What are Property Rights
rights seem to many people an archaic notion, a relic of a time long gone when the status of an individual would be determined
by the property he owned. In such an era, most property belonged to a small portion of the population, and that ownership gave them not only
wealth and social standing, but political as well as economic power. It recalls a time when a majority of the people owned
little or nothing — women, for example, lost all control over what property they might have when they married —
and, thus, government and society were under the control of a small elite. Most of us would prefer the present situation,
when property is more widely distributed, when people may enjoy status on the grounds of their accomplishments as well as
wealth, when women are no longer hobbled by outmoded notions, and when the right to vote is now universally enjoyed free of
any requirement to be a landowner.
But the right to own
and enjoy property has always been an important part of the rights of the people. At the Philadelphia convention that drafted
the Constitution, John Rutledge of South Carolina reminded the delegates that "property was certainly the principal object
of Society." They did not really need much reminding, because the Framers all believed that respect for an individual's
property rights lay at the heart of the social contract. Not only did they build institutional safeguards into the Constitution
to protect those rights, but the nation soon added important provisions through the Bill of Rights to buttress that protection.
Moreover, the Founders did not intend that these protections extend only to land or discernible assets, but to all the rights
inherent in property — real or personal, tangible or intangible. They believed that property was "the guardian
of every other right," for without the right to own and use and enjoy one's property free from arbitrary governmental
interference, there could be no liberty of any sort.
Today property rights
are still important to the American people. The right to own what you have created, built, purchased or even been given as
a gift — knowing that the government cannot take it from you except under stringent legal procedures — provides
the material security that goes hand in hand with less tangible freedoms, such as speech and privacy. People whose economic
rights are threatened are just as much at the mercy of a despotic government as are those who find their freedom of expression
or their right to vote curtailed. When talking of rights, legal scholars often speak of a "bundle of rights," and
by this they mean that all are closely connected. If we no longer believe that property rights underlie all other freedoms,
we do believe that freedom is a seamless tapestry, in which every one of the rights in that bundle is important to the preservation
of others. This is certainly true of freedom of speech, and it is no less true of property rights.