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Freedom & Property Rights

Freedom and Property Rights are inseparable. You can’t have one without the other.” 

-George Washington

While Washington’s words possess a natural appeal to many people, often, they simply accept this statement without thinking too deeply about it. Many modern thinkers seem to believe that property ownership should be abolished. 

But it does not take much thought, and very little experience, to see how truly profound Washington’s statement is.


The Recognition and Protection of Private Property Rights Are the Foundation of American Law

Private property rights were so fundamental to the founding of this nation that the framers of the Constitution took pains to embed them throughout the document. Article I even provided for creating a system to protect intellectual property in the form of patents and copyrights (Article I, Section 8, cl. 8).


The Bill or Rights clearly recognizes the right to private property:

  • Amendment 3: “No Soldier shall . . . be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner”;
  • Amendment 4: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated”; and 
  • Amendment 5:  “Nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” 

The Framers, who were so acutely focused on defending individual freedom that several of them pledged their lives to the cause, understood that property rights and freedom were inextricably linked.


Freedom is Dependent on Protecting the Right to Own Property

As early as the 16th Century, English law as expressed by Sir Edward Coke contended that “a man’s house is his castle.” This was not merely a statement of ownership, but a statement of autonomy. As William Pitt explained, this saying meant that:


The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail - its roof may shake - the wind may blow through it - the storm may enter - the rain may enter - but the King of England cannot enter.


This is a sweeping statement. It means that the right to own and use property necessarily entails the right to keep all others out of it and off of it, including the most powerful authority in the land.  And even more, the government has an obligation to protect that right, even against itself.


That, truly is freedom. To fully realize that fact, just imagine the opposite.


If one is only able to use property subject to the government’s consent and under the government’s control, then what ability would that person have to disagree with or disobey that government, regardless of how unjust or tyrannical? If the government can deprive people of their homes and land at its whim, people cease to have the ability to even give voice to any opposition. In short, the most basic of freedoms protected by the First Amendment–the freedom to express what one thinks–disappears. 


There are ways in which the national and local governments diminish property rights–and consequently, freedom:

  • The inability or failure to pay property taxes can lead to liens on real property and even foreclosures;
  • Local governments often require excessive exactions and payments whenever landowners seek a rezoning or building permit; 
  • A resident with a permit application before City Hall may hesitate to take a public stand on an important issue if he or she thinks it may affect how the city council decides on the permit. 

Now, this is not to say that there should not ever be reasonable restrictions on property use. But the erosion of property rights should be guarded against. It is usually incremental and can seem inexorable, because it is usually too costly in both money and delay for anyone to challenge the government, with its endless resources, when it imposes unjust limitations or conditions on property use.


The fact is, today, the government at all levels seems to be controlling more and more of what landowners can do on and with their property. And while there may be valid public purposes for many of these controls, there is necessarily a concomitant lessening of freedom as the “good of the public”–as determined by government officials–starts to encroach on private property rights.


But make no mistake: property rights are the bulwark of all the freedoms that Americans enjoy, and should be robustly protected to preserve every other right we currently possess. 


Do you want to get involved in protecting property rights and responsible growth in North Idaho? Visit our website for more information.



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