Gore Vidal (1925-2012) once remarked that the so-called “libertarians” of the right wing are not libertarian at all but should be called “propertarians.” He had a point. The one freedom that right-libertarians value above all others is the right of property owners to dispose of their property. By contrast, people who were called “libertarians” between the 1850s and 1950s were anarcho-communists who adopted P.J. Proudhon’s view that “property is theft.” What, then, is the relation between property and freedom?
The answer is that a property right limits the freedom of every human being but one, that one being the proprietor. If it is corporate or state property, then it limits the freedom of every human being on the planet.
This is simply a matter of understanding what a property right is: It is the power of the proprietor to call on the state to prevent anyone else from using the property — that is, to limit the freedom of others to use the property. A property right does not grant proprietors freedom to use their property in any way they may choose. If I own a pan, I cannot use that pan to cook my neighbor’s chicken, nor can I use it to conk my neighbor on the head. What I can do as proprietor of that pan is to eliminate my neighbor’s freedom to use my pan to cook his chicken without my permission.
This confusion is at the root of one of the most “conservative” ideas of right-wing “libertarians”: their opposition to civil rights laws that prevent racial discrimination by businesses, such as lunch counters. These propertarians oppose these laws because the laws “limit the freedom of proprietors to use their property as they choose.” But in the context of a Jim Crow system, the right of the proprietors to do that is, in turn, a limit on the freedom of African-Americans to travel, shop and lunch as they choose. It is not a case of freedom against restraint but of the freedom of some against the freedom of others.
Of course, some property rights (and other restraints on freedom) are necessary for a prosperous society. If I were free to take my neighbor’s chicken, then he might give up raising chickens. If he were free to take my pan, I might decide not to buy a pan in the first place. On the other side, my neighbor and I might decide that his property and mine, combined in a cooperative way, could provide us with an excellent dinner together. More generally, exchange is an important basis of our prosperous society, and property rights facilitate exchange. Even state and corporate property almost certainly contribute to our prosperity — in the right circumstances. But those who value freedom should understand that property rights do not extend freedom but limit it. “Libertarians” who do not understand that are — at best — badly confused.
Roger McCain is a professor of economics at Drexel University. He can be contacted at email@example.com.