Many people know that in addition to being the MLA for Drumheller-Stettler, I am the Shadow Critic for Property Rights in the Legislative Assembly. Because of this responsibility, I was recently given an opportunity to preview a soon-to-be-released publication called Property and Freedom, published by Grassroots Alberta.
More than 20 years ago, at a meeting of the Western Stock Growers Association (WSGA), rancher/businessman Marshall Copithorne delivered what for some people was a life-changing speech on the subject of property rights and freedom. I know a Youngstown-area rancher who was at that meeting, and who said many years later that being there genuinely changed his life. (Grassroots Alberta courtesy of Copithorne and the WSGA is printing the entire presentation.)
Copithorne points out that rights are given by God, not by government, and that for each of us our God-given rights include the right to life, liberty, personal property, and their enjoyment. The recognition of these rights forms the foundation of western civilization, with these ideas being traced to Moses and the tablets (and to Hammurabi in the 18th century B.C. who also established property rights).
Throughout history, freedom has always been advanced by individuals and societies who have defended the individual’s right to life and right to property. Indeed, many would argue, the purpose of government is to protect these two basic rights.
The narrative quotes the famous book, “Mainspring of Human Progress,” which refers to Moses and the Ten Commandments as the greatest document of individual freedom in recorded history. Interestingly, each of the commandments is addressed to the individual as a self-controlling person responsible for his or her own thoughts, words, and actions. And they freely recognize that freedom and property are inherent to human nature.
The sixth commandment stresses the individual’s right to life – a right that must not be violated by another. The seventh establishes the principle of contract – that a contract, whether written or spoken, must not be broken. The eighth (“You shall not steal”) recognizes the individual’s right to own property. The tenth (“Do not covet what belongs to others”) emphasizes the right of ownership, indicating that not even in thought should one person violate the property rights of another.
As a society, we have moved a long way since the Stone Age. Today almost everyone depends for his welfare – for his very life – upon exchanges of ownership of property, whether that property is in the form of money, possessions, or our own labour.
Property rights are human rights. They don’t belong to the property; they belong to the individuals who hold the property. If a society is to be prosperous and free, private property rights are a fundamental and necessary condition. Private ownership encourages good stewardship, and apart from private ownership, freedom of choice would become meaningless.
The publication’s narrative recognizes that the clash between the power of government and the rights of the individual was addressed by the Magna Carta in 1215. And points out that to avoid a revolution, the Church of England recommended to the king that he recognize that the people possess certain rights.
The king conceded, and the Magna Carta was proclaimed. Subsequently, there were numerous charters in England and continental Europe based on its ideals. These events, in effect, established early procedural safeguards for persons and property. In time, developing into what is now known as the Common Law.