King Charles' Ax: Property Rights, Human Freedom, and The Quality of Life

Only a Free-Market Society Respects Individuals

Dr. Robson is a Policy Analyst with the Fraser Institute, Vancouver, British Columbia. This essay is adapted from a paper originally presented at an Association of Private Enterprise Education conference in Washington, D.C., last year.

There is an old saw that “He who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart; he who is at thirty has no head.” Perhaps then the world grew up in the 1980s, and learned the sad wisdom that the great schemes for bettering the human condition through government intervention did not actually work. The U.S.S.R. and its Eastern Europe satellites crashed in flames, while the widespread famines and other human tragedies in the Third World showed the Soviet development model of heavy industrialization and a squeeze on agriculture to be equally unsuited for developing countries.

Meanwhile the welfare state in the advanced industrial economies has proven itself unable either to produce overall prosperity or to remedy “social injustices” like poverty. Admittedly the rollback of the state in the 1980s in the United States, Britain, Canada, and elsewhere consisted much more of rhetoric than of action, but interventionism is on the defensive both politically and intellectually. It simply does not work. And as secure property rights are the indispensable foundation of free markets, they too are enjoying something of a renaissance.

Nevertheless that old saw lingers, in the form of a suspicion that the triumph of free markets has been a triumph for the mean-spirited; there are even those who still continue to believe that with sufficient will, sufficient compassion, intervention can be made to work.

It cannot, and the most immediate reason why it cannot is that everything in life is more complicated than it seems, and we simply cannot foresee all the consequences of our actions. For this reason we have over a long time developed general rules for both personal and public decisions, and the most important of these in the latter area is that the neglect or flagrant violation of property rights leads to counterproductive results. What Rudyard Kipling called “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” have persisted in returning afresh to the scene of each disaster and saying “We told you so.”

But though this is a triumph of experience over hope, it is more than that. Free markets and their philosophical premise, property rights, are not a mean, grasping, Scrooge-like set of institutions collectively labeled “Devil take the hindmost.” Rather, they represent the only way of organizing a society that really respects individual people.

Property rights are not a human right, they are the human right, and the reason that coercion fails practically is not a different reason from the reason that it fails morally. Coercion, even when “benign,” founders on the rock of individual responsibility. You cannot as a practical matter take property rights away, and you cannot as a moral matter do so. People own themselves, but they do not own others, and there is nothing moral or idealistic about saying that they do. Property rights are a matter not only of the head but also of the heart.

The Challenge to Property Rights

There is no difficulty in demonstrating the importance of property rights to economic efficiency. There is no difficulty in demonstrating that historically societies with property rights are richer and freer than those without. Yet if we only present them in this way, saying that they have worked so far, we risk being cast as the man who, having fallen off the Empire State Building, was heard as he passed the tenth floor saying to himself, “So far, so good.”[1]

Some people will claim that conditions have changed, or that the longer-term negative consequences of respect for property are now surfacing (for instance with regard to the environment), and that they must now be jettisoned. Indeed, the very success of property rights in creating wealth can turn, as Schumpeter said it would in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, into an argument that they can and should be abandoned.

Even now there is a persistent “progressive” claim that we are moving into a new age, that somehow our increased prosperity, our increased awareness, the environmental “crisis” or something else has produced a situation where what used to be good enough, or the best available, is now unacceptable. And part of this claim is that we must submerge our individualism and our materialism and march cheerfully into a glorious communal future as comrades. Economics, they say, is not all life is about. This, in fact, is taken to be the core of the “idealist” position, and it is against this claim that property rights must be defended.

King Charles’ Ax

Yet the denunciation of property rights as materialist is quite inaccurate. They are the most fundamental human right, and they address themselves to the spirit and the meaning of life directly, and to the accumulation of material wealth only indirectly.

Indeed, those who would separate “mere things” from the “higher values” simply don’t understand what the world is like. King Charles I of England would be the first to point out that an ax may undo a political philosophy. No matter how elegant it might have been, his theory of the divine right of kings could not withstand the practical test of whether it could govern a world of fleshly subjects and rulers, physical crops in the field, mere stone walls and lowly water in rivers. No matter how bright the eye of a child, or elegant the couplets of a poet, without food the child will die and without pen and ink the inspiration will pass unrecorded and be lost.

In this sense, and in this sense alone, a devotion to property rights is a triumph of experience over hope. For the essence of utopian philosophies is their unwillingness to accept the tragic element in life, whereas to accept property rights is to accept it. And to object to the tragic in life on the grounds of “idealism” is to object not to a political philosophy but to the fundamental nature of the universe.

