Explore Freedom

Explore Freedom » The Sanctity of Private Property, Part 1

FFF Articles

The Sanctity of Private Property, Part 1

by

Part 1 | Part 2

No myth is more pervasive among the people of the United States than that which claims that the American economic system is based on the sanctity of private property. The American people have been taught since the first grade in their government schools that America is the bastion of private property while the Soviet Union and China represent the system of public ownership or control of property.

Myths die hard. But it is important that they be exploded, no matter how painful the result. Let us do so to this myth of the American system of “private property” which grips the minds of most Americans.

The significance of the Declaration of Independence had nothing to do with the military battles between the colonists and the British forces. Instead, its importance lay in one of the most dramatic and revolutionary declarations in the history of man: that man’s rights do not come from government but instead come from God. With one fell swoop, and for the first time in history, people unseated public officials as the source of their rights and replaced them with the Creator!

The result? With many exceptions (slavery being the worst), the Americans implemented the freest society in history: no income tax, welfare, social security, licensing, or virtually any other law which took money from some, through the political process, and gave it to others, or which regulated peaceful human behavior. Why? Not because it would result in a more prosperous society (which it did). But rather because their lives, liberty, property, and conscience belonged to God, and it was no business of Caesar how they exercised them as long as they did not inflict violence or fraud on others.

What about 20th-century Americans? Maintaining the illusion that they are continuing the vision and heritage of their American ancestors, they have instead resorted to the age-old idea that Caesar should be permitted to have ultimate control over these fundamental rights.

Two thousand years ago, the Prime Exemplar told us that we were to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. But He did not tell us what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God. He left that up to us to figure out. Let us see how Americans — both past and present — have made this determination. Let’s examine, for example, income and the ability to earn income.

The Americans who lived from 1787 to 1913 believed that the fruits of their earnings belonged to God, not Caesar. From the very beginning, they did not permit their public officials to levy a tax on their income. When the politicians tried to do so, the people sued. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the people, and against the government, and declared the income tax in violation of the Constitution which the people had adopted in 1787.

Public officials complied with the ruling but immediately began persuading the American people to alter their Constitution to permit such a tax. The arguments which the politicians used were evil and seductive. First, they argued that only the rich would be taxed; the poor and middle class need never be concerned. It was the perfect embodiment of violations of God’s commandments against covetousness, envy, and stealing. The politicians also promised that the income tax would never exceed a minute percentage.

The American people fell for these evil, seductive, and false promises and amended the Constitution to permit Caesar to do what their ancestors had fought so hard to prevent Caesar from doing: gaining control over their earnings. With the adoption of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, the American people rendered unto Caesar that which had previously been rendered unto God: the fruits of their efforts.

A second example: licensing of occupations, professions, and businesses. By and large, the 19th-century American rejected licensure. So, American society throughout the 1800s was highly unusual because, unlike all of the other societies in history, a person did not have to seek permission from the political authorities before he began pursuing a living. Lawyers, doctors, hairdressers, blacksmiths, and so forth learned their trade and went into business without asking anyone’s permission. But consumers, as the ultimate economic sovereign, through their decisions to patronize a business or not, made the final determination on whether a person would continue in his line of work.

The 20th-century American, resorting to the Old World way of thinking against which his ancestors had rebelled, rejected this dramatically different way of life. He did want to have to make his own decisions on whether people were competent or not. He also did not want unrestricted competition in his own trade. So, he turned to Caesar and, through licensure, rendered unto him the power to regulate the ability to make a living.

Is the real significance behind these two renderings — occupation and income — the economic consequences? No! The true significance is that the American people, who are so ready to worship God on Sunday, have chosen to reject Him the rest of the week. They believe that God and government should be partners with each other with respect to people’s economic activities, blocking out of their minds that “‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

The essence of what the 20th-century American has done, despite the myths and illusions under which he chooses to operate, can be summarized as follows:

“God, we know that You created us. We also know that our talents and abilities are gifts from You which we utilize to earn our daily bread — our property. We also know that our American ancestors rendered these great gifts to You and would not permit Caesar to interfere with them.

“But times have changed, Lord. Those principles were fine for the simple times of the 1800s but they just don’t apply to the more complex way of life in the 20th century. So, we’re placing Caesar — the organized means of coercion and compulsion — in partnership with You.

“Oh mighty Caesar, we render unto you control of our talents and abilities and the fruits of our efforts. We know that you did not give us these but nevertheless we are placing them under your dominion and control. Take care of us, mighty Caesar. Decide for us what line of endeavor is most suitable for each of us. Determine how much of our earnings we shall be permitted to keep and how much you need to retain. Provide us our security — our daily bread — in times of need because our other God sometimes doesn’t do a perfect job in this regard. We trust you, mighty Caesar, with our lives, our liberties, our properties, and our consciences. You shall henceforth be partners with our other God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We love you. We adore you. We worship you. We give you thanks. We are here to serve you.”

Since ancient times, political rulers have hated the existence of God. Why? Because they know that ours is a jealous God. He demands absolute and total allegiance. Our God does not accept partners! Therefore, political rulers, who invariably also desire to be worshipped, bear terrible resentment against such competition.

In ancient Rome, the Caesars developed an interesting method to circumvent this dilemma. They allowed people to engage in different religions but only on the condition that permission was given by the State. Most people sought and were given such permission. So, although people were worshipping another deity, Caesar did not mind because by permitting them to do so, Caesar remained the ultimate sovereign.

However, one group of God’s worshippers saw through this scam: the Christians. Refusing to take any act which placed Caesar above God, they chose not to seek Caesar’s permission to worship Him. And the price they paid? Their lives.

Thank God our American ancestors secured the passage of the First Amendment which prohibits Caesar from gaining control over our churches. If only we 20th-century Americans had the same strength of conviction with respect to our lives and earnings. If only we would truly sanctify private property rather than just giving it lip service. If only we would render our lives and property back to God instead of Caesar. If only we would place God as sovereign over all of our life rather than just a small part of it.

Myths die hard — but if we fail to kill them, we shall continue to reap what we sow.

Part 1 | Part 2

  • Categories
  • This post was written by:

    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.