Issues & Insights

Usurping Or Preserving Private Property?

Beginning Nov. 5, three centuries ago, Cato’s Letters appeared in the London Journal. In them, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon set out “to maintain and expose the glorious principles of liberty, and to expose the arts of those who would darken or destroy them.”

Collections of Cato’s Letters, reflecting the ideas of John Locke, were widely circulated, admired and cited in England and the colonies. And they provided common ground and expression for colonists’ claims than England was refusing them their rights. In particular, Cato’s Letters’ defense of private property rights – the foundation of liberty – which so powerfully influenced our founding, merits revisiting before an election in which the security of our rights in ourselves and our property are a central concern.

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The sole end of men’s entering into political societies was mutual protection and defense; and whatever power does not contribute to those purposes is not government, but usurpation.

The security of [people’s] persons and property is their highest aim.

Preservation of [property] is the principal business of government.

If the people are suffered to keep their own, it is the most that they desire: But … they are frequently robbed by those whom they pay to protect them.

As the preservation of property is the source of national happiness; whoever violates property, or lessens or endangers it … is an enemy to his country.

Every plowman knows a good government from a bad one … whether the fruits of his labor be his own, and whether he enjoy them in peace and security.

One man is only safe, while it is in the interest of another to let him alone.

Nor could any man … have a right to violate the property of another … No man therefore could transfer to the magistrate that right which he had not himself.

The fruits of a man’s honest industry are [his] just rewards … as is his title to use them in the manner which he thinks fit: And thus … every man is sole lord and arbiter of his own private actions and property … no man living can divest him but by usurpation, or by his own consent.

The security of property and the freedom of speech always go together … where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call anything else his own.

Every man is in nature and reason the judge and disposer of his own domestic affairs … Government [is] intended to protect men from the injuries of one another, and not to direct them in their own affairs.

Men have been knocked down for saying that they had a right to defend their property by force, when a tyrant attempted to rob them of it against law.

Let people alone, and they will take care of themselves, and do it best … without the magistrate’s interposition and penalties.

The privileges of … doing what we please, and of growing rich as we can, without any other restriction, other than that by all this we hurt not the public, nor one another, are the glorious privileges of liberty; and its effects, to live in freedom, plenty, and safety.

Where liberty is thoroughly established, and its laws equally executed, every man will find his own account in doing as he would be done unto, and no man will take from another what he would not part with himself…The property of the poor will be as sacred as the privileges of the prince, and the law will be the only bulwark of both. Every man’s honest industry and useful talents, while they are employed for the public, will be employed for himself.

Where there is liberty … people labor for themselves, and no one can take from them the acquisitions which they make by their labor.

To live securely, happily, and independently, is the end and effect of liberty … all men are animated by the passion of acquiring and defending property, because property is the best support of that independency.

Chose whether you will be freemen or vassals; whether you will spend your own money and estates, or let others worse than you spend them for you.

Dominion will always desire increase, and property always to preserve itself … by this struggle liberty is preserved.

To prevent the unfair gains and depredations of one another … is indeed the business of the government; viz. to secure to every one his own.

The first care which wise governors will always take is … to secure to them the possession of their property, upon which everything else depends.

Cato’s Letters reflected Locke’s ideas of natural rights, and were, in turn, reflected in America’s founding. As we will vote just days from the tricentennial of the first installment, their commitment to the conjoined twins of liberty and private property merits serious reconsideration today. We should remember that someone who would undermine the rights of individuals to their property cannot defend, much less expand, our common liberty.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.

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