Property shapes behaviour

As the Property Rights critic in the legislature, I was recently given the opportunity to look at a soon-to-be-released publication...

As the Property Rights critic in the legislature, I was recently given the opportunity to look at a soon-to-be-released publication called “Property & Freedom,” published by the Grassroots Alberta Landowners Association.

The publication’s theme is that human beings are property creators, and that the ability to organize a civil and prosperous society will always be based on respect for property rights. The narrative is especially careful to point out that although the word “property” refers to farmland and real estate, it applies to much more. Property also includes a person’s labour, their inventions and creations. It includes improvements we make to things that occur naturally and that we obtain lawfully – oil is refined, minerals are processed, grain is grown, calves are born and raised, etc.

The text quotes Russ Brown, a former Alberta law professor who in 2015 was appointed Justice of Canada’s Supreme Court. Shortly before his court appointment, Brown discussed property rights on an Alberta talk show.

When asked to define the term “rule of law,” Brown’s response was precise and clear: “The rule of law, in its essence, means that we are governed by laws and not by people.”

Asked to explain the connection between the rule of law and property, Brown carefully pointed out that the law protects not just the property a person holds in land or investments, but the property we hold in ourselves – in our own persons. He said: “Property is one of those things that the law has existed to protect from the get-go. The earliest common law legal notions were notions of property, and the state, in its original form, was established to protect those rights that we have. And not just in property, but also in ourselves – in our physical bodies.”

Brown continued: “So we have, in essence, two fundamental rights. We have rights in ourselves. We have rights in our property. And where government interferes with those rights, it has to do so in a way that conforms to law. The rule of law is that governments must govern in accordance with the law, just as we live our lives in accordance with the law.”

The grassroots publication then moves on to explain how in civil societies, individuals and businesses are constantly exchanging property rights.

When a man puts down money to buy milk from a grocer, he is essentially saying, “I hold title to these three dollars and I recognize that you (the grocer) hold title to the milk.” It’s a commercial transaction, but it’s also a transfer of property rights. The agreement they make is for the man to transfer his property right in the money to the grocer in exchange for the grocer’s property right in the milk.

The narrative then explains why the free market is the most effective way for people to willingly transfer and trade property rights. It points out that the words “free market” don’t mean that individuals and businesses are free to abuse people or act without standards. Instead, it means people are able to make free choices, exchanging the property rights they hold in money, goods, land, or labour, for other things that then become their property.

The process is summarized in a quote from U.S. President Calvin Coolidge who observed: “Ultimately, property rights and personal rights are the same thing.”

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