Cherishing Property Rights

Making our value premises explicit and clear can help untangle contentious public policy issues, or at least let us know where people stand. Let’s state my personal value premise. I cherish private property rights. “Okay,” you say, “but what are private property rights?” Private property rights refer to an owner’s right to acquire, keep, use and dispose of property in ways that do not violate property rights of others. If that’s a shared value, there’s little debate on a whole class of public policy issues. Let’s see.

I am the property of Walter Williams. Among other things, that means I have the right to take chances with my own life but not that of others. Mandating that I wear a seatbelt violates my rights whereas drunk driving laws and vehicle safety inspection laws don’t. Choosing not to wear a seatbelt raises my risk of death. That’s my right. Driving drunk or driving an unsafe car, raises the risk of harming others. That’s not my right. “Williams,” you say, “we gotcha this time. If you don’t wear a seatbelt and wind up a vegetable, you burden society who has to take care of you.” That’s not a problem of private property rights; it’s a problem of socialism (weakened private property rights). People’s money belongs to them. They shouldn’t be forced to take care of me.

This term the U.S. Supreme Court is taking up the “right to die” issue. Private property rights can illuminate. Pretend it’s United States v. Williams. First, the Court should determine just who owns Williams. The evidence will show that while some of my ancestors were owned, my mother and father were not. Having attained 21 years of age, it would seem that Williams owns himself. That finding of self ownership would make the Court’s task easy. Their 9-0 decision would read: Though the thought of Williams ending his precious life is distasteful, while the loss of his insightful weekly columns will be a great loss to society, nonetheless, we find he owns himself and has the right to dispose of his life in any manner consistent with the safety of others.

There’d be a different decision if I didn’t own myself. The first complexity would be to find out just who owns Williams. But let’s fudge that complexity by saying Congress owns him. That being the case, I wouldn’t have the right to take chances with my life. Congress would have every right to force me to use a seatbelt. Moreover, they’d have the right to force me to stop smoking, exercise, get a plenty of rest and restrict my dietary intake of salt, cholesterol and alcohol. In United States v. Williams, the court would rightfully decree that I had no right to dispose of Williams. After all, that would be destroying government property.

I disagree with the ways some people “unwisely” use their property. Many drink and smoke too much, wear gaudy attire, become couch potatoes, and don’t buckle up when they drive. But the true test of one’s commitment to liberty and private property rights doesn’t come when we permit people to be free to do those voluntary things with which we agree. The true test comes when we permit people to be free to do those voluntary things with which we disagree.

Undoubtedly, my position is offensive to many, and mankind’s history is on their side. Private property rights and self-determination has always received a hostile reception. People have always had what they consider to be good reasons for restricting the liberties of others.