Press "Enter" to skip to content

Opinion: An open letter to Missouri legislators about larger and juster meaning of ‘property’

Pre-filing of legislation begins in just a couple of days, and there are a lot of important things to accomplish in these peculiar times: A lot of injustice to fight; a lot of upright things to promote.

The temptation to overlook, and even violate, foundational principles in the process is tangible.

As you file bills and consider which bills to throw your support behind, don’t forget that property rights is at the core of our liberty, and protection of property rights of all sorts is the very reason America exists as a body politic.

Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, arguably, had more influence on the founding generation than any other man. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government Locke wrote:

“The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society.”

Locke said one’s “property” is his “life, liberty, and estate.” In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson borrowed from Locke when he wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

In 1776, Americans declared property rights are from God and “unalienable.” The people of Missouri made the same declaration in Article I, Section 2 of their Constitution.

James Madison’s also borrowed from John Locke when he defined “property,” as you will see below. Locke and Jefferson gave guidance to you, Missouri legislator, about the importance of focusing on property rights — in the full and glorious meaning — when you go about your duties. And Madison’s definition of “property” brings clarity about the extent of those duties:

“[This] term (‘property’) in its particular application means 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. In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property.

In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.

In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights….

Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own…”