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Monday, April 1, 1991

Pigeons and Property Rights

Mr. Smith is a writer living in Santa Maria, California He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal.

I like pigeons. They are independent creatures who would survive whether I fed them or not, which is probably the reason that I feed them. This is why I was in the park on that bright autumn day. I was visiting some of my old haunts in Los Angeles, and I never let a trip to my old hometown pass without a few minutes on my personal park bench with a bag of bread crumbs, surrounded by some of the most noble creatures on the planet.

I was in the process of convincing myself that a fat charcoal-colored bird remembered me, when I was alerted to some activity at the other end of the park. I wandered down the path to see what was happening. It wasn’t long until I discovered that it was a rally, and a rally in a public park usually means that a group of people who despise the idea of free enterprise have gathered to vent their anger. Run-of-the-mill establishment people aren’t big for rallies and are not inclined toward marching either.

I don’t remember the name of the organization that was rallying that day, but they were a scruffy-looking bunch, and they seemed to be in unanimous agreement that anyone who had more than five dollars on his person was in league with the devil.

A particularly shrill female was addressing the group as I approached. I immediately sensed what was coming, having heard such oratory before. I knew that within three minutes I would hear the stirring words: “Property rights must give way to human rights.” There would be, of course, an excess of n’s in the word human. As it turned out, the speaker didn’t disappoint me, and the elongated word human-n-n-n-n soon echoed through the park with the audibility of a thousand iron bells.

I heard the rest of the speaker’s message, which could be encapsulated into the thought that all successful people should be executed without benefit of trial, and then returned to the bench and completed my rendezvous with the pigeons. When the bread-crumb supply was depleted, I said another farewell to Los Angeles and began the pleasant three-hour drive to my home in Santa Maria, where people in a less harried environment seem to have no problem with the concept of property rights.

The simple truth is one that the Far Left seems to miss with predictable regularity, this being that without property rights there can be no human rights. So let’s look at these rights.

We talk, for example, of freedom of the press, but this is a political concept and has no meaning whatever without economic freedom. If an individual cannot own a printing press and a building in which to house that press, there just isn’t going to be any free dissemination of information. If the same individual cannot employ the people who operate that press, who write the words that go onto it, and who deliver those words to the consumer, then there is no free press, regardless of governmental statements to the contrary. A government-owned printing press in a government-owned building managed by government employees is nothing more than a very large house organ. It is a somewhat sophisticated version of the king’s messenger tacking up the newest regulations in the town square.

Or let’s look at the concept of religious freedom when the government owns all the church buildings. It is not truly a house of worship when Big Brother is taking attendance, when indeed he holds the only key to the budding.

Can there be freedom Of speech when no citizen is allowed to criticize his rulers when standing on government property, and all property belongs to the government? Can there be freedom of assembly if people have no place to assemble?

Political Freedom Is Dependent on Economic Freedom

Property rights are the cornerstone of all human rights because political freedom is totally dependent upon economic freedom. A totalitarian government can issue a constitution, as many have done, but human rights are only paper and ink when they are not supported by the right to own property. The Soviet Constitution, for example, even in those dread, dark days of Joseph Stalin, guaranteed many of the rights found in the United States Constitution, with the rather notable exception that a citizen couldn’t exercise these rights while on government property.

Political rights are much like paper money, which has lasting value only when backed with silver or gold. If not, it is just paper. Political rights must be backed by economic rights. When this doesn’t happen, we have nothing more than a personal guarantee from a man in a checkered suit who sells snake oil from the back of a wagon.

The strident lady in the park didn’t understand this and neither did the motley band of admirers who egged her on, but it is one of the immutable facts of life that all the rhetoric of the world isn’t going to change. Some things just aren’t open for debate. Wednesday follows Tuesday, dogs chase cats, days are shorter in winter, and people who are forbidden to own property have no rights at all.

  • Mr. Smith, a frequent contributor to The Freeman, lives in Santa Maria, California.