What are Property Rights?
Are they more important than Human Rights?
No, property rights are a type of human right. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, sets forth this right in Article 17 :
"(1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.
The consensus of world opinion is therefore that the right to own property is fundamental to human dignity. The main threat to property ownership comes from government. While socialism as a political ideology may have faded, there are other threats to the right to own property in the United States on all levels of government today. Some of them are documented in this web site.
Does this mean that property rights are more important than other types of human rights? Of course not. The rights listed in the Universal Declaration are meant to be taken as a whole, each right on a par with the others. Property rights go hand in hand with political liberties. Had Aristotle not identified happiness as the supreme good, Thomas Jefferson might have written about the right to life, liberty, and property rather than pursuit of happiness. The right to property was a theme of the American Revolution. In Democratic Vistas, Walt Whitman wrote of the need for a more universal ownership of property to make democracy effective.
In our day, we are used to the opposition between people and money in the political process. We are used to seeing the influence of big money upon government. We see hordes of lobbyists representing rich business interests descending upon the legislatures in search of tax and regulatory concessions gained at the expense of the average citizen. We see big money poured into television commercials that swing elections. We see billionaire sports-team owners demanding public subsidies to build new stadiums that will make their franchise more valuable. We see big corporations demanding tax concessions from state and local governments to build new facilities in their area.
Is this what property rights are about? Of course not. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Property rights mean the right to be left alone by government to pursue lawful activities, not to dip into the public treasury or rig laws to the advantage of particular business interests. In fact, it is the combination of big money and government that poses the main threat to property rights. The erosion of those rights comes about when politically influential persons or groups use government power to take away property from the politically weak. To make democracy work, the interests of government and business need to be kept separate.
Government has certain rights; individuals also have rights. The concept of property rights says that individuals have a right to own property free of unreasonable government interference. Government has the right to take some property away from individuals in the form of taxation. In a democracy, however, the leaders of government, who are elected by the people, need to justify their decisions to tax, borrow, and spend, not take property from its rightful owner in covert and arbitrary ways. The concept of property rights is fully compatible with a politics free of excessive influence from the interests of Money.
The law is meant to protect individuals from abusive actions by government. But since government makes, executes, and interprets the law, it is sometimes difficult to keep government power in check when ruthless individuals are placed in key positions. Regardless of what the law says, governments at all levels employ taxpayer-supported staffs of attorneys ready to oppose any challenge to their power.
In this web site we identify some of the threats to property rights that landlords in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, have experienced. The reality is that politics is often done by stereotyping certain groups in moralistic terms. The politician, enjoying media support, poses as the champion of goodness in opposition to the forces of evil. Landlords, almost everywhere, have a bad public image. Therefore, landlords are a prime target for political campaigns of this sort.
The most common complaint is that landlords are interested only in collecting rents; they neglect maintenance on their properties or, failing to screen their applicants properly, admit undesirable tenants who bring crime into the neighborhoods. "Righteous" neighbors appeal to local government to drive such landlords out of business so that the neighborhood can again become peaceful and law-abiding. Essentially, this argument blames buildings for crime. Subliminally, there may also be an effort to ruin the property owner so he will be forced to sell for pennies on the dollar and someone else can make a financial killing.
Politicians in Minneapolis followed this script with stunning effect until the Minneapolis Property Rights Action Committee came along. Then, quite unexpectedly, these Minneapolis landlords became a political force in the city whose efforts bore fruit in the 2001 municipal elections. The incumbent mayor and half of the city council were replaced. The landlords accomplished that political task not by use of money - campaign contributions, television commercials, or buying influence with elected officials - but by a combination of political protest events and their own small-media operations. In short, they changed the climate of ideas. They showed that, equipped with a just cause, it was possible to fight City Hall and win.
Sadly, the old political order is back. City politicians are again posing as vigorous crime fighters by going after the owners of property instead of focusing on the criminals themselves. The advantage is two-fold: (1) The negative stereotyping of landlords makes them a popular target with neighborhood groups and the press. (2) The landlords have property which can be confiscated to the benefit of government or politically well-connected individuals or groups whereas the average street criminal has little property to take away (unless he is a drug dealer of a certain size). This is an example of deep-pockets justice.
Beneath the threat to property rights in the United States is the romantic idea of politically liberal and left groups that the working class alone is virtuous. The Marxist ideology, discredited as it is, has nevertheless left the idea of a class struggle in which the possession of property was the distinguishing feature. The virtuous working class may include propertyless workers who are employed in factories or they may include educated persons who have only their knowledge and personal skills to sell in the marketplace.
As an increasing percentage of Americans attend or complete college, more people identify with this type of politics. Unwilling to stoop to the level of menial jobs or to work with their hands, todays educated class is alienated from the small shopkeepers, rental-property owners, and others who make a living from owning a business. They readily accept the idea that these small-business people whose businesses are located in inner-city neighborhoods are taking advantage of the poor - renting them shabby apartments or selling shoddy products at inflated prices. The business owners are doubly despised for being small-time operators - i.e., low class.
The image of such business people is burnished in popular films and songs. The personal resentment of educated persons who have not landed good jobs as a result of their superior education - the educated proletariat - is effectively directed against such targets while the more successful class of educated managers and professions sometimes use their political connections to eliminate the competition from small business. If only Julia Roberts would play an inner-city landlady under political stress!
The cause of property rights is therefore the cause of small property owners who must struggle both against financially stronger business interests and against government infused with a politics of antagonism toward property owners (except, of course, for those who contribute money to the politicians election campaigns or to the non-profit organizations where political liberals often work). This is a struggle not only in Minneapolis and St. Paul but also in other American cities; and not just in the United States, but around the world. (See article about what Chinese peasants and American landlords have in common.)
The ability to contribute labor and a small amount of property to an enterprise is a cornerstone of the U.S. economic system. It gives rise to the dignity of being ones own boss and taking risks which could lead either to fortune or financial ruin. Regardless of its reputation, this is the good fight in our own time. This web site is focused on a place where the fight was most intensely carried out. Yet, the struggle has taken place almost entirely beneath the radar of public attention and understanding.
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