Inevitably in this vale of tears our hopes and dreams assume physical form. Time passes and we must use it one way or another, and once we have it is gone and all we have is what we did with it then. To take an individual’s property is to steal that time, to steal the hopes and purposes embodied in the acts of transforming the world, and it is to say that the physical objects, the surds if you will, matter more than the hope that produced them. Thus it is that those who would violate property rights, not those who defend them, are the true materialists.

If we had world enough and time, it might be no offense for the state to take the fruits of our labor. If we were immortal, who could begrudge an hour’s work? But the time we chose to invest in that transformation of matter will never come again, and as one of Clint Eastwood’s characters once observed, it is a hard thing to take all a man has and all he will ever have. All we have is our time, our effort and our free choice, and to take what we do with these is to take of our essence, to violate our personal integrity, and to steal part of our soul.

Property Rights and John Stuart Mill

It may be alleged, of course, that the butcher has an obligation to other members of society, that it is his moral duty to give of his excess to those in want. To begin with, there is a world of difference between saying that everyone should be charitable and in saying that they should all agree on what charity is, and without elaborating much I would say that it is because of this that socialists must be at war with human nature. Until some way is found to produce unanimity in society, redistribution in violation of property rights remains only a way of producing the appearance of agreement and of charity, but not the reality.

There is also a world of difference between saying that it is the butcher’s moral duty to be charitable, and saying that it is our moral duty (or right) to force him to act as though he were charitable. What we are asserting is not that we should force the butcher to be charitable (for we cannot get inside his head and rearrange his thoughts), but that we should force him to act as though he was, from our point of view, charitable. Coercion will make the butcher act as though he shared the majority—or government—view of charity, but it will not in fact make him share that view.

And this is crucial. For in forcing him to act according to our conception of generosity, rather than his own, we deprive him of any moral freedom, and put material above moral considerations. His physical goods will be transferred to another, and he may be compelled to produce more even once he knows it will be diverted to the purposes of others. But he will not be acting voluntarily. And so in an act of coercive redistribution, the material aspects are rearranged as they would be in an act of charity, but the intellectual and moral ones, the intentions and feelings, are not.[2]

As the great economic philosopher Frederic Bastiat wrote a century and a half ago, one’s person, liberty and property are “the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties?”[3]

Adam Smith’s famous observation that it is not from the benevolence of the butcher that we expect our dinner, and that we speak to him not of our needs but of his advantage, relies on this point. The butcher’s stock embodies his time, effort, risk, and dreams, and to take it because we want it, for ourselves or for others, is to assault his person. To substitute our judgment for his, or to try to, is a monstrous violation.

Property Rights and the Grim Reaper

In a utilitarian sense, perhaps, my respect for your property rights is merely a concession to you in return for your respect for mine, and if that is as far as someone is willing to go it will have to do. But in a deeper sense my respect for your property rights is based on my practical and moral respect for your individuality. Not only will you resist my attempts to make you do what I want, but all I really know about your choices is that they are and must be yours.

Thus my respect for property rights is based fundamentally on humility. I believe that the purpose of life is, at best, somewhat obscure, and that living is a difficult activity that inevitably, in some sense at least, ends in failure. As Paul Newman’s character put it in Buffalo Bill and the Indians, “the last thing a man wants to do is the last thing he does.” And this fact stares everyone in the face, or at the very least peers over their shoulder constantly.

I am going to die. I don’t know much about you, my readers, but I know that as Seneca wrote, “You will die not because you are sick but because you are alive.” And as death rushes toward you and all of us (and if you have one of those digital watches that beeps every hour you don’t need to miss it happening) you have chosen to spend these moments reading this essay. Many people would consider this folly. And they aren’t sitting, The Freeman in hand, absorbing ideas on liberty and property. They are out shopping, or skydiving, or fighting with their in-laws, or doing any number of things.

Once again, if the arrow of time were not unidimensional, this would not be a problem. If you didn’t like what you had done, you’d just do something else. But in our universe making one choice means not making another, so we can in fact make our choices badly and be stuck with it.

Property Rights and Joseph Stalin

The only way to avoid these conclusions, and into the bargain to protect others from the terrible fate of justified guilt, is to reject the premise of individualism. We may say that it is simply not true that individuals are, or should be, left to face the universe of moral choices alone (we have already seen that the world of moral choices is a world of choices about material things with moral consequences, so we cannot avoid the moral choices by saying that where we went was merely physical. So is all motion, and all choice). We may say that the purpose of the individual is to serve the greater good and that the individual’s choices will be dictated by the greater good, or its agents, and that only the greater good can feel any culpability for those choices.

