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)


Alright. Its been more than a week and its about time that I got some quotes, so I’m going to double up.

You know what, I think I’m going to put this on the main page of my blog: (We’ll see)

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” ~John Adams, “Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials” (December 1770).

I love the idea behind this, but its a bit wordy, so see if you can get it:

“Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.” ~James Madison, “Federalist Paper No 10” (November 22 1787)

We’ll throw in one funny one for good measure: “My fellow Americans. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve signed legislation outlawing the Soviet Union. We begin bombing in five minutes.” ~Ronald Reagan.

He didn’t seriously say that. According to Daniel Kurtzman, he made this joke during a mic check without knowing he was being broad-casted. I thought it was hilarious, and shows Reagan’s light-hearted spirit. Apparently, someone didn’t think it was that funny. Oh, well. I just think its important to be lighthearted every now and then. Just as long as you still understand what’s really important.