The perfect security of person and property

Regulation and taxation impose constant government assaults on Americans’ property rights, eroding their ability to make choices for themselves. James Fenimore Cooper put it, “There is getting to be so much public right, that private right is overshadowed and lost … danger exists that the ends of liberty will be forgotten.”

jean-baptiste-sayGiven how much private property rights now overshadowed, we should return to first principles about those essential underpinnings of voluntary relationships. One person worth reconsidering is Jean Baptiste Say, particularly on the 250th anniversary of his January 5 birth.

J.B. Say was the foremost French political economist in the early 1800s. An elaborator on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and a vigorous defender of economic freedom, which arises from the defense of private property rights, his Treatise on Political Economy was used as a textbook in the United States.

Say’s chapter, “Of the right of property,” remains among the wisest, though widely violated, insights into property rights available today.

The right of property … [is] the most powerful of all encouragements to the multiplication of wealth.

The legal inviolability of property is obviously a mere mockery … where possession is rendered perpetually insecure, by the intricacy of legislative enactments, and the subtleties of technical nicety. Nor can property be said to exist, where it is not matter of reality as well as of right. Then, and then only, can the sources of production … attain their utmost degree of fecundity.

Who will … deny, that the certainty of enjoying the fruits of one’s land, capital and labor, is the most powerful inducement to render them productive? Or who is dull enough to doubt, that no one knows so well as the proprietor how to make the best use of his property? Yet how often in practice is that inviolability of property disregarded … upon the most flimsy pretexts?

The property a man has in his own industry is violated, whenever he is forbidden the free exercise of his faculties and talents, except insomuch as they would interfere with the rights of third parties.

Sacred as the property in the faculties of industry is, it is constantly infringed upon. …What robber or despoiler could commit a more atrocious act of invasion upon the public security?

Nothing short of the necessity of defending [social] order from manifest danger can authorize these or similar violations of individual right.

Taxation … must be proved indispensable to the existence of social order; every step it takes beyond these limits is an actual spoliation; for taxation, even where levied by national consent, is a violation of property.

The right of property implies the free disposition of one’s own.

When public authority is not itself a spoliator, it procures to the nation the greatest of all blessings, protection from spoliation by others. Without this protection of each individual by the united force of the whole community, it is impossible to conceive any considerable development of the productive powers of man, of land, and of capital.

The poor man … is equally interested with the rich in upholding the inviolability of property. His personal services would not be available, without the aid of accumulations previously made and protected. Every obstruction to, or dissipation of these accumulations, is a material injury to his means of gaining a livelihood.

Civilized communities pursue and punish every invasion of property as a crime … the happy effects, resulting from the right of property, are more striking in proportion as that right is well guarded by political institutions.

As Larry Sechrest noted, J.B. Say was “precise and yet as simple as possible, so that any literate, reasonably intelligent person can comprehend his meaning.” However, Americans have been governed by violators of those principles, because “agents of public authority … can enforce error and absurdity at the point of the bayonet.” And the results have been far worse than if we had followed his understanding. In Say’s words:

Of all the means by which a government can stimulate production, there is none so powerful as the perfect security of person and property, especially from the aggressions of arbitrary power. This security is itself a source of public prosperity.

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University, a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, an Adjunct Scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education Faculty Network. His books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014) and Apostle of Peace (2013).

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.