In its purest form this is as a practical matter impossible to hold, and even the most rigid Stalinists would blame an individual worker who neglected his revolutionary duties. Even if you submit to the common will, if you do it badly you are to blame. Or, to quote Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism, “Here I am arguing that individualism actually perverts the idea of the socially obligated and personally responsible freedom that constitutes the only freedom worthy of the name or indeed historically possible.”[4] There’s that darn personal responsibility again, in the writings of a self-described foe of individualism.

But in fact I simply do not accept the collectivist vision as a description of the world, let alone as a prescription. I observe and I believe that if told what to do for the common good I must myself decide whether to obey, and I must live with my choice. Even if disobedience means death, I cannot turn on the Zyklon B and say “Just following orders.”

This is very much the same as C.S. Lewis’ argument at the beginning of Mere Christianity: even if you say “I do not believe in individual responsibility” you will observe as a matter of fact about the operation of your personality that you do. You will in fact consider yourself responsible for your actions, even if only in that you take pride in complete submission to authority.[5]

So I begin by taking the intellectually humble position that I do not know what other people should do. If asked by the shoppers and sky-divers whether they should be reading these words or doing what they are doing, I can certainly inform them. I can inquire as to how they expect to benefit from what they are now doing, and what they think they might experience by choosing something else. If I find that there is something wrong or suspect about their expectations in one or both cases, I can pursue the matter as long as they want me to. I can even make a suggestion as to what I think they should do. But I do not know. And since I do not know, I take the intellectually humble position that I will not compel them.

The knowledge that we do not know must make us more profoundly humble. To assert that I know what you should do implies necessarily that I know what I should do, and who among us will cast the first stone on that account? No one makes all decisions perfectly because there are so many and life is so difficult. We all, to be blunt, mess things up, and it’s mostly a question of avoiding mistakes as much as possible, making amends where necessary, and not getting too down over our own fallibility. It’s just life.

But I also take the morally humble position that even if I did know, I could not compel others. I do not know the meaning of your life, nor of mine, and I have my hands full with the latter. Yet I do not spare time to run yours not because I hate you or scorn you, but because I do not believe that I can make your choices for you at all. It’s not just that I shouldn’t; I can’t. This is a matter of definition: no matter what I say, you must choose whether to do it, even if it’s “Your money or your life.” And if I do try I will only get in your way.

The meaning of your life is the meaning of your choices, so to make them for you is to void your life of meaning in pursuit of material, not moral, situations that I prefer.

Money Can’t Buy Happiness

Indeed, it is always vital, in my view, to go back to first principles, in this case asking what society is for and what the good life is. To take a rather trivial example, the reason that airports should be private is not that private property increases the wealth of society and moves us closer to the New World Order. It is that private airports let people go where they want.

And to treat government as some institution for achieving the greater good, and asserting that it can and should override individual rights when “prosperity” requires it, is not only to advocate a policy that almost certainly won’t work. It is also to assert that individual freedom is a good like any other, and with a low price. It is to say that we would be better off in an unfree society with a per capita income of $20,000 than in a free society with a per capita income of $3,000, and that is simply not so. As Booker T. Washington wrote in his autobiography, “I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed.”[6]

Thus while I enjoy luxury as much as the next guy, I would prefer my own log cabin to a gilded cage. And I would not dream of calling “idealistic” any philosophy that did not respect this same preference, in me or in others.

The Constitution of Liberty

Respect for property rights means respect for individual choice, and therefore we can quickly identify laws and institutions inimical to respect for individual choice by their impact on property rights. You in the U.S. are blessed with a Constitution that firmly protects them, though you are cursed with a Supreme Court that has all but destroyed them, while we in Canada have a Constitution that ridicules them and a Supreme Court that does likewise. But we should aim for a legislative and ultimately a Constitutional order that does protect them, when we do not have one, and for a restoration of judicial sense and hence Constitutional government when we do.

In order to do this we must win the intellectual battle, and we cannot win it on the terrain of Pareto Optimality not because our arguments are so weak there but because they are so strong. Anyone who really understands the terms “utility maximization” will not fall for “beneficial” legislation.

No, where we must win is on the enemy’s terrain, where we argue that property rights literally are human rights. We own ourselves, not other people, and we may exercise that ownership as we see fit. But our ownership of other people, which we do not possess, we may not exercise. Thus rent-seeking, the curse of modern government, is ruled out a priori. A government thatrespects property rights is not in the business of redistributing income, period.

Property Rights Are Human Rights

And so we must remember that a Constitution that protects property rights is a Constitution that protects not the exploiter or the pampered heir, but one that protects individuals.

