Economic Liberty Regained?

George Will, an exceptionally gifted opinion writer, finds in yesterday’s column an irksome presumption on the part of government that economic liberty is not as “fundamental” as other rights. Translated into the vernacular, this means that your and my right to compete only extend as far as government’s willingness to conjure up some criteria justifying it.

Coincidentally, a reader of my blog identifying himself as “Jason” found yesterday an April posting in which I took to task Bloomington/Normal’s foray into progressive silliness–form-based code. His response begins as follows:

This is a remarkably uneducated post. It’s fine if you aren’t concerned about environmental degradation, the ability of older or disabled people to be able to get around, the negative public health aspects of a sedentary car-based lifestyle, or any of the many other problems associated with the type of development we’ve seen in the past 50 years. I can’t force you to be enlightened or to care about the well being of others.

Breathtaking. If government does not interfere substantially with the rights of people to do with their property as they wish, all will perish in a cataclysm spawned by the unenlightened. And I, uneducated and humble before you, will have to confess in the form-based public square my own narcissism.

This is not a local phenomenon by any means. The enlightened, among whom Jason must count himself, seem to know better about most things economic. Perhaps that is about to change. Will notes that a case being litigated by the Courtney brothers, who wish to compete with a state-approved ferry in Washington state, could be the lever that turns back the presumption of economic liberty as a forgotten stepchild of the Constitution. I share his enthusiasm for this case.

Jason would no doubt would have none of this:

As an educated person, you should also be well aware that property rights are social constructed legal fictions, not something handed down from the heavens in one true form. To suggest that a community cannot have a say in shaping the contours of those rights further demonstrates that you have not thought very hard about these issues.

Actually, I have, though I do not expect Jason to allow such. His sensibilities are well and truly representative of what has become of our nation’s foundation on principles of individual rights. He seems to think that property rights are his only because government says they are. There is a certain sense in which this is true. Government, rightly understood, enforces the rights proper to a human being, including property rights. Without it, such rights may be trampled by others without restraint. To say that they exist only because of government is quite a different matter.

For example, let’s imagine that Jason is so of a mind to build a nice cabin from trees on property he has purchased, mixing his own labor with the natural resources he owns through the blessings of the state. Having finished his living quarters, is his ownership now only a legal fiction? If the answer is yes, then the state has every right to confiscate it and make room for a condo–or a circus for that matter–or perhaps do nothing with it, arguing that his cabin was a crime against nature. As his labor is now mixed with these naturally-existing resources, it implies that he and his labor are little better than chattels of the state. His labor is not his own, but belongs to some ethereal abstraction represented by lawmakers.

If the answer is “no,” then it indicates the presence of a natural right. The concept of natural rights is well beyond the scope of today’s blog, but they are most definitely not “handed down from heaven in one true form,” as the author suggests. They are simple a recognition that some rights trump any claim to authority by the state.They are an essential part of being a human being, irrespective of the state’s opinion on the matter.

The problem is that, as Will notes, the progressivism of the early part of the 20th century created a false dichotomy between “fundamental” rights and economic rights. Thus we may do all manner of things without interference save those which enhance us economically, in which case we are beholden to approval by government. Obama loves this idea, Jason loves this idea, and the cadre of clowns who advocate form-based codes love this idea. Jason continues:

Limited government is an important principle, but in the wrong hands, it becomes dangerous. Smart government should be the goal and sadly, it seems that you have blocked such possibilities from your mind.

Presumably, I am one of the ones who cannot be trusted to trust the intelligence and wisdom of the government. “Smart” government is, in the mind of one like Jason, what happens when progressives (heretofore called “liberals”) rule the roost. Those who object to being told how to build and use the buildings they are paying for have clearly not thought about matters very much. They must be pushed aside to make room for the smartest people in the room. You know, the ones who know how we should earn, spend, and live.

No, Jason, I have not blocked such possibilities from my mind. I think about it daily and because of that have devoted a considerable amount of my life each morning educating and persuading individuals not to lie down for any know-it-all who marches into town with a hare-brained idea about how to manage his/her own life and property.

If George Will is right, we will soon see the Supreme Court addressing this issue. We will learn from their decision whether our world will descend further into the collectivist dystopia you appear to envision or resurrect the principle that each of us, respecting the same rights in others, are masters of our own destiny, property rights included.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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