Property Rights, What Property Rights?

Written by Frugal Libertarian on November 16, 2008 in: What Would a Libertarian Do |

Property rights are essential to the ideas of liberty.  Murray Rothbard explains this in The Ethics of Liberty.

“[t]he concept of “rights” only makes sense as property rights. For not only are there no human rights which are not also property rights, but the former rights lose their absoluteness and clarity and become fuzzy and vulnerable when property rights are not used as the standard… for our discussion, human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of “public policy” or the “public good”.

He goes on to explain:

In short, a person does not have a “right to freedom of speech”; what he does have is the right to hire a hall and address the people who enter the premises. He does not have a “right to freedom of the press”; what he does have is the right to write or publish a pamphlet, and to sell that pamphlet to those who are willing to buy it (or to give it away to those who are willing to accept it). Thus, what he has in each of these cases is property rights, including the right of free contract and transfer which form a part of such rights of ownership. There is no extra “right of free speech” or free press beyond the property rights that a person may have in any given case.

So in a country where we say we value human rights, do we have any respect for property rights?

Eminent domain has received a lot of attention over the last couple of years especially since the Supreme Court ruled that eminent domain could be used to take land for private use if it serves public interest. (Kelo v. City of New London).  Fortunately, many of us will never be victims of eminent domain.  Most of us, however, are victims of city codes and city code enforcers.

Ian “Freeman” Bernard,  the host of a syndicated, libertarian radio talk show Free Talk Live was recently given a 3 day jail sentence (plus another 90 days for contempt of court) for having a couch that is used for birdwatching in his yard.  He was refusing to move the couch.  I have received citations for having my trash cans sitting on the side of my house instead of behind my house.  I refused to comply, but luckily no one forced the issue.  My brother recently received a warning from his city for having weeds higher than 18 inches tall in his fenced in garden.  He cut them.  (I would have gone out there every week with a ruler and cut them to 17 inches, but that is just my rebellious nature.)  These are all examples of how local governments ignore our property rights.  Why should I not be free to do whatever I like on my property if I am not harming someone elses property?

You may be asking yourself, “Well how are we to prevent blight or unsafe conditions without codes?”  Or you may thinking ” Aren’t you violating my property rights if what you are doing on your property is lowering my property value?”

First I will address blight.  Often blight is in the eye of the beholder.  A couch sitting in a front yard may look absurd to one person and absolutely charming to another.  If we lived in a more voluntary society, where the heavy hand of a tyrannical government could not be used to enforce rules only based on a few peoples’ taste, how  would that society deal with disputes of this nature.  I think one of two things would occur.  The person that thought the couch was absurd would have to address the issue directly with the owner of the couch or they would simply have to get over it.  Without the government doing their dirty work, I believe most people would just get over it.  Others would address it with the owner and if a dispute could not be settle among themselves they could take it to a private arbitrator. 

Voluntary membership in neighborhood association would also help safeguard you from having to live next to a hot pink house with lime green trim.  Even if joining was voluntary, I think it is likely most would join so that they would have a reasonable avenue to settle disputes and to prevent disputes.

As far as safety goes, there is no real reason for the government to have such codes in the first place.  In a more voluntary society insurance companies and banks would most likely have their own safety guidelines.  It is unlikely that they would voluntarily enter into a contract with a homeowner who’s electrical work was a fire waiting to happen.  If the homeowner owned their home outright and did not think he needed insurance than I guess he would be free to live in a death trap at his own peril.

The property value argument just doesn’t hold any water to me.  The are hundreds of things that others could do around you that could affect your property value.  There could be bad teachers at bad public schools (I know bad public schools is kind of redundant), a neighbor could be selling cheap so get out from under a bad mortgage, a neighbor could get foreclosed on, or a neighbor could just have a nicer house for the same price at the same time you are trying to sell yours.  None of these neighbors would be “violating” your property rights with these actions, so how could you say they were violating your rights by having a couch in their front yard.  Having your property value driven down by conditions beyond your control is just a risk of being a property owner.  None the less, for those that still worry about the value of their property being driven down in the absence of codes, I believe that what I described above would take care of most of this problem.

