Property: The Junction of Economic and Political Liberty
7 June 2011 5 Comments
I find it striking how little attention is given to the fundamentals upon which America and its namesake of democracy were founded. Amidst the political and economic turmoil that characterizes our time, we seem to neglect what is simultaneously important to each and all of us, liberty. We should never forget that the fundamental precept of democratic politics is and has always been the individual and his or her liberty, i.e. freedom from oppression from either foreign or domestic persons. Yet, it seems that government rhetoric has obscured the true meaning of what it means to be free by seeking to substitute what they call the “public welfare” for that of the individual. Perhaps the most militant weapon used in both the past and present is fear, but fear of what? Economic turmoil via crises, massive unemployment, giant restructuring of the markets and so on has left most of the American public confused and groping in the dark for solutions to these problems, because they intimately affect each individual’s daily life. We turn to the government for answers, yet our system continues to unravel at each successive piece of legislation carefully crafted to safeguard the holiest of bureaucratic utterances – the public welfare. To this I ask, but what of the individual? To find such answers as they have been pronounced for nearly two-and-a-half centuries, one needs to revisit the traditional notions of democratic government and free-market capitalism. Together they illustrate an intersection, that once laid bare, shines a brilliant light not just on past scholarly or even political achievement, but on the fundamental relationship between the economic and political.
This naturally begs the question as to how economic doctrine, namely how it fits within the larger framework of classical liberal theory and which economic system is most conducive to individualism, liberty, equality, and property. Given these criteria, capitalism is the most legitimate form of economic organization because its legitimacy parallels that of democracy. Just as democracy attains its legitimacy from participation, capitalism attains legitimacy by virtue of its requirement of participation. The difference is that participation is not mandatory in a representative democracy because stable government can exist (for some time) without direct influence from the masses. Shockingly, Dye and Zeigler note, “It is the irony of democracy that democratic ideals survive because the masses are generally apathetic and ignorant…The survival of democracy does not depend on mass support for democratic ideals…[A]ll that is necessary is that they fail to commit themselves actively to antidemocratic movements.” More fundamental, is that the American democratic system possesses written law, namely the Constitution, which provides the framework that fosters individualism, while protecting liberty and one’s right to property.
Although capitalism has no such document, the market demands daily participation for no other reason than one’s basic subsistence—indeed, the market is literally manifested via the daily activities of rational consumers. And because any market necessitates property, mandatory action is the very basis of property itself. This provides both the need for the justification of property and is the linchpin that unites democratic theory with the traditional conservative notion of capitalist doctrine originally promoted by Adam Smith.
As mentioned above, the preeminent tenet of liberal theory is individualism, which liberty necessitates—the freedom to maintain one’s existence in accordance with their own self-interest so long as their actions do not infringe upon the equal liberty of others. However, so engrained in liberal theory that it seems almost common sense is that no individual is able to maintain his or her own life without the right to property, the justification of which is most clearly pronounced by Locke. His proviso asserts a key requirement for what constitutes an individual’s right to property—that being acquired or produced by his own labor. “…every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say, are properly his.” The crucial conception to property rights in Locke is therefore the act of production, which necessitates a mixing of the worker’s labor with the object in question. The individual, by mixing his labor with the object, bestows upon that item the virtue of property: “he hath mixed his Labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.” But how does this translate into liberal democratic theory, particularly how does one’s right to property ensure his or her right to liberty? It is not until we answer this question that a substantive relationship between democracy and capitalism can be established.
Ayn Rand provides what many view as a highly idealist philosophy, commonly known as objectivist epistemology. Her philosophy attempts to reconcile classical liberal tenets with the material world. By doing so, she provides mankind with a moral justification for its material existence, thereby reinforcing both liberal democratic theory and its necessity of capitalism as the arbiter of social justice. She asserts uncompromisingly:
The right to life is the source of all rights—the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.
For Rand, then, property rights are the very basis of life and liberty. Moreover, since life is deemed by liberal theory as a natural right, Rand also provides mankind with a moral justification for their natural right to exist and to hold property.
This has broader effects than some acknowledge today because the moral imperative of democracy, i.e. individualism, manifests itself via private property and the market. Thus, while the legitimacy of democracy comes via participation, the legitimacy of capitalism is manifested via man’s right to his own life. The traditional justification for property then becomes a crucial precept of liberty itself and the only viable means by which man is able to sustain his own life. That said, if man’s fundamental right is his ability to bestow his labor upon that which is to become property, and the value of property lies in the labor that man bestows upon it, then man’s fundamental rights are his right to property (his political right) and the right to dispense of his labor as he sees fit (his economic right). More precisely, democracy provides proprietary legitimacy to acquire property via the law, and capitalism furnishes man the moral right to acquire property by virtue of its necessity for his survival. That said, man’s fundamental right to his liberty presents itself via the duality of the political and economic right to sustain his own life. Therefore, these two dimensions form a coherent conception of man’s fundamental right to liberty, for they represent to him his own power to create and contribute to the betterment of his own position (or at least to sustain his current position) through the acquisition of property. Furthermore, the theoretical connection between democracy and capitalism is that while capitalism provides the moral legitimacy to acquire property, democracy protects that moral right via a commonly acknowledged and accepted canon of legal statutes.
Given such a justification for property within the canon of traditional liberal theory, one may reason as follows:
P1Liberty necessitates individualism.
P2 Individualism is grounded in property rights.
C1 Liberty necessitates property rights.
In other words, liberty is based in the necessity to exist, whence the basis of property rights. Therefore, the traditional justification of property is grounded in the individual, not the state. If, then, liberty necessitates the right to acquire property free from state intervention, then the point at which the state becomes directly involved in the distribution of property becomes the point at which capitalism is circumvented and liberty, as pronounced by democratic theory, threatened.
 Thomas R. Dye, Harmon Zeigler, and Louis Schubert. The Irony of Democracy: An Uncommon Introduction to American Politics, 14th ed. (Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009), 114.