In fact there is no “human right” that is not best understood as a property right, including free speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, the right to be free of arbitrary search and seizure, and the right to freedom of contract.

Even the ninth and tenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are, from this point of view, easily explained. Since no one may delegate to government a power he or she does not possess, the government may not go about assuming powers it hasn’t expressly been given, even on the grounds that “it’s for the best.” Like the entire Bill of Rights, this section was questioned by some who argued that no one could possibly take any other view. Fine and good, said the doubters, if it’s that obvious let’s put it in just for good measure. History has proved that even they did not doubt strongly enough, but the other parties were right that, given the nature of the U.S. Constitution, the government could not possibly have the power to undertake any sort of coercion of its citizens not expressly enumerated.

Moreover, if human rights literally are property rights and vice versa then the so-called “positive” rights are not rights at all. For they are the right to someone else’s property, which means the right to someone else’s person, and that you do not have. Not having it, you certainly cannot delegate it to government. And from this point of view we will not lose sight of why you may not, and will not fall into practical or moral errors.

To take a rather less cosmic example, consider the coercive, universal, shoddy education currently afflicting youth in North America. What is particularly remarkable about this problem is that for thirty years we have been throwing money at our schools, like good materialists, yet as the quality of education declines still further the only thing we can think of to do is to throw more money at them. This is even empirically silly, since those nations that outschool us—for instance Japan—have much shabbier, much more crowded schools than we do.[7] The problem is that our educational system does not allow people to take control of their own or their children’s education, to make the important choices themselves. This is a practical error and it is a moral error, but it is not two errors. It is one very big one.

For you do not have the right, through any means at all, to make other people’s choices for them. You do not have the ability either. This is where and why practicality and idealism intersect. The attempt to make other people’s choices for them will fail because they are fundamentally theirs to make. You can, of course, reduce the choice set available to them, but if you do you are engaged in a deplorable violation of their personal integrity, not in an act of benign and magnanimous charity.

Conclusion: A Prison Called Heaven

This was driven home to me quite forcefully in a rather unlikely setting in December of 1992, when the Fraser Institute hosted a round-table luncheon where the guest speaker was Karlhermann Klottschen, director of the Treuhandanstalt (the agency charged with privatizing the “economy” of the former German Democratic Republic). My thesis, as I noted at the outset, is that property rights are not material in nature, except insofar as the universe is. The right to property is first and foremost the right of self-ownership, and becomes a right to things only because the universe is made of material stuff and the arrow of time is unidirectional. In such a universe it is the height of miserable materialism to constrain the free choices of others, and the height of idealism to allow them.

And when Herr Klottschen was asked what was the most lasting damage done bysocialism in East Germany, this is what he said:

I think they have robbed people of the most precious thing they have; that is, to spend their time in a way that they wish. They have taken away this very precious thing which we cherish, and that is the freedom, the liberty to move where you want, and to do what you want, and this they have basically forbidden. I think that is a very serious crime for which there is no penalty . . . . What I find is very disastrous is to put 16 million people in a prison for 45 years and pretend they are in heaven.[8]

There is no doubt at this point in history that violations of property rights do not achieve their goals, and indeed East Germany was not a prosperous place. But money cannot buy happiness, and what was really wrong with the GDR, as Herr Klottschen rightly stated, was that people’s dreams and ideals were destroyed. Even if the GDR had enjoyed greater material wealth than, say, eighteenth-century England, the latter would have been a better place to live.

So it is wrong, even preposterous, to call property rights materialistic. They are the most basic human right. They are the only human right. They are what makes life worth living. []


  1.   This analogy was in fact used by environmentalist Paul Ehrlich in an ongoing debate with economist Julian Simon about the so-called “limits to growth,” after he had lost $500 in a bet with Simon about metal price trends in the period 1980-90, The Economist, December 21, 1991, p. 26.
  2.   In this sense those who respect property rights manifest true idealism. But rather than become involved in a squabble over terminology, let us regard the term as the rattle on a rattlesnake, and avoid any “idealism” we may encounter. In this we would be following Thoreau, who warned us that if we saw a man approaching bent on doing us good we should flee for our lives.
  3.   Frederic Bastiat, The Law (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1974 [first published 1850, in French]), p. 6.
  4.   Cited in Joan Kennedy Taylor, Reclaiming the Mainstream, p. 11.
  5.   Unless, of course, you decide to get really messed up and feel guilt over feeling proud of your humility before Allah.
  6.   Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, p. 39.
  7.   See for instance the survey of education in The Economist, November 21, 1992.
  8.   In the elision he spoke of the inappropriateness of trying Erich Honecker for the shooting of a handful of people when the whole regime was a monstrous crime.

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