The Constitution was adopted on September 17, 1787 — more than 225 years ago. That is long enough ago that it is easy to take for granted the rights protected by the Constitution. If given a chance to reflect, what constitutionally protected rights do Americans think are the most fundamental to our freedom? I conducted an informal poll, asking this question. The answer came almost universally—free speech and press. Both of these liberties form a part of the foundation upon which our freedom is based. But they are not the cornerstone of our freedom.
So, what is the cornerstone of the freedom that America has enjoyed for more than 225 years? It is found in our rights to property – our economic rights. The right to own and control one’s property, the fruits of one’s labor, and one’s inventions and creations is the cornerstone of our freedom. Why, you ask? How can the right to own something be more important than free speech? The answer is simple. Without property rights, no other important right can long survive. Property rights are the rich and fertile soil in which all other rights can grow and mature.
In the totalitarian regime of the former Soviet Union, for example, communist dictators did not need to outlaw free speech or press to control the populace. All they really needed to do was revoke property rights. Without property rights and economic freedom, the people lack the independence to exercise other rights. When the government controls who gets the jobs and who receives housing and consumer goods, the people become completely dependent upon the government – for food, shelter, transportation, medicine, education and everything else. Even if legally permitted, few citizens would publicly criticize a government that had the authority to take their job, their home, and everything else they own.
Without the independence and autonomy provided by the right to own and control the fruits of one’s labor and one’s property, few other rights amount to much. For this reason, property rights are the cornerstone of the freedom Americans now enjoy.
Unfortunately, too many Americans view property rights as something that concerns only ranchers and farmers in the West. The truth is that property rights impact us all. If you pay income taxes, sales taxes, Social Security taxes, or property taxes; if you own a home or a car; if you have a savings account or retirement account, or own stock – you have a stake in protecting property rights.
Another important area of property rights is often overlooked or misunderstood. This area of property rights was also recognized by the Founders in the Constitution. In Article 1, Section 8, the Founders authorized Congress to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries….” Today, we commonly call this “intellectual property.” One of the primary reasons the United States led the entire world into the modern world of mechanization and technology is because of this provision of the Constitution.
The Founders unleashed the creative and entrepreneurial spirit of Americans by making sure that they would reap the rewards for their innovations. As a result, America has been creating the cures, the devices, and the technology that has changed the world. In roughly six decades, we went from the first flight that covered a few hundred feet on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to landing men on the moon and bringing them safely home. In even less time, we went from computers that were so large and so expensive that only the government or the largest Fortune 500 corporations could afford them, to having even more powerful computers in our pockets or purses in the form of a smartphone.
Likewise, American authors and artists have led the modern world in creativity. All of this was made possible because the Founders had the foresight to enshrine in the Constitution itself the idea that intellectual property rights matter to all of us and can be an engine for economic growth and progress which benefits all of us.
As conservatives, we cherish the principles of liberty contained in the Constitution. We have long supported real property rights for ranchers under siege from government bureaucrats. We should also enthusiastically support intellectual property rights. Sometimes those rights are threatened by enemies abroad who want to steal our technology for national security reasons. Sometimes, those intellectual property rights are threatened by those who simply want free stuff. While one is a national security threat, the other is an economic threat. Both harm us.
We all expect the government to protect our property from thieves and vandals. But too often we do not consider that intellectual property is often easily stolen or vandalized. Yet, intellectual property is worthy of protection as well. As conservatives, we should support both real and intellectual property rights.
America’s property rights — both real and intellectual property — are under siege. Unreasonably high taxes take from workers the fruits of their labors. Thomas Jefferson warned against a spendthrift government that unnecessarily took from the “laborer the bread he has earned.” Certain environmental regulations prevent land owners from the reasonable use and control of their own homes, farms, and ranches. Other regulations burden individuals and businesses and limit their ability to direct their labors and business affairs. Thomas Jefferson warned that if the government directed “us when to sow and when to reap, we should soon want for bread.” In a world in which more and more property is taking the form of “intellectual property” the assaults on these property rights are also growing more and more severe.
The attacks on property rights never seem to end. Then, when someone stands up to defend the cornerstone of our freedom, they are too often labeled “greedy” by the very people who lead the assault on property rights.
As conservatives who champion the Constitution, we would do well to remember the forgotten right – the right that provides the environment of independence in which all other rights can flourish – property rights. It’s an American tradition worth saving.
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George Landrith is the president of Frontiers of Freedom, a public policy think tank devoted to promoting a strong national defense, free markets, individual liberty, and constitutionally limited government. Mr. Landrith is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, where he was Business Editor of the Virginia Journal of Law and Politics. Mr. Landrith was a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives from Virginia. You can follow George on Twitter @GLandrith.