All Commentary
Sunday, March 1, 1992

Human Rights, Animal Rights, and Friends of the Earth

Mr. Petro is Director of The Institute for Law and Policy Analysis, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Trustee Emeritus of FEE.

For some human beings, the urge to move from one state of being to another expresses itself in turning over; for others, in productive activity. The first of these responses to uneasiness is normally neutral, from the point of view of social welfare; the second, either neutral, or, in the case of production for exchange, a contribution to society. We may for convenience call both “Friends of the Earth,” to coin a phrase. They do no one any harm and may even do some good.

For still another class of human beings, the response to uneasiness, the desire for some je ne sais quoi, is categorically different. It expresses itself in aggression: physical assault, theft, domination. There are also (at least) two varieties of aggression: overt and covert, violence or fraud, work-the-con-yourself or get-the-legislature-to-do-it-for-you-while-pretending-to-serve-the-common-good.

The covertly aggressive spirit is widespread among human beings. There is a little larceny in all of us, it is said. In consequence whereof the wrong-headedness of our governments, and especially of the Congress of the United States, is an across-the-board phenomenon. Yet, nowhere is the clash between government and society more odious and insidious than in the Endangered Species Act. This Act provides for the expropriation, sequestration, or in some cases confiscation of property if its normal human use would risk the extinction of an “endangered species.”

Thus, in the news recently we read that the government has banned logging for human purposes of thousands of forested acres, in order to save the spotted owl, allegedly because it faces extinction. Again, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to prevent developers from building houses (for human residence) on miles of California coast because the California coastal gnat catcher fancies it as a hunting ground and might just possibly become extinct if the builders try to alleviate housing conditions for human beings on that stretch of land.

And then there is the cataclysmic case of the kangaroo rat. As reported in a Wall Street Journal editorial (September 4,1991), “The Stevens kangaroo rat recently became one of the largest ‘landowners’ in California when a 30-square-mile stretch of land worth $100 million was declared off-limits to development in order to protect the rat.”

The editorial continues: “Nancy Kaufman, a Fish and Wildlife Service official, defended the move by saying that humans have reached the limit on how far they can intrude on the environment. We guess that means a lot of people in the future will have to double up in apartments Soviet-style. Ms. Kaufman isn’t all that concerned about human habitats: ‘I’m not required by law to analyze the housing-price aspect for the average Californian.’”

But what of the loss of $100 million in land to Californians who already pay more for housing than just about anyone else in the country?

“The Rights of Animals”

The Endangered Species Act is advanced and defended on one or another version of the contention that “animals, too, have rights.” This notion is supposed to justify the enormous costs and other burdens that the environmental and ecological programs impose, especially on the poor and the underprivileged—the people for whom, unlike most of the members of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, pennies count.

Making any kind of sense of the animal-rights idea—moral, social, economic, or juridical—is impossible.

After all is said and done, animals are not and cannot be parties in any intelligible sense in these affairs. Animals are physically capable of doing many kinds of harm to human beings, but they are incapable of expropriating them. Human beings can be expropriated only by other human beings. In the Endangered Species Act as administered by such secure human beings as Ms. Kaufman, what we have is environmentalist zealots imposing their will, by way of a perverted government, on the rest of the people. It may not be common theft, but that is only because it is so uncommon an enormity, resting on one of the deadliest beliefs of our times, the belief that paper laws legitimize theft.

It is true that our legislatures are elected and that the laws they pass, when constitutionally valid, are binding on the people. At the extreme limits, however, the power of Congress extends only to laws that provide for the general welfare, and the notion that the term “general welfare” in the Preamble of the Constitution of the United States includes the welfare of endangered wild animals is absurd. Endorsement by the Supreme Court of unconstitutional legislation, I would add, does not change the Constitution. The Constitution is not whatever the Supreme Court may choose to say it is. There is a constitutionally dictated amendment process which does not include amendment by the Supreme Court at all, or even by Congress merely by legislation.

