Property Rights and Freedom

Individual rights are inseparable from property rights. The United States of America is the most prosperous nation on the planet because the land contains abundant natural resources and the people have been free to use those resources to create wealth.

Those rights have been increasingly diminished by the environmental movement and their fellow travelers in the Federal government by laws restricting access to land and by bans or moratoria on where one could explore for and produce natural resources which are the engines of our economy.

The principle that an individual be free to reap the fruits of his labor, or suffer loss from imprudent action, is fundamental, and provides economic incentive for a property owner to use his property wisely. But to use property wisely, the owner must be confidant that the government, or judicial system, will protect his rights.

The U.S. Constitution was written to restrict the government’s ability to infringe upon our rights. The U.S. Supreme Court (Lynch vs Household Finance, 1972) affirms the relationship between freedom and property rights: “The dichotomy between personal liberties and property rights is a false one. Property does not have rights. People have rights. The right to enjoy property without unlawful deprivation, no less than the right to speak or the right to travel, is in truth, a ‘personal’ right…a fundamental interdependence exists between personal right to liberty and the personal right to property. Neither could have meaning without the other.”

There have been too many cases where one’s ability to use private property has been restricted because the land may, for example, harbor some “endangered” species or contain a very loosely defined wetland. We’ve also seen government interfere in the market place through crony capitalism to the detriment of private business.

Although property rights are fundamental, they have never been absolute. There are three kinds of restrictions.

The first restriction is similar to the “Golden Rule.” Use of property must not harm the property of another.

Second, governments have the power of eminent domain under which they can take property for some public use; but they must provide just compensation. A trouble here is the increasingly fuzzy definition of “public use.” There is an emerging trend to condemn private property and small businesses, and turn the property over to larger businesses.

Third, private property rights are infringed through “lawful” actions such as local zoning and other regulations, and, increasingly through environmental restrictions.

Environmentalism should be about conservation, making the best use of our resources. Unfortunately, environmentalism is not about the environment anymore. It has become the religion of control freaks; control of land use, control of where we can live, control of what kind of homes we build, control of what method of transportation we use, and control of where businesses buy their supplies. Environmental regulations, more than anything else, are infringing upon our property rights, stifling our businesses, threatening our food supplies, and even endangering our national security.

As George Washington warned, under other circumstances, “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own…”

The incremental encroachment of regulations on our property will, if left unchecked, continue the erosion of our freedoms and our ability to enjoy the fruits of our labor.

See also:

Beware of Sustainable Development

Red Tape Rising – Federal Regulations Choke Economy

Tombstone versus the United States

EPA Admits CO2 Regulation Ineffective


  1. “Arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused”
    Also from our first President. JP

    1. I guess from your comment here and on other posts that you are an environmental activist.  Compare the state of the environment in the old communist countries versus those under capitalism.  You will find that the environment fares much better when individuals can be free to reap the fruits of his labor, which provides economic incentive for a property owner to use his property wisely.

      So, in case you missed it here is another of my posts that you will find disturbing: 

      1. “You will find that the environment fares much better when individuals
        can be free to reap the fruits of his labor, which provides economic
        incentive for a property owner to use his property wisely.”

        Yes, I’m sure the people of Japan are singing the praises of their miraculously non-radioactive landscape thanks to capitalism.  Lax safety standards in order to maximize profit are a hallmark of unrestrained free-market capitalism and fascist regimes.

  2. to unrepentant_commie,

    You are missing the point.  Wealth is not money; it is the stuff we use and need such as food provided by farmers, building material provided by forestry companies and mines.  Capitalists provide the opportunities and take the risks, and yes, labor often provides the means.  Of course, in the capitalist system, anyone, with the right idea can create wealth.  Reread the third paragraph.  Much of what you are complaining about in the U.S. is the result of crony capitalism where the companies seek special favor from government or the government tries to pick winners depending on the policy de jour.  And you, yourself, have complained that “the worst-paid and most exploited workers” are in communist countries like China.  So Mr. unrepentant_commie, perhaps you should repent and ask yourself: “under which system do the workers have the highest standard of living.”

    1. That would be socialist systems like Denmark and Sweden.  Our capitalist standards have fallen woefully since their heyday in the 1960’s and 70’s.  And since the communist systems in China and Russia seem to encourage the same sort of depredations against workers as the capitalist systems here and in India and Asia, it seems the socialists take the ‘highest standard of living” prize.

  3. I find your argument hinges on two things – the definition of “harm to other persons” and to the question of compensation for lawful actions.  The attitude of society toward these two points has changed a lot since the days of George Washington.  The problem of scale has a lot to do with it.  Used to be in Tucson, you could raise pigs and horses in your back yard and shoot doves from your back porch.  When there are half a million people in town, you can’t do that any more, and no one has been compensated for the lack of that “freedom.”  With the density of population, scope of possible actions with today’s mega-corporations, the idea of “harm to other persons” has expanded greatly.  No longer is it just depriving your neighbor of his water rights, but depriving the whole society of access to endangered species and the possible alteration of entire eco-systems.  Quite simply there are too many people on earth to think that individual or corporate rights must be unfettered.  

    The question of compensation for “takings” is a thorny question as well.  If the government action results in a “giving” should the government be compensated by the landowner?  For instance if land is up-zoned from ag. use to residential use, increasing it’s value by a factor, should the government (us) be compensated for the windfall, just as you seem to argue that the owner of a steep lot should be compensated if the government (us) say he cannot build a house on such a steep lot, thereby depriving him of a use for his property?  I agree that the definition of “wetland” can be a little specious at times, and probably needs a little closer definition, but I think the general idea is protecting the rights of the rest of us.

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