Property: The Forgotten Freedom

I think of freedom in straightforward terms. Any individual should be free to do as he/she likes as long as it does not demonstrably impinge on the same rights in others. This idea is not new, of course, but it is largely misunderstood, especially with regard to property.

Were we all composed of pure spirit, with no need to feed, clothe, or shelter ourselves, property rights would be meaningless. Since we are mere flesh and blood, each individual needs to have control of certain things to survive. The reason is simple–most things we need are created, not found.

With the possible exception of air and sunshine, every material thing we need comes about because some individual, often in cooperation with others, has the ability, will, and desire to turn a beneficial idea into reality. Fortunately, the human race has also discovered that trading with others results in more material goods for oneself.

Who owns such wonderful things? In my view, the creator. From spear tip to computer chip, the rightful owner is the person who created it. If he/she contracted with others to create it, that contract defines who owns what fraction of its value.

Some people in society are more capable than others at producing certain things. No one wants to hear me sing opera or see me dance for Chippendale’s. Yet I do not begrudge the vocalists or 20-somethings with six-pack abs their due. Neither should they begrudge me my ability to write a book or teach a class.

Inevitably, some people on the whole are able to create more value than others. They own more things as a result of their benefiting others more. They are better off than others because they are better to others. It is their ability that enables others to benefit from the things they cannot create themselves. The more benefit they provide, the more they prosper.

This is disturbing to those who are less willing or less capable. In the name of “fairness,” they seek to take from the creators and give to those they deem more deserving. The most obvious example is the thief, motivated at a primal level to take by force what he/she either cannot or will not create.

Some people make a profession of taking from the creators and giving to others. They are called politicians. In addition to getting to pat themselves on the back for doing so much good for society, they get a generous cut themselves. Lacking the forthrightness of a thief, they mask their willingness to take from others by force in byzantine tax codes and arcane regulations.

What would our society look like if we were to refuse to allow either thieves or their governmental counterparts to take what each of us has created? Those disposed to believe in the fairy tale of a benevolent and fair government imagine hordes of the poor wandering the countryside, victims of arrogance and callousness of the elite. I see something quite different–the blossoming of a new human spirit.

When people are able to trade freely, they are able to tap their potential for creating value for others. Virtually all human beings have some capacity for doing so. In return, the less capable benefit from the more capable in two ways. First, goods and services are cheaper because capable people compete to provide them without fear of having a large portion confiscated by government. Second, the truly incapable, such as the severely handicapped, benefit from the benevolence of the wealthy. Humanity, for all its tendencies toward wanton cruelty and unjustified violence, has also shown a tremendous capacity for kindness and charity.

This Independence Day, we will all remember the precious rights our ancestors earned for us. Along with your ferocity in protecting your freedom of speech and religion, kindle a fierceness in protecting your property. You earned it, now fight to keep it.

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Filed under entrepreneurship, financial crisis, money, politics, retirement, wealth

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