The analysis doesn’t change if we engage the anomaly, “animal rights,” in serious legal analysis, instead of dismissing it out-of-hand as a theft and a fraud, a scam by the idle rich and the idle well-to-do in order to preserve the earth as a plaything, a place to dally in. We must insist at the outset, however, that it is an anomaly. For wild animals do and can do nothing to create the entitlements called moral, juridical, or social rights. Rational exchange with them is out of the question. They are “free spirits”—or, better yet, free loaders, moochers on Mother Nature’s generosity and on the virtuous laboriousness of the only children who have ever reciprocated the generosity of the divine Earth-Mother—human beings.

Wild animals exploit the earth, love it and leave it, despoil and befoul it. That is all they have ever done, eon after eon, and all they will ever do—unchanging, unceasing exploitation. Beavers build dams, chopping down trees to do so. But has anyone ever seen a beaver plant a tree? Weyerhaeuser plants dozens for every one it cuts. I have planted quite a few myself, by the way.

Wild animals can never earn rights, but human beings can. If my neighbor takes my land or tries to force me to do with it what he wants rather than what I want, I can go to a court of equity and get an injunction to stop his encroachment on my rights. He and I both have duties vis-à-vis each other, as well as rights. He can enjoin me from using my land in a way that denies him the normal use of his land, as I have the power to do conversely. The great formula of Roman law, sic utere tuo ut alienurn non laedas [use your own property in such a manner as not to injure that of another], rules in inter-human disputes. But no court will help me when rabbits nibble my lettuce, birds punch holes in my tomatoes just as they ripen, and huge, ugly ants do away with my figs before I can enjoy the fruits of my efforts.

On what rational grounds, then, can people talk about “animal rights”? And yet there is such crazy talk. No wonder we put businessmen in jail while we turn thieves and crooks loose because they are “victims of society.” The same twisted logic is at work there.

I know that some human beings have been pure exploiters in some of their relationships with the good earth, mother of us all. However, the wanton exploitation we all deplore has occurred mainly in primitive pre-capitalist society and conditions. Over time, as man has advanced along with the growth of private property rights, of capitalism, and of free markets, human beings have tended more and more to care for the land, to coddle, even to embellish it. It is not mere legalese which describes home, barn, and fence as real property “improvement.”

Fanatical environmentalists and hypochondriacal ecology zealots (ecocondriacs?) do their fellowmen a grave injustice in accusing them of maltreatment of the earth, and they are profoundly stupid and insensitive in failing to understand that the best friend the environment has ever had has been the right of private property. Property owners tend to be careful about their property.

If the so-called environmentalists were acting in good faith and had any sense, they would be pushing for the sale of all public property, national forests and parks included, to private parties. The national debt would be reduced a little, and Mother Earth would mate with constant lovers instead of being tied up by bureaucrats and forced into one-night stands with the frivolous. It would make an honest woman of her.

All the days and years of our lives, all the periods of human history, have been peculiar and unique; but surely these times are more so. The other day Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin were on television, telling us how terribly tragic the 70 years of Communism have been. The essence of that tragedy lay in Communism’s negation of the basic human right, the right of private property. And yet, while reformed Communists are lamenting that negation, our governments and our ecocondriacs keep erasing more property rights day by day and year by year.

Sooner or later, if we don’t do something about our progressively destructive legislatures and bureaucrats, there will be no more left of that mother of all rights, the right of private property, in the United States than there was in the Soviet Union. There will be no rights at all, let alone animal rights. And Mother Nature will be saddened, with no one to love and cherish her, for love of nature is as exclusively human as reason is, and they both do best where the right of private property orders human affairs.

  • Sylvester Petro (1917–2007) was a professor of law and the author of several books on the history of labor policy in the United States, including The Labor Policy of a Free Society, The Kohler Strike, and The Kingsport Press Strike.
    As professsor and director of the Wake Forest University Institute of Law and Policy Analysis, he taught generations of students about the history of labor unions, while defending free association and free contract as essential to the free and prosperous commonwealth.