Property Rights Form Foundation of Freedom

"A man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights. Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.” — James Madison on Property, (1792).

A few months ago, I wrote a column in this space on efforts by anti-tobacco zealots to ban smoking in all public spaces, including privately-owned businesses. I was floored at how much negative e-mail I received in response to that column. The common theme among these negative responses was that non-smokers shouldn’t be subjected to the secondhand health effects caused by smokers. One guy wrote to say that he really enjoyed jazz and blues clubs, and didn’t see why he should have to suck in cigarette smoke in order to enjoy the music he loves.

Well, here’s why:

Someone put up a good deal of his own money to open that blues club. That, or he risked his reputation and financial status to take out a loan. Someone took great care to set the atmosphere of that club. Someone did all the appropriate paperwork, applied for all of the appropriate licenses, and took care to hire bartenders, a wait staff, and managers. Someone worries about that blues club’s financial success. Someone assumes the risks and liabilities that come with operating a business, particularly one that serves alcohol.

The author of that e-mail who enjoys this blues club took none of those risks. He put up none of his own money. He has no stake in that club’s success or failure, save for the fact that if it fails, he’ll need to find another blues club. So why should he be able to insist, with the help of government, that the guy who risked everything serve him on his terms?

Somewhere between today and the time of Madison, Americans have lost sight of the importance of property rights (search) — the ownership a man has of his body, his hands, and the product of his labor. As Madison wrote above, it is the right from which all other rights and freedoms are derived. Once a government and its people stop respecting and enforcing a man’s right to do what he pleases with what he owns and creates, all the other rights and freedoms we cherish fall into peril.

The smoking ban debate is merely symptomatic of a larger problem, of course. Whether it's the controversy over job outsourcing or draconian environmental regulations — disrespect for private property continues across all spheres of the public policy debate. In fact, as income tax day approaches, we are reminded of the most egregious trampling of property rights: the passage of the 16th Amendment (search), which gave government permission to siphon its take of the product of American labor.   

A more recent development in the assault on property rights is the abuse of eminent domain, the process by which government can seize land for the “public good.” The problem is that governments — local, state, and national — have an overly broad interpretation of what makes a “public good.” Often, it means taking land from ordinary people for a pittance, then handing it over to corporations and developers who can offer the state or city more tax revenue. In New Jersey, to cite one example, Atlantic City officials interpreted “public good” to mean that the city could seize the home of an elderly woman so Donald Trump could build a garage for his limousines. 

The erosion of property rights ought to concern all of us because, as our founding fathers knew, our right to just about everything else is dependent on our right to our person, our labor and what we produce. It’s easy to get outraged when government favors snail darters and endangered butterflies over jobs and homeowners. It’s easy to jump on the property rights bandwagon when cities seize old ladies’ houses to make room for the new Nissan plant. But we need to be consistent. We can’t say that it’s wrong for the EPA to tell a farmer what he can and can’t do with his land, but that it’s OK for the same agency to force restaurants to go smoke free. We can’t say it’s wrong for the Department of Labor to tell a business owner he must comply with needlessly expensive OSHA (search) regulations, but it’s okay for the same agency to tell him he must hire needlessly expensive domestic labor when cheaper foreign labor is available.

There’s either an absolute right to personal property or there isn’t. If Americans value any of their freedoms, they ought to guard this one with extra vigilance, even in times when it’s personally inconvenient to do so.

Radley Balko is a freelance writer and publishes a Weblog at

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