Property rights

Written by Greta Hyland

The right to property is an enshrined idea in America, but it is not an American idea. The origin of property rights sprang up centuries ago and its presence throughout time has been more fluid than it has been concrete, determined by the ebb and flow of culture and values. But there is a dark thread that runs through its history and it is that those who hold property think it entitles them to more rights than others.That belief is still held today, and though it comes in many different shapes and sizes, and is more legally elusive, the end result is still the same: to wield power and control.

Property rights has become the billy club of the constitution, used to beat out all other rights. 

This unholy alliance of property, rights, and power came out of the Protestant Reformation in the form of a political movement advanced by the Levellers, who made the case that the Bible equates property with the right to life based on the commandment, “Thou shall not steal.” They claimed that the body is one’s property, as is the labor that comes from that body, and the property that that labor acquires is the extension of that right to life. In other words, the right to property is implied in the commandment and hence property is sacred, or a natural right. 

The Levellers were debating against the wealthy and powerful of England who had equated property ownership  to a “take” which entitled them to political power. To put it another way, those with the most money controlled the most and they didn’t want anyone else “taking” a share of the power. Only those with a certain amount of property had access to political power and control because property ownership was tied to the right to vote.  

The Levellers argued that anyone who worked and accumulated property, even if a small amount, should be afforded the same rights.The really radical faction in this debate was the Diggers who claimed that being a person was enough property to guarantee a right to vote. It all sounds good at this point right? Fair and balanced as they say. Except it wasn’t. Making property a biblically supported idea and a sign of righteousness gave those who had it more power to use it against others. How can you be wrong if God is on your side?

These ideas carried over to the U.S. and influenced the founders and founding documents of the country. John Locke, who heavily influenced the founders of our country, spring boarded off those ideas, again suggesting that political rights should be given in proportion to the amount of property owned – and suggested that property is an “inalienable” right. But again, only for the few, the elite. We all know that in early American history not just anyone could own property. Women and blacks could not own property and hence had no political power or voice. In fact, both were considered property – not their own, but someone else’s. This was a form of keeping political power and control in the hands of those who had it. The idea that everyone was equal, regardless of property ownership, was shocking, absurd, and terrifying to those who held positions of power. 

James Madison argued that extending the right to vote to all could lead to being “overruled by a majority without property.” The horror.

So the idea that property gives one greater rights than others has a long and nefarious history. And shockingly, it is still happening. James Madison’s fear of the “property-less” majority wielding control echoes through our country still. Today it is being done behind the scenes via lobbying, or buying politicians, their votes, and legislation by wealthy corporations and individuals. Those with the most money, or property, are able to make their voices heard above everyone else’s. It is still the few property owners wielding the most power against the many who do not. It’s just not as blatant as it used to be because we can all vote. Sadly, our votes do not outweigh the dollars stacked on the other scale. 

We see the extreme juxtaposition of this with corporations being granted personhood and the rights associated with it. It is yet to be seen how you hold a corporation accountable under the law however. There is intellectual property; ideas that are owned by entities and people, kept secret for maximum profit. Recipes of fracking fluid is considered property that doesn’t have to be divulged, regardless of the health effects or inherent dangers it poses. Even access to information is becoming property to which we must go through gate keepers to get. For example, corporations that publish academic articles and then make them so expensive that even the universities and professors who wrote them can’t afford to buy their own work once published. Universities mind you, that are largely funded with taxpayer dollars.

On a more individualistic level, we hear people arguing that owning property gives the property owner the “right” to discriminate against those in the LGBT community and that by making the property owner recognize LGBT rights (not special rights, but the same rights of equality we all is enjoy) somehow violates their “property rights.” In essence, these people claim that by right of owning property, a property  owner’s rights trump another person’s right to being treated equally under the law. 

And then there is the property rights argument against public land. Ken Ivory, the Utah politician using his non-profit organization, the American Lands Council, to lobby politicians across the country to force the government to give public land to the states, is also using the “property rights” argument. 

The funny part about Ken Ivory though, is that he is trying to “take” property from its rightful owner, the U.S. Government, which no self-respecting conservative would ever agree to if it was private property. Ivory is right though, this debate is about property rights – the property rights of the Federal Government and the rights of the American public to access that property.

Ironically, Ivory is like the person who has been given access to walk across another’s property to get to work and over time determines that that property should be his, and then goes about trying to take it from the rightful owner – which happens to be us by proxy of the Federal Government who manages it as a trust. What happens to public land is up to the discretion of the Federal Government who can decide whether to give, sell, or keep that land under the property clause of the Constitution. 

There is nothing inherently wrong with accumulating wealth, i.e. property, or getting the rewards of your labor, but when accumulating “property” equates to greed, power, and control at the expense of others, there is something inherently wrong with it. Our constitution guarantees many rights, none of which can trump all others. Property rights are not absolute, but instead, a function of what society is willing to acknowledge, defend, and enforce. It is time that people stop using property rights as a weapon to take from others for their own benefit, whether it is access, dignity, or equality in the form of voting, sexual orientation, or having an equal voice in the process.  

Greta Hyland has a Masters degree in Environmental Policy & Management and has worked for the BLM and the NPS as well as for non-profit organizations. She is a regular contributor to the Utah Adventure Journal and is the Copy Editor at the Independent. She writes regularly on her blog about environmental policy issues affecting the southwest, as well as personal narratives about outdoor recreation and simple living. Her blog can be found at  A Utah native, Greta is a consummate desert rat and loves exploring the southwest. She can be reached at [email protected]