Today, the distinction between human rights and property rights is often discussed. To the contrary, property rights are the most fundamental of all human rights.
The divide between human and property rights is frequently discussed these days, and those who claim to advocate one dismiss any defender of the other. They fail to recognize that, far from being in conflict, property rights are the most fundamental of all human rights.
Every man's right to his own life includes the ability to locate and change resources in order to create that which sustains and advances life. That product is owned by a man. That is why property rights are the most important of all human rights, because losing one puts the others in jeopardy. How can the human right to freedom of the press be protected, for example, if the government controls all newsprint and has the power to decide who and how much can be used? The human right to a free press is dependent on the human right to private property in newsprint and other newspaper-related materials.
In other words, there is no conflict of rights because property rights are human rights in and of themselves. Furthermore, human rights are property rights as well! This significant reality has various dimensions. To begin with, each individual is the owner of himself, the king of his own person, according to our view of the natural order of things. Man's proper development and well-being require the preservation of this self-ownership. The acknowledgement of each man's inherent property right over his own being, and from this property right flows his claim to the material products he has generated, is what human rights are all about. The right to personal liberty is hence a man's property right in himself.
However, there is another sense in which human rights are actually property rights, one that is largely overlooked in today's world. Take the human right to freedom of assembly, for example. Assume that a group wishes to hold a street rally to support a particular topic or initiative. The right to assemble is expressed in this way. Assume, on the other hand, that the police disband the meeting because it is causing traffic congestion. It is no longer adequate to claim that the police have limited the right to assemble for political purposes. This could have been the case. However, there is a serious issue here, as traffic may have been disrupted. How can one choose between the human right to free assembly and the "public policy" or "public benefit" of open and unobstructed transportation in that case? Faced with this seeming conflict, many people conclude that rights must be relative rather than absolute, and that they must occasionally be curtailed for the greater good.
A Matter of Ownership
But the fundamental issue is that the streets are owned by the government, which means they are effectively unowned. This not only generates traffic bottlenecks, but also confusion and dispute about who should use the streets at what time. The taxpaying public? At the end of the day, we're all taxpayers. Should taxpayers who want to demonstrate be permitted to do so whenever they wish, or should the roadway be designated for other groups of taxpayers such as vehicles or pedestrians? Who will make the decision? Only the government has the power to decide, and whatever it does, it will be completely arbitrary, escalating rather than resolving the confrontation between opposing factions.
Consider a scenario in which the streets are owned by private individuals. We can readily see that the entire issue is one of property rights in this case. If Jones owns a street and Citizens United wants to use it for a protest, Jones may offer to rent it to Citizens United. Jones must next determine whether or not to rent it out and at what price he will accept the transaction. We can see that this isn't really about Citizens United's human right to freedom of assembly; rather, it's about their property right to utilize their money to hire the street for the demonstration. They can't force Jones to agree in a free society; the final decision is his, based on his property right to dispose of the roadway as he sees suitable.
As a result, we can see how government ownership obscures the underlying issue—how it generates nebulous and fictitious "human rights" that appear to conflict with one another and the "public interest." When all of the variables involved are privately held, there is no problem or conflict of human rights; instead, only property rights are at stake, and there is no ambiguity or conflict in determining who owns what or what is permitted in any given situation.
Property Rights Are Unmistakable
In short, human rights and property rights are inextricably linked. The property right to hire an assembly hall from the owners, to talk to those who are willing to listen, to buy materials and then print leaflets or books and sell them to those who are willing to buy constitutes the human right to free expression. Beyond the property rights that we may enumerate in any specific circumstance, there is no further right of free expression. The proper line of action in all apparent issues of human rights is to locate and identify the property rights at issue. And, because property rights are always clear and legally recognizable, this approach will resolve any apparent conflicts of rights.
Consider the quintessential issue of "freedom of expression" being limited in the "public interest": Justice Holmes' famous statement that it is not permissible to yell "fire" in a crowded theater. This illustration has been used repeatedly by Holmes and his followers to proclaim the supposed necessity for rights to be relative and tentative rather than absolute and permanent.
But let us go deeper into this issue. The person who starts a brawl in a crowded theater by falsely shouting "fire" is either the theater's owner or a paying patron. If he is the proprietor, he has defrauded his consumers. He took their money in exchange for a promise to put on a movie, but now he disrupts the performance by falsely shouting "fire" and interrupting the show. He has thereby breached this contractual responsibility, infringing on his patrons' property rights.
Assume, on the other hand, that the shouter is a customer rather than the proprietor. In that instance, he is infringing on the property rights of the owner. As a visitor, he has access to the property on specific conditions, including not violating the owner's property or disrupting the owner's performance for his guests. As a result, his malevolent act infringes on the theater owner's and other patrons' property rights.
When we look at the matter in terms of property rights rather than the nebulous and ill-defined human right of free expression, we realize that there is no conflict and no need to limit or restrict rights in any way. Individual rights are still everlasting and unalienable, but they are property rights. The individual who deliberately yells "fire" in a packed theater is a criminal, not because his so-called right to free speech must be pragmatically limited for the "public good," but because he has clearly and unmistakably infringed on another person's property right.