Property Rights and The American Democrat

James Fenimore Cooper widely influenced American literature. However, one of his books–The American Democrat, a civics primer–gets scant attention. Given that Cooper was born (September 15) so close to Constitution Day, it merits revisiting now.

Cooper defended the limited government the Constitution authorized, because political power not tightly controlled would be abused. In particular, he emphasized private property rights as necessary to liberty, our “right of self-government.

Unfortunately, the erosion of property rights Cooper warned against has only accelerated. Consequently, his understanding, echoing our founders, may be even more important today, because “vigilance in the protection of principles is even more necessary in a democracy.”

Cooper began from an insight few recognize today: “The rights of property [are] an indispensable condition of civilization.” Consequently, “we must take those consequences of the rights of property inseparable from the rights themselves.”

Since “property is the base of all civilization,” it follows that “its existence and security are indispensable to social improvement.” So “the first great principle connected with the rights of property is its inviolability,” leading to “the safe and just governing rule … permitting everyone to be the undisturbed judge of his own habits and associations, so long as they are innocent, and do not impair the rights of others to be equally judges for themselves.”

Given the foundational role of private property rights to effective social cooperation, Cooper concluded that for public policy, that meant property rights. “shall have no factious political aids.” That denial of unequal treatment implies “it is a great mistake … to take sides with the public, in doubtful cases affecting the rights of individuals, as this is the precise form in which oppression is the most likely to exhibit itself in a popular government.”

That led Cooper to dissent from democratic orthodoxy that has only intensified since: “As between the public and individuals, therefore, the true bias of a democrat … is to take sides with the latter. This is opposed to the popular notion, which is to fancy the man who maintains his rights against the popular will an aristocrat.”

Cooper connected this to individuality, which property rights protect. “Individuality … lies at the root of all voluntary human exertion … because we know that the fruits of our labors will belong to ourselves, or to those who are most dear to us.” Consequently, “all which society enjoys beyond the mere supply of its first necessities is dependent on the rights of property.” In other words, “property is an instrument of working most of the good that society enjoys,” because “it encourages and sustains laudable and useful efforts in individuals.” In sum, “Property is desirable as the groundwork of moral independence, as a means of improving the faculties, and of doing good to others, and as the agent in all that distinguishes the civilized man from the savage.”

The upshot of Cooper’s logic of liberty was that “the man of property … is privileged to use his own means … in the pursuit of his own happiness, and they who would interfere with him, so far from appreciating liberty, are ignorant of its vital principles.” Unfortunately, that is radically at odds with “the habit of seeing the public rule,” which “is gradually accustoming the American mind to an interference with private rights that is slowly undermining the individuality of the national character.”

The American Democrat was a civics book. But with the declining respect for property rights since Cooper wrote, it doesn’t read like current civics books.  Americans today would greatly benefit by remembering that “All who love equal justice, and, indeed, the safety of free institutions, should understand that property has its rights, and the necessity of rigidly respecting them.” It would serve us far better than the prevailing view, which applauds using government power to give majority coalitions what they want by blatantly violating others’ property rights.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.