Why don’t Republicans take private property seriously anymore?
Democrats, after all, have had contempt for it for years. Wealth belongs to the state first, redistributed as they think best, and only then are you grudgingly allowed to keep some of what you presumably thought was yours. Democrats have always been more than happy to tell you what to do with your property. All in the name of a greater good, of course.
But Republicans? The ability of private individuals to acquire property in socially sanctioned ways, to trade among themselves so that all parties benefit, and to use their property as they see fit as long as they respect the same rights of others, these are all cornerstones of capitalism. A long time ago, capitalism was something Republicans actually cared about.
They had good reason to do so. Private property is a relatively new idea in human history, but once it took hold, it set off the largest increase in human prosperity since the invention of breathing. Prosperity, last I checked, is a good thing, worthy of defending by any political party.
Apparently private property is now out of fashion among Republican circles. Sure, defending your right to use your property is fine. It’s when that right is exercised by other people that principles go out the door.
For example, as I noted a few columns ago, the governor of Florida has banned private businesses from requiring COVID-related documentation from prospective customers. There in fact might be very good reasons why businesses may wish to restrict access to their property in that way. Some would have done so, some would not. There’s nothing pro-freedom about threatening businesses with jail if they don’t behave the way you want them to.
The same holds for supposedly anti-conservative bias on social media. Facebook and Twitter are immensely successful businesses precisely because they’ve enabled millions of people to communicate with one another regardless of physical location. That’s an incredible thing.
But do conservatives really want to go down the road of claiming a right to use the property of a social media company, because it’s now somehow essential to them? Because Facebook and Twitter are so big, they are now obligated to be “fair”? These are exactly the arguments liberals make to regulate businesses they want to go after. Is this the company conservatives want to keep?
David Frum recently wrote in the Atlantic about another example in my childhood state of Oklahoma. A private business there discovered employees were keeping firearms in their cars on the company lot, in direct violation of company policy. The offending employees were fired. In response, the Oklahoma legislature banned any business from imposing any restrictions on people carrying firearms in their cars.
It is one thing to claim the right to own a gun. It is quite a different thing to claim a right to bring it onto someone else’s property.
Private property is one way that societies can balance out complex issues like free speech and firearms risk, without government getting involved. A key part of private property is the idea that you have to respect the rights of others in how they use it. Even if you don’t like it. Even if they’re really rich. Even if makes you mad. No society has complete, absolute property rights, but the more prosperous ones take property rights very seriously. Clearly more so than many Republicans.
How the issue of private property will be resolved is at the core of the battle for the soul of the conservative movement and the Republican party.
Right now, property rights seem out of fashion on the right. What’s more important seems to be forcing property owners to do things conservatives want. If that’s different from liberals forcing property owners to do things liberals want, the difference escapes me.
If conservative Republicans go down this road, they will find they’ve made a Faustian bargain. What profits conservatives to gain the world, if they lose their limited government soul?
Barry Fagin is a senior fellow at the Independence Institute in Denver. His views are his alone. Readers can write Fagin at firstname.lastname@example.org.