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Property Rights and "Human Rights"

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Liberals will generally concede the right of every individual to his “personal liberty,” to his freedom to think, speak, write, and engage in such personal “exchanges” as sexual activity between “consenting adults.” In short, the liberal attempts to uphold the individual’s right to the ownership of his own body, but then denies his right to “property,” i.e., to the ownership of material objects. Hence, the typical liberal dichotomy between “human rights,” which he upholds, and “property rights,” which he rejects. Yet the two, according to the libertarian, are inextricably intertwined; they stand or fall together.

Take, for example, the liberal socialist who advocates government ownership of all the “means of production” while upholding the “human” right of freedom of speech or press. How is this “human” right to be exercised if the individuals constituting the public are denied their right to ownership of property? If, for example, the government owns all the newsprint and all the printing shops, how is the right to a free press to be exercised? If the government owns all the newsprint, it then necessarily has the right and the power to allocate that newsprint, and someone’s “right to a free press” becomes a mockery if the government decides not to allocate newsprint in his direction. And since the government must allocate scarce newsprint in some way, the right to a free press of, say, minorities or “subversive” antisocialists will get short shrift indeed. The same is true for the “right to free speech” if the government owns all the assembly halls, and therefore allocates those halls as it sees fit. Or, for example, if the government of Soviet Russia, being atheistic, decides not to allocate many scarce resources to the production of matzohs, for Orthodox Jews the “freedom of religion” becomes a mockery; but again, the Soviet government can always rebut that Orthodox Jews Property and Exchange 51 are a small minority and that capital equipment should not be diverted to matzoh production.

The basic flaw in the liberal separation of “human rights” and “property rights” is that people are treated as ethereal abstractions. If a man has the right to self-ownership, to the control of his life, then in the real world he must also have the right to sustain his life by grappling with and transforming resources; he must be able to own the ground and the resources on which he stands and which he must use. In short, to sustain his “human right”—or his property rights in his own person—he must also have the property right in the material world, in the objects which he produces. Property rights are human rights, and are essential to the human rights which liberals attempt to maintain. The human right of a free press depends upon the human right of private property in newsprint.

In fact, there are no human rights that are separable from property rights. The human right of free speech is simply the property right to hire an assembly hall from the owners, or to own one oneself; the human right of a free press is the property right to buy materials and then print leaflets or books and to sell them to those who are willing to buy. There is no extra “right of free speech” or free press beyond the property rights we can enumerate in any given case. And furthermore, discovering and identifying the property rights involved will resolve any apparent conflicts of rights that may crop up.

Consider, for example, the classic example where liberals generally concede that a person’s “right of freedom of speech” must be curbed in the name of the “public interest”: Justice Holmes’ famous dictum that no one has the right to cry “fire” falsely in a crowded theater. Holmes and his followers have used this illustration again and again to prove the supposed necessity for all rights to be relative and tentative rather than precise and absolute.

But the problem here is not that rights cannot be pushed too far but that the whole case is discussed in terms of a vague and wooly “freedom of speech” rather than in terms of the rights of private property.

Suppose we analyze the problem under the aspect of property rights. The fellow who brings on a riot by falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is, necessarily, either the owner of the theater (or the owner’s agent) or a paying patron. If he is the owner, then he has committed fraud on his customers. He has taken their money in exchange for a promise to put on a movie or play, and now, instead, he disrupts the show by falsely shouting “fire” and breaking up the performance. He has thus welshed on his contractual obligation, and has thereby stolen the property—the money—of his patrons and has violated their property rights. Suppose, on the other hand, that the shouter is a patron and not the owner. In that case, he is violating the property right of the owner—as well as of the other guests to their paidfor performance. As a guest, he has gained access to the property on certain terms, including an obligation not to violate the owner’s property or to disrupt the performance the owner is putting on. His malicious act, therefore, violates the property rights of the theater owner and of all the other patrons.

There is no need, therefore, for individual rights to be restricted in the case of the false shouter of “fire.” The rights of the individual are still absolute; but they are property rights. The fellow who maliciously cried “fire” in a crowded theater is indeed a criminal, but not because his so-called “right of free speech” must be pragmatically restricted on behalf of the “public good”; he is a criminal because he has clearly and obviously violated the property rights of another person.

[Excerpted from For A New Liberty: For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto]

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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