Property rights are human rights

This is part one of a two-part series.

O give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and the deer and the antelope play …”

“A man’s home is his castle …..”

Or, as first-time homeowner Jennifer Sims, a black single mother of three, realized while planning improvements to her cream-colored stucco house in Hillsborough County Florida: “It’s mine. I can do what I want with it. I can tear the walls down – not that I would.”

How many of us can relate to these words? What is the source of this pride of home ownership? This is the question addressed in the brand-new book Realizing Property Rights, published in Switzerland and edited by economist Hernando de Soto and political philosopher Francis Cheneval.

Cheneval admits that all to many of us have seen property ownership as a privilege of the few, and yet from the beginning human rights theory has elevated the right to own property as being of similar importance as the right to life, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. The denial of private property rights as human rights, Cheneval explains, “opens the door to slavery and grave forms of exploitation.”

To Cheneval, mutual recognition of each other’s right to property is a spiritual bond among human beings that must not be broken. He goes on to state that, because property rights are unalienable human rights, governments have a duty to establish a system of rights that puts property at the reach of the vast majority of people who seek to improve their life chances through labor and trade. Only when governments fulfill this mission will they provide a sure path to economic growth and well being and to sustainable socio-political development.

Yet, as Brian Goff notes, “In developed nations, property rights may be taken for granted because they are almost inherent to the countries’ legal structures.” I would wager that most Americans, too, take property rights for granted.

But can we afford to do so, when almost daily government at all levels seeks to impose new restrictions on how we may use our homes or business property? When the U.S. Supreme Court has boldly stated that our own governments can take our property away from us just because someone with more money or better political friends wants it for himself?

One wonders whether, intentionally or not, the Court majority based its opinion in Kelo on the Mexican Constitution of 1917, which gives that government the authority to expropriate private property for any reason it chooses, instead of on the U.S. Constitution of 1787. After all, we already know they believe in using foreign law to interpret our Constitution. But how could it be that any American judge would turn our fundamental freedoms upside down and remain in office? Where is the outcry against the legal education system that led to the Kelo decision?

Our founding fathers clearly understood that property rights were unalienable human rights. So did the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations adopted in 1948. Article 17 of that document states clearly that “everyone (worldwide, that is) has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others,” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.” In today’s world, this fundamental tenet of human freedom has all but been forgotten.

Kelo illustrates the fact that so few Americans today have any real knowledge of the basis of our freedoms and the legal system that was created to guarantee those freedoms. Most of us are as ignorant of our own laws as were the children of Israel on the day that Ezra read them the Law of Moses at the Water Gate. Those people actually wept and repented when they learned of their heritage – would our own children do the same?

In the Bible, Moses [Deut. 6] commanded parents to “teach [the statutes and judgments] diligently to your children” – at home and while traveling, by day and by night. Today, though, many leave that job to professionals they hardly know. Out in Seattle, it was recently uncovered that some of those “professionals” were teaching their students that private property ownership is just plain selfish. Those children now believe that, “A house is good (only when) it is a community house;” “All structures are public structures;” and even “all structures will be standard sizes.”

So the question becomes – how well do America’s children understand the value of property rights as fundamental to their own freedoms and economic well being?

Then there are the 20 million or more immigrants, legal and illegal, many of whom come from nations with no constitutional concept of property rights – what do they know about the original intent of our Constitution, or of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? How much do these people value private property – or do they just see private landowners as rich enemies?

Do not answer that one too quickly. I, for one, would wager that many of those who are now living here and enjoying the benefits of our economic system may have a better understanding of the value of private property to prosperity than many native-born Americans – they came here partly because they had no property rights – hence little economic opportunity where they came here from. But what are we doing to bring those nations sending people to America to change their property laws to be more like ours? And what are we doing to ensure that our own children will honor the very freedoms our forefathers fought and died to install and preserve?

So, here is the challenge. We have to find ways to persuade our young people, our foreign neighbors and immigrants, and those in our own nation who have never owned or hoped to own their own homes or businesses that private property rights are as essential to our freedoms as oxygen is to our lungs. If we cannot do so, we risk losing everything we have built up over the past 400 years – including our very freedoms that we once declared were “endowed by our Creator” to us as “unalienable.”

Flanakin, based in Austin, Texas, serves as a CFACT environmental programs officer.

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