When Defenders of Property Rights Are Its Own Worst Enemies

by | Nov 1, 2022

Many attempts to defend property rights are founded on the wrong premises. The result, unfortunately, is ultimately destructive to the cause.

Many attempts to defend property rights are founded on the wrong premises. The result, unfortunately, is ultimately destructive to the cause. Consider an essay titled “A primer of private propertyby Eric Schansberg, a professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast.

The essay begins reasonably well, noting that property rights are important to all individuals. Property rights enable everyone, including the poor, to build wealth. “While the wealthy,” he writes, “might have the most to lose, the poor have the most to gain with robust property rights.” The essay goes downhill from there.

Property rights, the professor claims, “are necessarily attenuated at some point, as my actions impinge on others.” It is true that we can’t use our property to violate the property rights of others. But this is not an attenuation of property rights—it is an application of the right to property.

Rights are not a license to engage in every whim or satisfy every desire. Rights protect our freedom to act as we deem best, so long as we respect the freedom of others to do the same. I have a right to build a bonfire in my backyard, so long as I do not endanger the property or well-being of others. But if I send plumes of toxic smoke into my neighbor’s yard, I am preventing him from using his property as he chooses.

The professor’s belief that property rights should be attenuated isn’t surprising, because he believes that “we don’t own anything.” We are simply stewards who manage resources for God. The things we call our property, he argues, should be used “to serve one another humbly in love.” If we aren’t good stewards, then it is proper for government to intervene and “attenuate” our property rights.

To this alleged defender of property rights, we do not have an unalienable freedom to produce, use, and trade material values as we choose. To this alleged defender of property rights, the right to property is a temporary permission that can be revoked when we aren’t humbly serving others.

When the desired results aren’t achieved, rights are discarded. And this pertains not just to property, but to our lives as well. “One can make a case for mandated vaccines,” he writes. The issue is “the practical extent to which the mandates move people beyond what they would do voluntarily.” In other words, if enough people won’t voluntarily get vaccinated, we should forcibly inject them. This is the inevitable result when one bases rights on an improper foundation.

Rights, including property rights, protect our freedom to take the actions necessary to sustain our lives and pursue our own personal happiness. But to the professor, our purpose in life isn’t our own happiness, but to humbly serve others. And if we don’t do so voluntarily, we should be compelled to do so.

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Brian Phillips is the founder of the Texas Institute for Property Rights. Brian has been defending property rights for nearly thirty years. He played a key role in defeating zoning in Houston, Texas, and in Hobbs, New Mexico. He is the author of three books: Individual Rights and Government Wrongs, The Innovator Versus the Collective, and Principles and Property Rights. Visit his website at texasipr.com.

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