Years ago, H.L. Mencken noted that ‘every election is a sort of advance auction of stolen goods.’ Since then, the tendency for electoral politics to undermine property rights has grown exponentially. For example, current presidential candidates treat it as a bragging point to claim that the shower of benefits they promise is ‘paid for,’ even though that payment steals other people’s property, backed by government’s coercive power.
This widespread violation of America as ‘the land of the free’ requires returning to first principles. A good place to rediscover them is a book by one of America’s most famous authors: James Fenimore Cooper‘s The American Democrat. Cooper’s focus was defending private property rights against abuse by political majorities as necessary to defend our ‘right of self-government,’ long before democratic violations took the Brobdingnagian proportions they have now. His understanding, echoing our founding fathers, that ‘vigilance in the protection of principles is even more necessary in a democracy,’ is equally important today.
The rights of property [are] an indispensable condition of civilization…
If we would have civilization and the exertion indispensable to success, we must have property; if we have property, we must have its rights; if we have the rights of property, we must take those consequences of the rights of property inseparable from the rights themselves.
[I]t is a great mistake…to take sides with the public, in doubtful cases affecting the rights of individuals, as this is the precise form in which oppression is the most likely to exhibit itself in a popular government.
So long as there is civilization there must be rights of property, and so long as there are rights of property, their obvious consequences must follow. All that democracies legitimately attempt is…that it shall have no factious political aids.
[T]here is the safe and just governing rule … permitting every one to be the undisturbed judge of his own habits and associations, so long as they are innocent, and do not impair the rights of others to be equally judges for themselves.
As property is the base of all civilization, its existence and security are indispensable to social improvement …
The principle of individuality … lies at the root of all voluntary human exertion … because we know that the fruits of our labors will belong to ourselves, or to those who are most dear to us. It follows that all which society enjoys beyond the mere supply of its first necessities is dependant on the rights of property.
The first great principle connected with the rights of property is its inviolability…
[A]ll who love equal justice, and, indeed, the safety of free institutions, should understand that property has its rights, and the necessity of rigidly respecting them.
[M]an…is privileged to use his own means…in the pursuit of his own happiness, and they who would interfere with him, so far from appreciating liberty, are ignorant of its vital principles.
[P]roperty is an instrument of working most of the good that society enjoys … it encourages and sustains laudable and useful efforts in individuals.
Property is desirable as the groundwork of moral independence, as a means of improving the faculties, and of doing good to others, and as the agent in all that distinguishes the civilized man from the savage.
As between the public and individuals, therefore, the true bias of a democrat…is to take sides with the latter. This is opposed to the popular notion, which is to fancy the man who maintains his rights against the popular will an aristocrat …
The habit of seeing the public rule is gradually accustoming the American mind to an interference with private rights that is slowly undermining the individuality of the national character.
With the decline of respect for property rights since Cooper wrote, The American Democrat doesn’t read like current civics books. But Americans today would benefit from renewed attention to that ‘old school’ approach, rather than the dominant view today, which is to use government power to give majority coalitions whatever they want by blatantly violating the property rights of others.