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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Michael S. Coffman, Ph.D., Property Rights

Michael S. Coffman, PhD
For American Land Foundation

Our view of reality and the role of government in our lives greatly influence how we view property rights. Americans no longer have the opportunity to learn the foundations of freedom and to understand what it really means to have the God-given right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as penned by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independ­ence. Since the 1970s, we are increasingly following another system of governance that is systematically destroying the very principle that has made America the greatest nation in the history of the world.

America is in a war of world views between the principles of freedom laid down by John Locke (1632-1704) in his Two Treatises on Government(1689) and Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Social Contract (1762) and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754). Govern­ment’s purpose, accord­ing to Locke, is to join with others to “unite, for the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estate, which I call by the general name, property.” According to Locke, the primary reason for government “is the preservation of their property.” (Italics added) This fundamental principle became the cornerstone of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.

Rousseau attacked Locke’s model, arguing that individuality and property rights divide man by focusing on self-interest and greed rather than the good of society. He claims that property rights bind the poor thereby giving “new powers to the rich” that destroys “natural liberty” and equality and converts “usurpation into unalter­able right.” He argues for the creation of the common good as embod­ied through an abstract, public will he called the ‘general will’. In his model, the enlightened state deter­mines the general will of the people through the force of law, including how property will be used. Rousseau provided the foundational philosophy that spawned the bloody French Revolution and inspired the writings of Immanuel Kant, Georg W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx and many others, thereby planting the seeds for the European model of socialism and Russian communism.

Rousseau’s model of forced compliance has formed the basis of social and environmental laws in America since the 1970s. This is causing a hemorrhage in individ­ual liberties once taken for granted by all Americans, including property rights. Without private property, individuals are powerless to oppose any infringe­ment on their rights due to government control over the fruits of their labor. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the old Soviet Union, where all property belonged to the state. No one could speak out against the government for fear of their family being evicted, or their job taken away, by the local communist commissar.

Environmentalists claim that private property rights and greed are the root problem of pollution and environ­ment­al degradation. Yet, the worst pollution and environ­mental degradation has been on public land, water, or air – not private land. Since no one “owns” the land, water or air, pride of ownership or sense of responsibility to care for these entities is lost. It is called the Tragedy of the Commons. Again, the worst examp­les of this phen­omenon were the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe where there was noprivate property, yet they had the worst environmental record in the history of mankind.

Locke’s model recognizes and uses the human trait of self-interest to better oneself. Unencumbered private property provides the catalyst to stimulate individuals to be creative and take risk in finding a better way, product, or service to meet a human need – including protecting the environment. In Locke’s approach property owners would be restricted only by laws and regulations that keep them from activities that clearly cause harm to their neighbors or their property. If property is taken for the public good, the public pays just compen­sation.

Conversely, the Rousseau model places control in the hands of unaccountable, unelected government bureaucrats. Their primary incentive is to make their regulatory jobs easier and more efficient so they can build bigger empires at the people’s expense. Nothing is produced. Unless there is strong oversight of bureaucrats — something politicians rarely do — there is no account­ability to keep them from administering laws in a corrupt, arbitrary and capricious manner. While Rousseau social­ism does not destroy prop­erty rights as effectively as totalitarianism or communism, it nonetheless opens the door to corruption and dampens economic and personal freedom in proportion to the amount of regulation imposed.

In his compelling book The Mystery of Capital, Hernando de Soto accurately identifies private property rights as the key to reducing poverty and producing wealth. Legal title to use property represents equity. This equity can be used as collateral for a loan to create the capital needed to start, expand or buy into a business which then yields income and wealth. If strangling regulations encumber property rights there is little to no equity and therefore little to no capital with which to create wealth. Without wealth, the environment cannot be protected. A family whose primary focus is to put food on the table is not going to be interested in protect­ing the environment.

The most striking example of how socialism destroys the wealth-building capability of property is found in the developing nations of the world. In these nations the simple act of legally transferring the title to property can take years, even decades in a sea of corruption and regulations. Few people have the time or resources to legally own property and therefore the property has no legal asset value. Hernando de Soto has shown that the total value of property held, but not legally owned, by the poor of the developing nations and former communist countries is at least $9.3 trillion! This is ninety-three times as much as all development assistance to the developing nations from all advanced countries during the past thirty years. There would be no need for foreign aid if these poverty-stricken people could have access to the asset value of their presently dead capital.

The Endangered Species Act, wetlands regulations, the Clean Water Initiative and a host of other environ­mental laws have one thing in common. State control of property rights based on the Rousseau model which strips or plunders the value of property from rural landowners. It is harming, even destroying the economic foundation of rural communities and counties as tens of billions, perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars of property value has been transferred to the government via regulation.

The plundering of rural America has gotten so bad that a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) editorial on July 26, 2001, called it “rural cleansing.” The WSJclaimed that this is the intent of the environmentalists, “The goal of many environ­mental groups…is no longer to protect nature. It is to expunge humans from the countryside” by suing or lobby­ing the “government into declaring rural areas off-limits to people who live and work there.” This can be done outright or by having “restrictions placed on the land that either render it unusable or persuade owners to leave of their own accord.”

Contrary to the popular myth that environmentalists work on a shoe-string for the benefit of mankind, the October 20, 1997, Boston Globe estimated the total funding for environmental activism to be around four billion dollars annually! Using top-dollar Madison Avenue packaging, their Rousseau-oriented environ­mental message finds willing listeners in urban America. While we do need to protect the environment, these slick, but distorted or false messages have easily manipulated the largely uninformed urban voters and politicians into believing all kinds of terrible things are happening that can only be solved with big government control. In response, Con­gress has created an inter­locking web of Rousseau-based laws and regulat­ions that usurp local and state juris­dict­ions and bestow enorm­ous powers on federal bureau­crats who have little to no account­ability to those they gov­ern.

Anti-property rights activists use Rousseau’s “per­ceive­d good result” or the “public good” to attack the basis for constitutional property rights. Since the 1970s, activist courts have been systematically ruling that the use of private property and “the rights of the individual” endanger the rights of all the people. Yet, why should the last owners of wetlands, endangered species habitat, beautiful scenery or many other environmental and social benefits, have to shoulder the entire cost of protection or provision when the problem was created by the activities of thousands of other people? Most Americans would say that they shouldn’t. Yet, that is exactly what is happening to tens of thousands of Americans.

Government intrusion into the right to own and use property under the Trojan horse of the “public good” is beginning to cause great harm to American citizens, and is undermining the very foundation that has made America the greatest nation in human history. We can blindly continue to convert to the Jean Jacques Rousseau model of governance by the whim of bureaucrats, or we can return to the model of John Locke where private property is protected by govern­ment through law.

It is clear from a myriad of examples that the Rousseau model leads to corruption in government and a decline in the human condition while the Locke model yields freedom, prosperity and environmental protection. Which one would you choose?


Dr. Michael Coffman is president of Environmental Perspectives, Inc. and CEO of Sovereignty International Corporation in Bangor, Maine.

American Land Foundation

P.O. Box 1033

Taylor, Texas 76574

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