As I look at current events in Syria and Ukraine, and talk to young adults, I realize how fragile our freedoms are.
Life Liberty and Property
When our forebears spoke and wrote about “Life, Liberty and Property” they were really talking about each individual’s future, present, and past.
That’s why, in order to to respect human rights, a society must respect the right to live, the right to justice, and property rights.
Life is the future. If I take your life, I deny you the future you would otherwise have had. The just society must prevent arbitrary killing, and indeed all societies have rules and prohibitions around the killing of one person by another.
Liberty is now. If I lock you up today, I might free you tomorrow — but your current reality is that you cannot do the things you would choose to do, because I have restrained you. A just society cannot imprison anyone without a just cause and without due process. It is right that free societies do not have “political prisoners” — and no free society can.
Consider property as the current incarnation of the past.
If you have property, and you came by it justly, then it represents your past, or your parents’ past — your past earnings, your past decisions.
All your past decisions (as well as flukes of fate and fortune) add up to your current collection of debts and assets — your property. Over the long term, the majority impact will come not from flukes or “life’s lottery” but from your decisions
If I were to steal your property, or any portion of it, it would be like going back in time and stealing the wages that were earned to buy it, and stealing too the decision to buy it. When you suffer theft, you might be free in the moment to act (you aren’t locked up) and alive to anticipate the future, but your past has been taken from you.
A society that doesn’t respect property, is asking its members to neither save nor invest. Why do either, if the fruits of that saving and investing can be snatched away by another’s whim?
And history is filled with examples of societies that did not respect private property rights, and those societies did have low rates of private investment, and thus low rates of innovation and wealth creation. To devalue property rights is to devalue prosperity.
A just society only allows property to be taken for a just cause — not whimsically, and not arbitrarily. Every aspect of government action must reflect justice. These include taxes being levied for rational reasons, not for punitive purposes against an out-of-favor ethnic group, political party, church or industry. This also include uncompensated takings of every other kind. It must include the behavior of the tax authority.
Taxes, like other laws, shouldn’t be retroactive. Laws are required to be published so they can be obeyed. A retroactive tax, if lawful, will be an irresistible temptation to abuse by politicians. (Portland unfortunately does levy taxes retroactively from time to time. That is unjust.)
Why Property Matters So Much
Some people — especially Socialists and Statists — devalue Property while valuing Life and Liberty. This is not a safe thing to do for society, because once Property is devalued, it affects not just the current experience of one’s past, it starts to affect how people behave now and moving forward.
If I confiscate your property today, you — being no fool — are less likely to bother to try accumulating more property tomorrow.
Across society, savings rates and work ethic are eroded. The usual reasons offered for confiscation are that poorer people need the property of the better off people — that there is a compelling and defensible reason to confiscate. Each society must decide how much confiscation to allow, and it must be orderly, fair, and equitable — otherwise one group in society will use the taking power to enrich itself at the expense of another, under cover of justice.
Rapacious governments throughout history have found reasons for abusing the taxing and confiscation power, always to the harm of justice and ultimately to the harm of society.
The reason property-rights based societies become wealthy at all levels of society, is by respecting the rule of law, valuing education, keeping markets free for lawful competition, protecting consumers, and respecting property rights.
America should try it again.