November 29, 2011

"Human Rights" as Property Rights

I believe last week’s discussion about clearly defined property rights is of great importance – perhaps the most important tenet from the many we have studied. In terms of conflict resolution, no other principle is as clear and steadfast in its purpose. Without property rights, chaos would ultimately ensue. In an effort to avoid redundancy, I will focus my attention on a separate reading from Murray Rothbard that looks at property rights from a different angle. In this essay titled “Human Rights” as Property Rights, Rothbard critiques the meaning and significance that society puts on certain human rights that we all are accustomed to. For much of the essay, he focuses his attention on the right to free speech, arguing that no one person has the right to free speech without the clear ownership of the land they are speaking on. For example, if I were to trespass onto someone else’s property, I would be in direct violation of that person’s right to property, thus losing my ability of free speech. There are only two places where I have the ability to express my voice in a free manner: The first place being my own property. In an Austrian-Libertarian society, I would be able to do whatever my heart desires on my own property as long as I am not impending or endangering another person’s liberty. Free speech would of course fall under that guideline. The only other way I would be able to voice my opinion would be to formulate a contract with an owner of a separate building. The example given by Rothbard is when a person hires out a hall and addresses the people who willfully enter the premise. Without that contract from the owner, that person speaking would have no right to speak. In either of these situations, the right to property is what allows a person to freely speak. It seems at first a radical thing to declare, but when realizing the significance and importance of property rights, it actually makes perfect sense. The right to freedom of speech is just one example given, but any other “Human Right” would also be subject to a person’s ownership of property.

In the second half of the paper, Rothbard writes about the fact that most of the problems related to freedom of speech occur on government owned streets. The government is basically the property owner of the streets, and because of that, they must decide on how to allocate their scarce resources – in this case the use of the actual street. What eventually happens is the government allows certain events to take place, such as a political rally (which blocks traffic, etc) and excludes others. No apparent reason is needed or given; it is simply up to the government’s discretion. (Oxymoron?) The point Rothbard is making is that if the streets were owned by private individuals/firms, the use of these streets for assembly would be solved in a similar fashion to the example already given of a person renting out a hall from the owner of the hall.

For lack of being able to write it better myself, a quote from Rothbard follows.

One would, in a fully libertarian society, have no more "right" to use someone else's street than he would have the "right" to preempt someone else's assembly hall; in both cases, the only right would be the property right to use one's money to rent the resource, if the landlord is willing. Of course, so long as the streets continue to be government-owned, the problem and the conflict remain insoluble; for government ownership of the streets means that all of one's other property rights, including speech, assembly distribution of leaflets, etc., will be hampered and restricted by the ever-present necessity to traverse and use government-owned streets, which government may decide to block or restrict in any way. If the government allows the street meeting, it will restrict traffic; if it blocks the meeting in behalf of the flow of traffic, it will block the freedom of access to the government streets. In either case, and whichever way it chooses, the "rights" of some taxpayers will have to be curtailed.

I found this article to be wholly fascinating and it only adds to the already discussed importance of property rights. This essay, coupled with Cordato’s writings from last week’s class illustrate that clearly defined and enforced property rights are a crucial principle for any complex society to prosper. Attached is the essay by Rothbard, and if given the time, I think everyone on the blog should give it a read-through.

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