Essay 8 – Property Rights

Before closing the discussion on rights, I’d like to cover a couple of specific types of “rights” that I believe most people need to consider on a deeper level to have a better understanding of the opposing viewpoints and how that can relate to other issues. First, I will talk about the right to property, and then some thoughts on the progressive view on human rights.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the words in the Declaration of Independence about “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”, he was presenting the idea that the founding of our nation will be based on these natural rights. However, this was not an original idea of Jefferson’s. It was fairly common thinking of the time for those who studied and adhered to the concept of the “Enlightenment”, which among other principles, brought forth the idea of individual liberty and that no man has the authority to rule over another. One of the early philosophers of the Enlightenment movement that our Founders frequently referenced was John Locke, and most scholars believe that Locke’s idea of natural rights was the inspiration for Jefferson’s. Through further study, I have learned that his direct inspiration was more likely that of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Names such as Thomas Reid, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith (of The Wealth of Nations fame), John Witherspoon and others. Getting into the specifics of this is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that in any event, the Scottish Enligntenment thinkers were largely building upon the work and thoughts of John Locke, so his influence remains very crucial to the discussion.

Baiscially, Locke stated the natural rights as being life, liberty, and property. Everyone has the natural right to live and to defend their life, the natural right to liberty in that they can pretty much do as they please as long as it doesn’t infringe on another person’s natural rights, and the natural right to property, which was anything they produced or acquired through their own labor or trade. But the idea of “property” is not limited to material possessions. Property also includes a person’s thoughts, ideas, time, and labor (and for Locke, even one’s life and liberty is their property). This is a very important concept that I’d like you to carefully consider. Specifically, your time and labor are your property, as a natural right. Nobody has the authority to take that away from you without your consent. Likewise, you have the natural right to use your time and labor to create or trade for other property in any way you see fit as long as it doesn’t infringe upon another person’s natural rights.

This brings up a number of interesting questions. For example, if I, as an individual free person, would willingly like to use my time and labor in exchange for other property (money or other goods), where in our Constitution does it give the power to the federal government to infringe upon my natural right to do so? How can it be Constitutional for the federal government to create laws that restrict my ability to use my time and labor to whatever extent I’d like to in order to enhance my station in life, to pursue my happiness, as defined by me, not by the federal government? Yet, that is exactly what they do with such laws concerning minimum wage and overtime requirements and other controls on our freedom to decide for ourselves what we are willing to trade our time and labor for. In the name of “looking out for us”, we have some people who believe it is right to restrict our natural right to property and take control of our liberties, which results in serious detriments to our economy and our own ability to pursue happiness. Minimum wage and overtime laws and the like, are made by people who say they do it to protect us from those who have the power to abuse us, and that may very well be needed for some. But it also infringes upon the rights of others who are perfectly capable of making these decisions themselves and who might otherwise have the opportunities to improve upon their lot in life were it not for these laws. Maybe you believe that the protections from these laws outweigh the freedoms lost from them, and that’s a perfectly fine opinion to have. But that’s not the point. The Constitution does not provide the enumerated power for the federal government to decide that for us. Of course, if the people believe this to be a good power to give to the federal government, they can do so by amending the Constitution. Otherwise, this power is left to the States and to the people (10th Amendment).

The States, therefore, would have the power to create such laws (for that particular State), with the consent of the people in that State. In other words, because we have such a wide diversity of people who have a wide diversity of values, philosophies, and ideas, decisions on issues that have a very personal affect on our personal, natural rights, should be made closest to the people and not from a centralized, “we know what’s best for everyone”, authoritarian approach from the federal government. That is the principle on which the Constitution was created and which the People consented to.