[Editor’s note: the following is an essay by Dr Tibor Machan, professor emeritus in the department of philosophy at Auburn University, and current holder of the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University in Orange, California. He is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and a former adjunct faculty member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Machan is a syndicated and freelance columnist; author of more than one hundred scholarly papers and more than thirty books. We are extremely grateful for his generosity in regards to sharing this article.]
Private Property Rights
The first step in the destruction of capitalism must be the abolition of the right to private property. Marx and Engels were clear about this in The Communist Manifesto. And many who sympathize with his idea of a socialist political economy agree. This is one reason many such thinkers and activists are champions of land use, eminent domain and related legal measures that render even the most personal of real property subject to extensive government control.
Of course, there are others who have argued that the right to private property is not only the basis for vigorous commerce but also the foundation of other individual rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. It is arguably, in a somewhat roundabout way, the conceptual foundation of the right to freedom of political participation. Without some safe haven, one’s private domain, to return to after the vote has gone against one’s way, one will be vulnerable to the vindictiveness of the winners! And political advocacy without exclusive jurisdiction over one’s domain is difficult to imagine since advocacy, support and such political activities could not be carried out independently of other people’s permission.
Accordingly, it is no mere academic curiosity whether the idea of private property rights is well founded, sound, or just. Within American political and legal history there has been some confidence in the soundness of this principle but the basis of it has not gone unchallenged over the last two centuries. One need but consider the recent work by Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership, Taxes and Justice (Oxford University Press, 2001) to appreciate how vulnerable is that confidence. Indeed, it is mostly members of the discipline of economics who see merit in the idea of private property, and then not as a feature of justice but more as a feature of an efficient system of resource allocation.
Yet, there is reason to think that the right to private property is a good idea, that everyone should be understood to have this right and that the institutions built upon it should be preserved. Indeed, they should be extended into areas where other ideas have held sway (for example, environmental public law). Let us consider this idea, then, and see whether we can be confident in its validity as a sound political-legal concept.
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