Friday, July 4, 2008

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of.....Wealth

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness –That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed.”
-The Declaration of Independence, July 4th, 1776

Two hundred thirty-two years ago, the chosen representatives of the American colonies declared their independence from England, because the freest nation in the world at that time was still not free enough. English law recognized some freedoms and rights. These had been wrestled away from the king, step by step, achieved through specific events and manifested in various documents. These rights were viewed as historically derived, conferred via law and obtained in exchange for duties. The Americans began their struggle not to achieve their freedom but to preserve it. In this quest, they discovered that rights are not based on law, but rather that proper laws are based on Rights.

In the manner of Newton, the Founders looked not to convention but to Nature to reveal the proper laws of order and justice. The key to understanding proper human laws lay in understanding the laws of nature. By studying the requirements and properties of human life, it was possible to discover the conditions necessary to achieve peace, prosperity and happiness. These conditions include the mutual respect of each individual life, further elaborated through the recognition the rights to Life, Liberty and Property.

Thomas Jefferson was thoroughly versed in the works of John Locke who in his Second Treatise of Government enumerated those natural rights. In the Declaration, Jefferson constructed the list of grievances specifically to address Locke’s justifications for dissolving a tyrannical government. In identifying man’s inalienable rights, Jefferson chose Pursuit of Happiness to hold the place Locke had given to Property. Why he did this is not clear. Did he see it as a broader concept incorporating property, or perhaps simply a more musical and elegant way of stating the same idea. Whatever his reasoning, this change in words has had some very unfortunate consequences as time has passed and we have lost the context and full depth of their meaning.

Property is no longer viewed as an inalienable essential component to the right to Life. The right to Life is the root, the source of all rights, but the rights to Liberty and Property are its corollaries. Liberty and Property are simply the means of acting upon and maintaining our right to Life. Without freedoms of action, without applying those actions to the physical world and the subsequent ownership of the results of our labor, there can be no actual living, only the abstract concept of life. Man’s nature is dual: material and spiritual. Two aspects of the same being. One can not exist without the other. One does not exist as more important than the other. To deny the material is to destroy the vessel which contains the spiritual.

The essential role of Property in supporting Life and preserving Liberty is no longer conveyed in our culture or reflected in our laws. The right to Property has been relegated to a second-class status, no longer viewed as inalienable. Our neighbors are allowed to vote away our property to support projects we would not choose to support. The concepts of The Public Good and The General Welfare are used to justify taking our private property without our voluntary consent. The coercive power of government is no longer used solely for the protection of rights but in the violation of rights.

The right to Property is a key bulwark in maintaining our right to Life. It helps set proper limits to the types of justifiable actions between humans. It provides a concrete way of detecting when the initiation of force has occurred. The initiation of force is the way that rights are violated, the peace disturbed, the means of prosperity destroyed.

For peace, prosperity and the pursuit of happiness to exist in the world, we must once again recognize the right to Property as inalienable, as the physical expression of our Right to Life. What is Property? Property is simply the material goods which result from our labor. In other words, our Property is our wealth. And…

Wealth (i.e. Property) is not the problem. Wealth is the solution: the solution to prosperity, to peace, to human flourishing...to human life.

Life. Liberty. Property. Let freedom ring.

Happy 4th of July.

3 comments:

Sue said...

Thank you Beth. What a great day for that. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts / explanation of how and why the right to proporty is the bulwark of the right to life. Perhaps another post going into more depth?

John said...

Great blog, Beth. Happy Independence Day.

In regards to Sue’s inquiry (above), “..explanation of how and why the right to property is the bulwark of the right to life,” I’d like to raise my hand in the classroom and take a shot at answering this. For a starting point, it might help to think about the term property in the broadest (most fundamental) sense, that is, in the sense that your own body is also your own property, and belongs only to you. No one, especially the government, has any moral justification to the ownership of your body except you. In my opinion, while most people think of property only in terms of the material goods we earn or produce from our labor and efforts, our physical body fundamentally also qualifies as our personal property as well – further implying our freedom (action) to use our personal body as we see fit.

As Ayn Rand points out: “There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life.” At the starting point, our right to life not only implies our right to liberty (rational free action), but more importantly, it directly implies our right to our own personal body, our most fundamental property, and its use.

Again, Ayn Rand: “The concept of a “right” pertains only to action—specifically, to freedom of action. It means freedom from physical compulsion, coercion or interference by other men.” And, “The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.”

Without the right to our property, meaning both our physical body (including our mind) and all the material goods we produce and earn from our efforts, our fundamental right to life would mean nothing, because life – “living” – involves “acting” freely and using our physical body (including our mind) and all our earned and produced material goods – our wealth - to enhance and improve our life. Property rights are our only way of carrying out - “implementing” – our rights to life, liberty, and our pursuits to happiness. Ayn Rand: “…the right to property is a right to action, like all the others.”

And, conversely, without the fundamental right to our life (that is, the freedom to “act” with our life and our body), we can have no right to liberty, and no property rights, including no right to our own personal body and our personal wealth.

This is why the “inalienable” right to life implies “inalienable” property rights, as well at the “inalienable” right to liberty. It also implies the “inalienable” right to our personal wealth and its free use to enhance our lives. This is why it is so important to defend wealth as the most precious, “good” product of our individual rights, including our property rights, and that wealth is the only way to enhance and improve our lives and, ultimately, society as a whole. Wealth is the physical product of expressing our individual rights, our rights to action. Our earned and produced wealth must be defended as the “good” and essential part of our individual freedom, and this blog is a “great” place to start.

Beth said...

Sue and John,
Thanks for commenting. The crucial role of property is one I have thought a lot about. I think it deserves its own post, so rather than comment on comments, see my latest post. The essay is more abstract than I would like for this blog. I'd like to stay focused on how these abstractions manifest themselves in our daily experience. I haven't yet thought of a way to do that for this particular issue, but since you asked...
Beth