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Monday, November 8, 2010

Unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and… Property?

Today’s document, a short letter from Rose Wilder Lane to Leonard E. Read on April 25, 1950, contains an interesting claim. Lane believes she once saw a reference where Thomas Jefferson, in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, wrote “Life, Liberty, and Property” and later changed the final word to “the pursuit of happiness.” This is certainly believable as Lane certainly knew many obscure things like this and as she said, “The elephant and I never, never forget.” The evidence Lane presents, from the 1774 document “The Declaration of American Rights,” even states that the American colonies have rights, “…to life, liberty, and property.”

Property may have made for a better phrase, although maybe not as catchy. After all, property rights are an important element of freedom as they serve a function of creating cooperation in place of conflict. By designating ownership over scarce resources, the form of competition for these resources shifts from violence to exchange; from a zero sum game (where someone gains at someone else’s loss) to a positive sum game (where someone gains at someone else’s gain). Property also makes the division of labor possible, which in turn allows for greater social cooperation and growth. The right to own property is a key element in any free society wishing to achieve advanced material production.

As for human rights, well, property rights are human rights. Take for example the right of freedom of speech. This right is meaningless without property rights. Free speech does not mean anyone can enter anywhere they please and start making speeches or speak their mind. A salesman cannot break into your home in the middle of the night to sell you a snuggie. This would be a violation of your property rights and freedom of association. Instead what the salesman does have a right to do is advertise the snuggie by purchasing a billboard, air time on television, renting a store or booth at the mall, etc. Similarly any individual has a right to speak his or her mind to anyone willing to listen but freedom of speech does not trump property rights. Instead they are couched in them.

The full phrase in the declaration says, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Of course what would be unalienable is our right to own property (we would be able to exchange our property). And this seems like an extremely important right. In fact it might just be the most important right in a free society.

What do you think? Did Jefferson make the right change? Could the inclusion of property in the Declaration of Independence helped prevent the multitudes of attacks on property rights since our countries founding?

Download the April 25, 1950 Letter from Lane to Read here.

  • Nicholas Snow is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College in the Department of Economics, and previously a Senior Lecturer at The Ohio State University Economics Department. His research focuses on the political economy of prohibition.