What is property?

On the O’Brian FACTor today, I’m getting a little more pro-active. This is an essay on a subject very near to my heart; property rights. Hope you enjoy! Please feel free to post comments for and against if you feel inclined to do so.

Private Property is a phrase thrown around a lot. Often, we’re told of the atrocities eminent domain has claimed against private property. But what is property? James Madison, a man known as the “founder of our constitution” explained to us that private property is a “ketch-all” phrase, that “In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right…”[1] Now that is a broad definition.

The founder’s love of the right of property was put into the Fifth Amendment in the Bill of Rights with two prohibitions to protect the right of property:

No person shall […] be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due
process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just
compensation.” [2]

Over the years, battles have been fought over what is meant by this clause, and most of it has focused on the right to own land property. Very little has recognized the far-reaching implications of the word “property” as originally intended.

James Madison, who (rather unwillingly) drafted the bill of rights as well as the main body of the constitution, enumerates what he meant by “property” in the essay quoted above. Two main threads come from his broad definition as “‘that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.'”[1] The second was inclusive of opinions, speech, etc. The first (which I would like to focus on most) was not only inclusive of land property but, as he stated:

“In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property.”

Notice, not just his land. Private property rights included money and merchandise. If we may then insert this definition into the Fifth Amendment,

…nor shall private [money or merchandise] be taken for public use,
without just compensation.[3]

What is taxation? Princeton provides an obvious definition:

“charge against a citizen’s person or property or activity for the support of government” [4]

Taxation is basically the government charging the people so it can survive; private money taken for public use.

So, then, if the courts would interpret this clause as it was intended to be interpreted, then any tax that did not go back to compensate the individual it had taxed would be unconstitutional by the fifth amendment. This does not mean that the government can’t tax people; there just has to be some kind of compensation to every individual who is taxed. It means that government can’t constitutionally steal from one person to give to another person. Such “legal plunder” is unjust, should be unconstitutional, and is just plain wrong!

Imagine with me that a lawn service comes to your door, points a gun at your head, forces you to pay them for mowing, and then, the next day, decides that you “aren’t qualified” to receive their benefits. Every time the government taxes someone without paying them back with some kind of service, they are doing the exact same thing! Now, imagine with me the Salvation Army coming through your neighborhood to do the same thing. Yes, that’s government “charity programs.” You can probably spot them; affirmative action, welfare, etc.

This theory of the original meaning of private property has many implications. Ultimately, it has effects on both the feds and each state government as well. It would not only mean a more fair taxation, but also less taxation on both levels.

Let me leave you with the words to Davy Crockett who spoke against forced government charity as a representative from Tennessee before coming to the great state of Texas:

“We have the right as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we
please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a
dollar of the public money.”[5]

Then he boldly took this pro-active stance:

“I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week’s pay [of my own money] to the object[…]”[5]

Col. Crockett later told a friend that “Money with them [politicians] is nothing but trash when it is to come out of the people.”

We should give for charity; but from our own pocket, not another’s.


[1] James Madison, March 1792. “Property” in William T. Huchinson et al, ed. The Papers of James Madison. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1962) in: The Founders Constitution, (University of Chicago, 2000) Ch 16. http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch16s23.html. (accessed 10/2/07)

[2] Bill Of Rights. “Amendment V” (15 December 1791) http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/constitution.billofrights.html (accessed 10/2/07)

[3] (paraphrased by me)

[4] WordNet Search “taxation” (Princeton University, 2006) http://wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=taxation (accessed 10/2/07)

[5] David Crockett “Not Yours to Give” (Project Freedom, n.d.) http://www.house.gov/paul/nytg.htm (accessed 10/2/07)


2 Responses

  1. I’m not exactly sure about this, but doesn’t the Constitution give Congress the power to levy taxes?

  2. Yes, but that doesn’t mean that they have infinite ability to exercise that power. They can only levy the tax if it does not violate other provisions. Compensation, as my post explains, should be one such provision.I’m sorry if this wasn’t clear: but I am not against taxes, I am only against using them as a legal form of robbery.

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