Social media can be a great place to find terrible takes, and today I found one particular take that sought to impose the sorts of limits on voting to those who held real estate property, seeking an argument that was rational and not emotional countering his opinion. When people think of property, often they have very restrictive definitions of the term, giving it an aristocratic edge that limits the popularity of property rights among those who are not viewed as possessing property and thus may be assumed to be hostile to the property rights being exercised by others. This is not wholly without reason. After all, property rights carry with them some sort of exclusivity, as well as placing demands on other people in terms of limiting their conduct or freedom with regards to that which is owned. If I have a patent or trademark on such and such a thing, others must cease and desist from seeking to appropriate that property right for their own profit. If I own real estate, other people are not permitted to use or even to enter my property without my permission and behave on my property according to such limitations and standards as I place on them, and so on and so forth.
When we think of the threat to property rights, we tend to think of the threat of property rights from the side of those who are not viewed to possess such rights. We tend to think of businesses being destroyed by anarchist rioters and rebels, or reputations besmirched by libelous journalists, or something wicked of that nature. Yet property rights are threatened not only from the left, as it were, but also from the right. And in reality the threats are really the same. Every demand for an entitlement or privilege is itself an assertion of property rights because it places a demand that others must respect on pain of lawsuits and sanctions of some kind. Every appropriation of the property rights of others for one’s own profit and benefit is simultaneously a denial of the just property rights of others. The antebellum slaveowner was a thief of the property rights of those who were presumed to be property themselves, who were denied their right to profit off of the labor that they expended. The contemporary government is a thief in civil forfeiture that forces people whose cash has been stolen from them without due process must prove their innocence of any wrongdoing at heavy cost to themselves in legal fees to have their property returned to them. The highwayman and the tax man, the smash and grab operation and the SWAT team, the abortion activist and the plantation owner, are not so far apart in their thievery.
It is indeed the overreach of property rights on behalf of the few and the elite that tend to endanger the idea of property rights for others. For all of us, or at least nearly all of us, have considerable property rights that we might not often recognize as such. To the extent that we have the right to life as well as the freedom of speech, religious practice, the right to bear arms, freedom from improper search and seizure, freedom from slavery, freedom from self-incrimination, and the like, we have property rights in a very profound fashion. The right to own oneself means that one has property rights in what can be obtained through our own physical and intellectual labor. The freedom of self-incrimination as well as freedom of speech and expression allow us to own our words and possess what is inside our minds, to the extent that we choose to express it or choose to remain silent. Freedom from unreasonable search and seizure provides private space for us to operate and preserve such property as we possess. These rights may not be absolute, but they are real to the extent that there are real limits to what the state may justly do to us. And these rights do not merely belong to the wealthy but to the extent that they are rights and not merely privileges, they belong to all as a result of citizenship, simply by virtue of one’s humanity.
To the extent that we recognize that all of us, no matter how destitute, possess something of value to ourselves, at the very least in ourselves and in such potentialities as exist for us with regards to our knowledge, our skills, our abilities, and what we can provide for ourselves and others, we will desire to protect property rights for our own interests and not for others. For there are always other people looking to usurp the property rights of others. There are those who wish to appropriate the property of others’ labor for their own benefit. There are those who wish to demand exclusive property rights over people who they did not make themselves and who are only temporary renters in their wombs. There are those who cast an envious look at the property of others and seek legal means to appropriate that property for their own selfish or partisan benefit through seizure or taxation or inflation. Such people are as much a threat to property as more obvious thieves and robbers. The reason such depredations to property are not more commonly and more fiercely resisted is that all too often people think that property rights belong to the few rather than the many, when in reality any claim that we have on others or any boundary that we can enforce against the conduct of others is itself an assertion of a property right, whether we recognize it as such or call it such.
In short, to reply to the person who sought to restrict the suffrage to those who had property rights is instead to give it to all. It is certainly true that not all people may possess real estate. I personally own no land, at least at this present time. But all people possess property. Even the smallest child who can say no to what others would wish to do to him or her has property rights, even if no one around that small child is disposed to honor and respect them. Indeed, even those who cannot speak their denial of what others would wish to do have rights that merit our respect, namely the right to their own life and the preservation of that life from those who would take it from them. To the extent that we harm the potential of others and remove from them or harm the potential to make something of themselves, we have stolen something precious, namely the just reward of honest labor. To the extent that we libel and slander others, we have stolen the precious worth of a good and honorable name. To the extent that we view rights and properties not as something that is inalienable and God-given and self-evident, but as mere privileges to be taken away for any pretext or none at all by the power of the state, we have robbed a great deal of the dignity and worth of those who have been created in the image and likeness of God. Such theft is no light matter, and its harsh and fatal and eternal judgment, however slow in coming, is well and richly deserved.