Do Americans have property rights?


By Troy Camplin –

Do Americans have property rights? Given the common perception that the United States is a capitalist country, and that capitalism is in no small part defined by the presence of property rights, that might seem an odd thing to ask. But the answer may in fact surprise many, if we consider the definition of “property rights.”

What does it mean to have a right to one’s property? The most obvious thing should be the fact that one owns that property. The second thing should be the fact that one can do with one’s property as one sees fit. This would, of course, include the ability to engage in cooperative exchange.

Let us take the second thing first. Can Americans do with their property as they see fit? In the city of Richardson, TX, if you do not mow your alleyway or if someone at city hall thinks your house could use another coat of paint, you are likely to get a letter in the mail telling you that unless you mow your alleyway or paint your house, that the city of Richardson will fine you. These sorts of city ordinances are, of course, not uncommon. They can extend from such things as demands to mow one’s lawn to restrictions on repairs and colors of paint. If I want to fix my house, I have to get permission from the city to do so. And as the occasional horror story about the police shutting down children’s lemonade stands show, we do not even have the right to buy and sell our own property on our own property – unless, of course, we get permission from the city. The city of Richardson, for example, restricts the number of garage sales one can have per year.

Even good news, such as the fact that Denver, CO is considering allowing people to sell on their own property produce they have grown <> shows the extent to which local governments in particular control our property.

So I have demonstrated that one is often restricted by local governments as to what can be done with one’s own property. But does that mean that we do not own the property? Hardly. One can own property and still have legal restrictions and regulations regarding the use of that property. But what if we do not in fact own the land we think we own?

Now, that may seem like a pretty silly thing to say. Of course, I own the land and house I own. (Of course, if you are paying a mortgage, as I am, it is in fact the bank that owns your house, but that doesn’t change my argument.) But let me ask you this: what would happen if you did not pay your property taxes to your local government? The answer is: the same thing that would happen to you if you did not pay your rent to your landlord if you were renting an apartment or house. If a government can kick you out of your house and off your land if you don’t pay them, then you have the same relationship as a renter has with a landlord. How can the government throw you off your land unless the government is in fact the true owner of the land in question?

In other words, so long as there are property taxes, it is the government, and not the individual, who owns the land the individual occupies. The true owner of a piece of property can, of course, do with their property whatever they wish – and this is the true justification for all of the regulations of our various property. So long as there are property taxes, we do not in fact have private property – or true property rights. We are just renters paying the landlord.



Bio:  Troy Camplin is a consultant at Camplin Creative Consulting and an independent scholar.

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