Friday, October 14, 2011

James Madison on Property: Your Dog Does Not Own Your House

(A piece I wrote for the Miller Center) "A Scholar’s View: James Madison’s View on Property"

     Americans believe that property is necessary for liberty. But how can my liberty be enhanced by an institution that excludes me from so many things? In his article for the National Gazette in 1792, James Madison addressed this paradox squarely. The quaint thing about his resolution of the paradox, almost pathetic in retrospect, is the completely assured way in which Madison describes how property, far from being a threat to liberty, is its very foundation. In our modern age, property seems to mean nothing more than that portion of the fruits of our labor that government deigns let us keep. How did things change so much?
      Madison, of course, was a primary architect of the Constitution. He defined property, in that 1792 article, as “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual. In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right, and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.”
      Madison continues: “In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandise, or money is called his property. In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them.” His conclusion? “As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may equally be said to have a property in his rights.” This is no Buddhist koan, a semantic paradox like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” What Madison meant, and what the U.S. Constitution should mean, is that rights of conscience and rights of property are of a piece, mutually reinforcing. Each American owns his or her rights, and our right to own property is what affords autonomy and independence from the collective will.
      Our freedoms are not guaranteed by majority rule, or by “rights” of political representation. Those things are threats to our true rights. Otherwise there would be no 1st Amendment protection for the press, for speech, or for rights of conscience. Likewise, and on the same level (because the same essential thing), there would be no 5th Amendment protection against the taking of property without due process and without just compensation.
     Madison drives home the point later in the piece, when he describes a “just” government, presumably the kind of government the Founders hoped the Constitution might create. His words ring true, but hollow, for us today, for many of Madison’s premonitions of injustice have come to pass if fact. “A just security to property is not afforded by that government, under which unequal taxes oppress one species of property and reward another species; where arbitrary taxes invade the domestic sanctuaries of the rich, and excessive taxes grind the faces of the poor; where the keenness and competitions of want are deemed an insufficient spur to labor, and taxes are again applied, by an unfeeling policy, as another spur; in violation of that sacred property, which Heaven, in decreeing man to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow, kindly reserved to him, in the small repose that could be spared from the supply of his necessities.”
       The American Constitution creates a powerful institution, government, to protect our rights to property, and to defend our property in our rights. The core of those liberties are those properties, of both industry and of conscience, that we have fairly obtained for ourselves by work and reflection. Yet our industry is now yoked to a “partnership” with government for the rich, who are told that corporations and equal protection under the law are privileges, granted by the good graces of government and by no essential right. And the consciences of the poor are to be shaped by dependence on public viands to sustain the body, the mind, and the soul. Relieved of all responsibility, they are robbed of all rights.
        Our government, because it protects my rights and my property, has come to claim that my rights are a privilege, and my property is not my own. I would answer, and I suspect that Madison would agree, that such claims are akin to believing that your dog owns your house.

1 comment:

Tom said...

My problem seems to be that I have gotten a dog that is WAY too big for my needs.