In the ongoing wake of violent rioting, America has much to be concerned about. Ben Franklin’s long forgotten quip that we have a republic “if you can keep it” suddenly seems relevant.
Much in the national reaction to the series of riots reveals a disturbing abandonment of America’s founding principles. In city after city, elected public officials have enabled — and even encouraged — rioting while instructing law enforcement to “stand down” and allow destruction of private property. Portland’s mayor actually joined the demonstrations as they spiraled into riots. Seattle’s mayor applauded the establishment of “an autonomous zone” of anarchy in the center of the city.
In surveying the destruction of private property in his state’s major cities, North Carolina’s governor sought to offer consolation in declaring, “Let me be clear. People are more important than property.” Activist Cat Brooks was quoted in the New York Times, “I don’t consider property destruction violence. Violence is when you attack a person…” An article in The Nation, entitled “In Defense of Destroying Property,” laid out a defense of lawless rioting. Looting has been justified as “economic reparations” for the underprivileged. These views typify the widespread belief that somehow rampant destruction of “just” property can be totally divorced from violence against people.
The creation of a fault-line between human rights and property rights is totally contrary to the founding principles of America. As historian Paul Johnson has written, “The Founders derived from John Locke the notion that security of one’s property was intimately linked to one’s freedom.”
John Adams wrote, “Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist.” Hamilton concurred: “Adieu to the security of property, adieu to the security of liberty.”
In this new nation forged out of the wilderness by the initiative of pioneers, the concept of private property was fundamental. There was no concept of economic equality — neither as a reality nor as a goal. Madison denounced any “equal division of property” as “improper and wicked.”
In observing American democracy in the 1830’s, Alexis de Tocqueville cautioned that “democratic institutions strongly tend to promote the feeling of envy and awaken and foster a passion for equality which can never entirely satisfy…. There exists in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level, and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.” The American concept was always that any individual should be free to strive, invest, and achieve without fear that his rewards will be seized or destroyed — and without envy of his neighbor’s success.
Sadly, today the link between human rights and property rights has become a partisan issue. This was not always so. Look back at the 1924 presidential election. Republican President Calvin Coolidge wrote, “Ultimately property rights and personal rights are the same thing. The one cannot be preserved if the other be violated.” Similarly, Coolidge’s Democratic opponent, John W. Davis, affirmed, “Human rights and rights of property are not different or antagonistic but parts of one and the same thing going to make up the bundle of rights which constitute American liberty.” This was the traditional bipartisan consensus.
This consensus is under attack. The philosophy of today’s extreme left is strongly influenced by Marxism. At its core, Marxism rejects private property rights in favor of communal ownership. This thinking is clearly behind the effort to decouple human rights from property rights. America is on a slippery slope. Marxism has always begun with an attack on private property and always ended with tyranny, oppression and misery.
Our political leaders — Republicans as well as Democrats — seem far too hesitant to reaffirm this essential link between property rights and human rights. These words from Democrat John W. Davis are just as true today as when he wrote them almost 100 years ago: “History furnishes no instance where the right of man to acquire and hold property has been taken away without the complete destruction of liberty in all its forms.” America, beware.
Garland S. Tucker III, retired Chairman/CEO of Triangle Capital Corporation and author of The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge and the 1924 Election and Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America— Jefferson to Reagan.