Arbitrary codes are not the only way that property rights are undermined.  Property taxes are completely antithetical to the idea of private ownership of property.  If a you must pay a tax in order to keep your property are you really the owner or is the local government or state the owner?  If they can seize your property and sell it on the courthouse steps for non-payment are you really an owner or are you just renting it from the government?

For those of us who value liberty, we must acknowledge that the fight for our “rights” really begins and ends with property rights.


  • You may be surprised, but I agree with you on nearly all of the foregoing and, where I do not, it is not generally on principle but on practice.

    Eminent domain is a real assault on property rights about which I, myself, have opined.

    Property ought not be taxed. I don’t actually see how it’s constitutional – especially, one cannot avoid property taxes unless one does not own property – that is, property tax cannot be avoided unless one chooses to forfeit his/her right to own property and submit to the tyranny of a landlord.

    Homeowners ought be allowed a great deal of latitude to do as they wish.

    But, there is one problem and, I believe that the data support me in this: you put too much stock in people, who do not tend to deal fairly and solve problems with one another. I have seen how homeowners associations and boards can split right down the middle and devolve into forums less than civil. We have all heard stories of so-called “Hatfields and McCoys” who end not-so-neighborly disputes in violent confrontations. So, while I agree that homeowners ought have just as much freedom to do on their property and with their property as is practicable, a line must be drawn for the sake of peace. [It is worth noting, even some of the very richest and most powerful people submit to narrow and unyielding local restrictions on the uses to which they can put their property.] Really, if their local representatives actually represent the changing will of the people then a city council may be akin to a homeowners association backed by the full measure of the law.

    By the by, I think your Rothboard is wrong when he writes, ‘In short, a person does not have a “right to freedom of speech”; what he does have is the right to hire a hall and address the people who enter the premises.’ This is poppycock. A person has the right to free speech (or had it until recently) quite apart from the right to hire a hall and so forth. A person has the right to stand on a street corner or in a public square, to sit on a park bench or borrow a library computer – whathaveyou – and speak his mind – even harangue passers-by. Unfortunately there may be too few squares to accommodate the people so that one may first need to get a permit to use a public square. Fortunately, those permits seem to be given in generally unbiased fashion. Poverty is not a bar against free speech. And the right to free speech is not strictly a property right except insofar as your mind and body are your property (a matter over which I believe there is a great deal of inappropriate debate).

    Comment by Adam H Klein — November 17, 2008
  • Rothbard talks about “free speech” in public in Ethics of Liberty. You must not have followed the link. He says the problem is that there are public places in the first place. In the libertarian society he imagined their would be no public places, because nothing would be owned by a government. I love this idea philosophically speaking but am not yet convinced of its practicality.
    You said “poverty is not a bar against free speech”. Of course not. If you rented a house I doubt the lease would say “the landlord can void this lease if you say something he does not like” You would likely be able to say what you want where you live. If you came to own paper and pen it would be yours to write your ideas on.
    This is really how it is today. Go stand in someones yard and start saying “Obama sucks”. You will not be arrested for what you said but for trespassing.
    Anyway Rothbard explains this better.

    Comment by Frugal Libertarian — November 17, 2008
  • I had another thought on the matter. The rural area where my husband grew up has no codes. To my knowledge there has not been any shootouts over 18 inch weeds or couches in the yard, even in the more dense population pockets. (well, denser pockets, as in four trailers parked fairly close together.)

    Comment by Frugal Libertarian — November 17, 2008
  • What annoys me the most is the sticklers. Man isn’t perfect. Man creates laws. This means there are no perfect laws.

    All laws have exceptions, even if they were not considered upon creation of such law. The problem is we have to do backflips in order to get sensible exceptions written into law. There are rules people follow for safety or protection, and then there are rules that are just plain dumb. And I agree, why should others be able to tell you what to do if it doesn’t impact them in any way, shape, or form and doesn’t truly impact you either?

    Comment by Alberto — November 18, 2008

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