Life, Liberty, and Property

What is property, and who can, and cannot, control it? Central Utah is grappling with the issues and the misconceptions. When Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence he memorialized “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The last was a commonly used alternate term for “property” among colonials. He understood property; that without the right to own it and choose its use, we have no freedom.

If we have no property, we cannot use our rights. We need meetinghouses for worship. For freedoms of speech, press and assembly we need printing presses, transportation, food and apparel. We have no safety without weapons and no privacy without homes. As the ultimate, our lives are our fundamental property. Founder John Adams spelled it out: “All men are born free and independent, and have…unalienable rights…of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property.”

It is popular for government to take or control property through taxation, redistribution, or regulation of property rights. It may be popular, but it isn’t right and it isn’t constitutional. James Madison, Father of the Constitution, explained it: “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort”. The Fifth Amendment locks property ownership in place for good reason: when you control a person’s property, you control him. Take a man’s food and he’ll obey to eat; take his home, and he’ll comply to give his family shelter. Founder Alexander Hamilton minced no words: “…power over a man’s subsistence amounts to power over his will.”

Governments are formed to protect property. When they take or unnecessarily control property, they violate their own creed. This is one of the calamities of so-called “anti-discrimination” laws: government controls property by dictating its use.

Inevitably, community needs and property rights collide. When people live together they must set rules, and a tradeoff has to take place. The people agree to give up some independence and accept some laws so the community can cooperate. The long poles in the tent are fairness, necessity, and protection: the rules must be fair for all, as minimal as possible to take the least amount of freedom, and private property must be secure in the owners’ hands.

Property ownership has taken a bad rap in the public eye as we have embraced socialist ideas. We too often think that everybody has to have equal “stuff”. Not so; that isn’t what property ownership is about. There are no rules that say stuff has to be equal; in fact, it cannot be equal. We have different talents, skills, work ethics, goals, wants, needs, energy levels and priorities. They determine the property we acquire, and there is no way to make that equal. Our hallmark American equality means equality in justice, before the laws and in the courts, and before God. Beyond that, we are each in charge of ourselves and the property we acquire as we apply personal effort.

As government falls into the trap of trying to create equality it becomes the agent of inequality, as it takes from one to give to another. That never works. One group becomes resentful, the other becomes dependent. Sooner or later the whole property issue turns into a mess. That cycle has produced unanimous failure throughout earth’s history; every nation that starts the give-everybody-equal-stuff- thing fails.

One beauty of our Constitution is that it supports community law. We set our laws to keep government as close to the people as possible to stay as free as possible. This is why we must keep and protect our caucus system, where ordinary citizens remain in control. We must protect private property from laws such as the proposed anti-discrimination legislation usurps owner control of property. Life, liberty, property—three pillars of freedom enshrined 237 years ago in the Declaration of Independence; three values for Utah Valley. Insist on property rights here at home. Insist that local laws retain your control over your property. It’s the important thing to do.