I fear that many Americans don???t understand the importance of economic liberty to our general understanding of freedom. I hold that fear because our society is so casually willing to accept the compromise of property rights. We???re actually becoming distressingly comfortable with the attenuation of all rights. ObamaCare is making us comfortable with the sacrifice of religious freedom to the agenda of the State, for example.
I suppose that makes sense, because all rights are woven together in the tapestry of freedom. The right to own property was chewed away first, and now others ??? formerly regarded as sacrosanct by people who had no problem with offenses against economic liberty ??? are following it down the Leviathan State???s hungry gullet.
It???s relatively easy for the statist to sell citizens on the attenuation of property rights first, because some of them have far more property than others. Envy can serve as both stimulant and anesthetic. How can someone with a million dollars complain about the loss of one more dollar? Why should anyone with far less money stand on principle, and inconvenience themselves in the name of a millionaire???s right to keep his fortune?
Of course, the State was not satisfied with nibbling away at the property of ???millionaires??? for long. Notice how easily the acolytes of Big Government re-define that term. $200,000 per year makes you a ???millionaire??? these days ??? even if most of it comes from small business income, claimed on personal taxes. Every great imposition upon the property rights of Americans, from the original income tax to the Alternative Minimum Tax, was originally sold as a burden targeting only the upper echelons of the super-rich, who could easily afford to pay a little more.
The ownership of property is vital to liberty. The brutal lesson of human history is that people either own property, or become property. Ownership is an enduring, material assertion of individuality. When given appropriate respect, property lines form a barrier against collective compulsion. We are not compelled to obey the commands of others, or subordinate our judgment to theirs, when we dispose of our fully-owned property.
This is easily understood on a small scale. Who would willingly surrender the contents of their wallet to a group of nosy strangers who insisted they could make better, more ethical use of the money? You might voluntarily choose to donate your money to some worthy cause, but that is an act of free will, not submission. There is a difference between persuasion and confiscation. It is the same difference that separates ???investment??? from ???government spending.???
But extend the scale into millions of dollars ??? especially when they are held by other people ??? and suddenly the principle of ownership becomes much easier to cast aside. No wonder collectivists spend so much time convincing their subjects to reject evil ???materialist??? concerns! As society comes to value property less, and even despise the property rights of some citizens, it becomes easier to command. A nation that fully respects the equal right of all citizens to own property, including the fruits of their own labor, is far more independent??? and therefore less obedient.
As the right to own property was steadily compromised over the past century, we began to accept an increasing level of collectivist judgment over who could assert ownership, and to what degree. When we allowed the taxation of income, we sacrificed ownership of our labor. Thanks to payroll withholding, the government actually gets paid for our labor before we do. Those of us who don???t carefully review the stubs of our paychecks never even see what the government takes from us. If it takes too much, we allow the money to be repaid, without interest, at the end of the year ??? and we celebrate this admission of theft, as though our tax returns were a ???gift.???
As time went by, we allowed property to be split into countless classifications, with varying level of collective control exerted over different types. Today, few citizens even understand the difference between ???income??? and ???wealth,??? or appreciate the degree to which intrusive government regulations compromise ownership rights. The ownership of relatively abstract properties ??? contracts, investment accounts ??? is taken far less seriously than direct possession of material goods.
Liberals speak often of a desire for ???unity??? and condemn ???divisiveness,??? but nothing has been more divisive than the erosion of property rights. Human nature remains what it has always been ??? that???s one of the big reasons collectivism fails every time it???s tried. When some people are persuaded they have a moral claim to the property of others, bitterness and strife inevitably result. Look at what our redistributionist politics have degenerated into! On the eve of a massive tax increase – which every economist knows will devastate a weak, perhaps recessionary economy – we can???t have anything approaching a rational discussion of tax rates and government revenue. Instead, it???s a tug-of-war between ???greedy fat cats??? and ???parasites,??? and everyone???s got blisters on their hands.
As respect for ownership diminishes, the private sector shrinks, and government power expands. We describe ourselves as a ???free??? country, but we???re bound by an incomprehensible tax code that can turn even the most well-meaning citizen into a criminal – particularly if they own a good deal of wealth, or especially a business enterprise. Taxation long ago ceased to be a matter of efficiently funding the government. Instead, we casually accept the notion of tax incentives as a means of controlling behavior. The ObamaCare ???tax penalty,??? a tax levied against people who fail to engage in private commerce at the command of the government, is the most recent and outrageous example. What true respect for their right of ownership do Americans demand from their government, when they accept the notion that it can seize property from people who refuse to buy something, in accordance with official decree?
Any conceivable government would have to employ a certain degree of coercion ??? that???s what government is ??? and its powers would certainly have to include compulsory payment of taxes. But we???ve long ago passed the point of equilibrium where American government is an expense borne by all of its citizens. That expense is focused upon an increasingly select portion of the populace. A tiny minority pay nearly half of all taxes, and they are routinely told they must pay even more. Their rights of ownership are clearly not respected as well as the people who pay little or nothing in net taxation.
The result is that American government now views itself as fully in command of its people, and the rightful owner of all wealth and property, a portion of which it generously allows citizens to keep. We worked 197 days this year just to fund government taxation and regulation at all levels. Tax cuts are portrayed as ???spending,??? an idea that cannot be expressed without accepting the notion that the government is first and rightful owner of the money it ???gives away??? by lowering someone???s taxes. President Obama???s infamous ???if you???ve got a business, you didn???t build that??? was a brutally frank statement that he doesn???t think any businessman fully ???owns??? the enterprise he worked, sacrificed, and took risks to create ??? it was all done by appropriating public resources and the surplus value of workers??? labor, so government officials, acting as avatars of the working class, are the senior partners in every endeavor. Not even the overweening monarchy America???s founders rebelled against had so little respect for the achievements of its subjects??? and property rights are the tangible expression of such respect.
We???d have to stuff a lot of very large genies back into their bottles in order to restore proper respect for the property rights of private citizens, and our government would have to shrink to a faction of its current size. Our reward would be greater emphasis upon persuasion, cooperation, and competition instead of coercion. That???s fitting for a nation of free and independent people. Ownership is independence. All other rights describe liberty through words and deeds, but ownership carves it in stone. Freedom of speech without the right to own property leads to tyranny with a suggestion box.