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Monday, February 18, 2019

Jean Baptiste Say on Why Property Rights Are the Key to Prosperity

Jean Baptiste Say, the foremost French political economist in the early 1800s, offered one of the most eloquent defenses of property rights in history.

Regulation and taxation have imposed constant government assaults on Americans’ property rights, eroding their ability to make their own choices. As James Fenimore Cooper once put it, “There is getting to be so much public right, that private right is overshadowed and lost…danger exists that the ends of liberty will be forgotten.”

Given how much private property rights have been pared away, we should return to first principles about those essential underpinnings of voluntary relationships.

One of the very best sources is Jean Baptiste Say, the foremost French political economist in the early 1800s. An elaborator on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and a vigorous defender of economic freedom, which arises from the defense of private property rights, his Treatise on Political Economy was highly influential and widely used as a textbook.

Say’s Treatise chapter, “Of the right of property,” remains among the wisest, though widely violated, insights into property rights available today. And it is easily accessible. In fact, the English translation of the 1819 fourth edition is available as part of Liberty Fund’s “The Best of the Online Library of Liberty” series. Especially for the bicentennial of that seminal work, it merits renewed attention.

“The right of property…[is] the most powerful of all encouragements to the multiplication of wealth.”

“The legal inviolability of property is obviously a mere mockery…where possession is rendered perpetually insecure, by the intricacy of legislative enactments, and the subtleties of technical nicety. Nor can property be said to exist, where it is not matter of reality as well as of right. Then, and then only, can the sources of production…attain their utmost degree of fecundity.”

“Who will…deny, that the certainty of enjoying the fruits of one’s land, capital and labor, is the most powerful inducement to render them productive? Or who is dull enough to doubt, that no one knows so well as the proprietor how to make the best use of his property? Yet how often in practice is that inviolability of property disregarded…upon the most flimsy pretexts?”

“The property a man has in his own industry is violated, whenever he is forbidden the free exercise of his faculties and talents, except insomuch as they would interfere with the rights of third parties.”

“Sacred as the property in the faculties of industry is, it is constantly infringed upon…What robber or despoiler could commit a more atrocious act of invasion upon the public security?”

“Nothing short of the necessity of defending [social] order from manifest danger can authorize these or similar violations of individual right.”

“Taxation…must be proved indispensable to the existence of social order; every step it takes beyond these limits is an actual spoliation; for taxation, even where levied by national consent, is a violation of property.”

“The right of property implies the free disposition of one’s own.”

“When public authority is not itself a spoliator, it procures to the nation the greatest of all blessings, protection from spoliation by others. Without this protection of each individual by the united force of the whole community, it is impossible to conceive any considerable development of the productive powers of man, of land, and of capital.”

“The poor man…is equally interested with the rich in upholding the inviolability of property. His personal services would not be available, without the aid of accumulations previously made and protected. Every obstruction to, or dissipation of these accumulations, is a material injury to his means of gaining a livelihood.”

“Civilized communities pursue and punish every invasion of property as a crime …the happy effects, resulting from the right of property, are more striking in proportion as that right is well guarded by political institutions.”

As Larry Sechrest noted, J.B. Say was “precise and yet as simple as possible, so that any literate, reasonably intelligent person can comprehend his meaning.” However, Americans have been governed by violators of those principles because “agents of public authority…can enforce error and absurdity at the point of the bayonet.” And the results have been far worse than if we had followed his understanding. As Say wrote:

Of all the means by which a government can stimulate production, there is none so powerful as the perfect security of person and property, especially from the aggressions of arbitrary power. This security is itself a source of public prosperity.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).