Monday, January 26, 2009

Principles and Property Rights

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations across the country defending property rights. Interestingly, they have more in common than just defending the right to property. Few, if any, of these organizations defend property rights on moral grounds. While these organizations might make some valuable contributions to the cause of individual freedom, much of their work actually undermines the cause they advocate.

These organizations take difference tactics in their defense of property rights. While their arguments may win individual battles, they will ultimately lose the war. Their arguments invariably concede the moral high ground.

One example is the Property Rights Foundation of America (PRFA). Their goals include:

We stand for private ownership of land and resources.

We stand for the constitutionally guaranteed protection of the private property owner’s right to use his property unencumbered by unjust regulation. [emphasis added]

Apparently, PRFA does not oppose "just" regulations, as if such a thing is even possible. Such a position implies that regulations are appropriate, and they only oppose those that "go too far". But every regulation goes too far--every regulation forces some individuals to sacrifice their values to others and act against their own judgment. Every regulation has victims.

Any attempt to distinguish between just and unjust regulations is a concession to the enemies of property rights. Such a position accepts the "need" for regulations, and the only remaining issue is a matter of details. Either one is opposed to land use regulations as a matter of principle, or one is not. To bicker over what "goes too far" is to concede to a bank robber the right to take money and then complain when he takes "too much". By then it is too late.

PRFA is not alone in taking such a position. The Property Rights Alliance (PRA) makes a very similar argument:

As a matter of principle, property rights should be protected by recognizing the right of citizens to utilize and prosper from the land in this country. Legislation should never arbitrarily attempt to seize land from the public and restrict its use, as the omnibus package would. [emphasis added]

PRA is not opposed to land seizures, just those it deems arbitrary. As with regulations, making such a distinction concedes the principle that seizures are sometimes acceptable. They can only bicker over what is arbitrary and what isn't.

Dr. Leonard Peikoff defines the arbitrary:

"Arbitrary” means a claim put forth in the absence of evidence of any sort, perceptual or conceptual; its basis is neither direct observation nor any kind of theoretical argument. [An arbitrary idea is] a sheer assertion with no attempt to validate it or connect it to reality.

If we take PRA's position at face value, they would not be opposed to seizures for which some type of validation is offered. That "validation" could be an appeal to the "public welfare", or majority rule, or the dictates of a tyrant. All are based on false premises; all can be and are used to seize property and/ or control its use.

The Coalition for Property Rights (CPR) repeats the same argument as PRFA, with an added utilitarian twist. Their web site states:

Property rights provide the foundation for individual freedom and economic opportunity and are absolutely vital to the prosperity of our local, state and national economies.

Excessive regulation restricts the creative and constructive use of property, impedes the ability of property owners to respond to free market demands, and ultimately, limits the economic potential of ordinary citizens who are seeking to realize their individual American dreams. [emphasis added]

Again, CPR accepts regulations and just opposes those that are "excessive". CPR also argues that property rights are necessary for economic prosperity. While this is true, such an argument implies that if economic prosperity could be achieved by violating property rights, then so be it. But since property rights are the best means for achieving prosperity, then we should protect property rights.

These organizations do not view property rights as a moral imperative. They do not view property rights as sacrosanct. Under certain conditions, they accept regulations as acceptable, and can only complain when the controls are viewed as "unjust", or "arbitrary", or "excessive". They are not opposed to regulations as a matter of principle.

I would imagine that these organizations would argue that they do defend property rights on principle. In the quote above from PRFA, they say that "[a]s a matter of principle, property rights should be protected..." But in their very next sentence they contract that statement by opposing only "arbitrary" seizures of land. In other words, sometimes seizures are acceptable, and sometimes they are not. This is not a principle--it is in fact a rejection of principles.

Such arguments may be successful at times. But they are doomed to ultimately fail because they concede the fundamental issue. If these organizations truly wish to defend property rights they must understand and embrace the principle that property rights are inviolate. They must reject land use controls and seizures under any condition. They must seize the moral high ground.

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