Life, Liberty, Property – In That Order

by Tom Ender

Often those who write about property seem to believe that the recognition of property rights precedes that of personal liberty. However, in many cases personal liberty is little more than using one’s property as one wishes or acquiring additional property as one wants. If you “own” property but don’t have liberty to control its use, how can you be said to really own? Is it proper to call such a relationship to property “ownership”? It seems better to call such a relationship, that necessarily involves some other entity which controls property’s use, a stewardship or agency, rather than ownership.

Much has been written about the importance of individual property ownership to liberty. For example, if the state owns all property, there is no practical liberty for the people in the state’s jurisdiction; no freedom of thought, word or action, without the state’s permission. However, to be at liberty means to act without needing permission. So it might be said that liberty without the ability to own property is empty. On the other hand, as argued above, property ownership without liberty is false.

Liberty and property are inextricably tied to each other, but what of the first word listed in the title above: Life?

Often those who use the phrase “life, liberty, property” are of the natural rights or individual rights tradition, which usually states that rights inhere or are accorded to living individual persons. Many regard rights as formulations of ethical rules applicable to individual reasoning beings by virtue of their being moral actors in the actual world. On the other hand, fictional characters do not have rights. If you have imaginary friends, they do not have rights. Only a real person can have rights. This applies to property rights, along with all other individual rights.

Most people would not defend the idea that fictional characters or imaginary friends have rights in any normal sense. They do not possess life and cannot possess rights. So what relevance does this discussion have for affairs that matter in our actual world? In today’s world are there any fictional or imaginary entities which are thought by many people to have rights? There are.

The State is not an individual reasoning being, nor a moral agent. It is an artificial construct, at most a concept existing in the minds of people in a society. The State commonly refers to a select group of people acting in a special capacity, but not any single person who might possess life and therefore rights. As a concept the State affects the way people act. Powers thought to belong to the State are often given as excuses for actions that would not be tolerated if they were carried out by the same people without the special imprimatur of the State.

The artificial entity of the State has also spawned other artificial entities which it seeks to endow with special rights and powers. These entities act as agents for those people who make up the State or its patrons. Often these other artificial entities are merely subordinate components of the State: departments, administrations, bureaus, offices, agencies. However, there are also other artificial entities  regarded as separate from the state, but actually created or chartered by it. Corporations are such artificial entities. 

When the state or its spawn are treated as though they possess rights, such as the right to own property, soon trouble develops. The trouble can take many forms, but it usually involves creation of special privileges for one group (e.g. the State itself, or a group of its patrons) at the expense of another group (e.g. taxpayers, or other state prey).

A defining characteristic of anarchism is opposition to The State. However, some anarchists seem to believe that other artificial entities (e.g. corporations), which in the past have been created by the State, should be encouraged to have "existence" after the dissolution of the State.

As a thorough-going individualist I would prefer a society that afforded no rights to any artificial entities. Living individuals with liberty have responsibility balancing their freedom. However, groups such as committees and corporate boards soon act to corrupt and destroy individual responsibility for action. I cannot state this truth better than Leonard Read did in his excellent essay “On That Day Began Lies.” However, I can give examples of the trouble that comes from acting as if corporations possess individual rights, such as the right to own property.

There are many stories of “company towns” in which all, or almost all property in a geographical region is owned by a corporation. Popular culture still has plenty of examples, from Merle Travis’ well-known folk song popularized by Tennessee Ernie Ford “Sixteen Tons” (audio and text) to the story background for the more recent popular movie October Sky. The difference for people living in an area between the State owning all property and a separate State-created entity owning it is moot.

Perhaps a more relevant example is provided by recent events. As an agorist/market anarchist, I do not consider "intellectual property" to be a valid form of property. However, for the sake of this discussion consider the US Constitution’s language concerning patent and copyright: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;” which empowers Congress to grant such privileges.

As stated, this was a provision “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts” and was to be afforded to “Authors and Inventors.” For many years that may have been the way of it. When the monopolies were given to individual authors and inventors, at least there seemed to be a degree of propriety in following the letter of the Constitution.

However, when the Supreme Court decided that corporations were persons, it wasn’t long before corporations became the holders of the majority of patents and copyrights granted. Patent and copyright ownership by corporations has led to special dispensations beyond those afforded to individuals, such as that granted to Disney Corporation over Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney has been dead a long time. Since the existing Disney Corp. had little to do with Mickey’s creation, an indefinitely continuing monopoly privilege seems grossly inappropriate. The pharmaceutical industry and related medical field is also rife with examples of abuse of monopoly patent privilege and related granting of property in professional status via State licensing.

Although the State is ultimately responsible for all of these distortions, keeping other State-created artificial entities such as privileged corporations after the State has been dissolved would be inviting the continuation of such special privileges and lack of individual responsibility for their abuse. Life, liberty and property are all essential to a free society, but allowing non-living entities to own property leads to a lack of individual responsibility and therefore trouble. It would be far safer to arm your imaginary friends.

 published at Endervidualism on September 19, 2005

Tom Ender edits and publishes this web site — Endervidualism.com. He hopes you enjoy it and return to visit often.