. It was updated and extensively revised in 1974 by the student staff of Campus Studies Institute Division of World Research, Inc., 11722 Sorrento Valley Road, San Diego, California 92121.
The 192-page paperbacked edition is available in major bookstores for $1.95 or may be ordered from World Research, Inc.; from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10533; or through Ward Ritchie Press, 471 S. Arroyo Parkway, Pasadena, California 91105.
1Cited by William W. Bayes, "What Is Property?" The Freeman, July 1970, p. 392.
2Ibid., pp. 394-95.
³Ibid., pp. 395-96.
4Ibid., p. 397.
6Ibid., pp. 397-98.
7Henry Hazlitt in Cliches of Socialism (New York: The Foundation For Economic Education, 1962), pp. 174-75.
¹ºHerbert L. Matthews, Fruits of Fascism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1943), pp. 144-45.
¹¹M. Bruce Johnson, "Piracy on the California Coast," Reason, July, 1974, p. 18.
1³Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1973.
14 Ibid.. August 19, 1973.
15 M. Bruce Johnson, op. cit., p. 19.