Private Prerogative

property right is the right of use and disposal over a given entity– physical or intellectual. It imbues its owner with full control over the element in question. Property rights are exclusive– one man’s full ownership of a given item precludes another from exercising use and disposal without his consent. Property rights are indivisible– attempts by other parties to coercively obtain the right to use but not dispose of, or to dispose of but accede the right to use a given piece of property result in disastrous consequences (see: the entire history of fascism). The reasoning in this concept, this definition and its corollaries is so perfect that it nearly echoes the three laws of logic as authored by Aristotle himself: the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, the law of excluded middle. Tragically, it is a concept which today is undercut by most people’s paltry understandings of its fundamental qualities. Their misconceptions of it can be found in nearly every day’s headlines if one is keen enough to discern them.

In the course of browsing through the national news yesterday, I came across two articles which would appear at first glance to share no particular concretes but were, perhaps, merely separate manifestations of the same basic philosophical error. Accustomed to many such inanities in politics today, I was tempted to let them go without commentary, but found it particularly significant that these errors are distinctly non-denominational and non-partisan– not limited to any particular group, belief, or ideology. Both are in regard to the nature of property rights.

The first story was a brief account by Fox News commentator Todd Starnes of how the state government of Pennsylvania has unnecessarily and preposterously involved itself in a dispute between a local restaurant and regional atheist groups.The errors observed in the article were not perpetrated by Starnes, who merely details the facts and allows the absurdity to stand on its own– which it should to any rational individual. Rather, the full measure of the irrationality rested with two parties: the groups making the complaints against the restaurant and the state government of Pennsylvania.

A local restaurant in Columbia, Pennsylvania recently came under fire when a local man, an atheist, complained to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Committee that the restaurant was providing ten-percent discounts to those customers who brought in bulletins from local churches on Sundays. In addressing this issue, it will be important that we all first and foremost set aside our religious affiliations, as they should have no bearing on the issue at hand. Be they theist or atheist, everyone should have respect for basic individual rights.

The man in question, described as a retired electrical engineer, is worthy of some consideration and I suggest measuring his words carefully, as it is rare that one should encounter in everyday life such a spirit of envy* as he displays. In explaining his reasoning, he clarifies, “I did this not out of spite, but out of a feeling against the prevailing self-righteousness that stems from religion, particular in Lancaster County… I don’t consider it an earth-shaking affair, but in this area in particular, we seem to have so many self-righteous religious people, so it just annoys me.” Just as beginning a lie with the preamble, “Honestly,” does not absolve one of guilt or restore your virtue, stating that one’s spiteful and envious actions are not done out of spite or envy changes nothing of the moral character of one’s actions.

Intriguingly, though his official complaint is against the business, the object of his animosity is its customers, whom he repeatedly deplores as, “self-righteous”. What is “self-righteousness”? It is the belief in oneself as good; self esteem based upon moral criteria. Though it is often used derogatorily in an era when admiration for the self is forever under attack, it denotes no other quality which would rationally provoke this man’s “annoy[ance],” nor can it be presumed that he requires any. Though he would try to couch his objections in a general distaste for religion or religious persons, his actions and sentiment stem purely from what Ayn Rand described as “the hatred of the good for being good.”

Fortunately, ours is a society whose social and political structure was initially designed to ward us against such mentalities by recognizing and securing individual rights. While enough of that structure is still in place to fend against pure, unadulterated democracy and mob rule in many instances, the state of Pennsylvania seems ahead of the curve in chipping away at those protections by means of a measure called the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. By order of the Act, no restaurant is permitted to discriminate based on religious affiliation or belief. As well-intentioned as such legislation may appear to be at first glance, I will rephrase it: by order of this legislation, no private businessperson is permitted to refuse service to any customer under terms disagreeable with those agreed upon by the state.

As deplorable as discrimination based on race, religion, sexuality, or other superficial quality may be, it is the right of any property owner– any business owner–  to use and dispose of their property as they see fit. This includes doing business however and with whomever they please on whatever terms both parties agree to. Laws and regulations to the contrary abrogate the individual rights of the property owners. Wrongful discrimination is immoral but should be countered with boycotting by any conscientious customer who concerns themselves with the character of parties with whom they do business.

That said, this instance was nothing close to discrimination of that kind. It was likely motivated in part by religiosity and in part by the motivations of any business promotion targeted to a certain niche. Churchgoers are a regular source of business for many restaurants all over America every Sunday afternoon. An after-church lunch may be the one meal a week when a whole family goes out to a restaurant together. The cost of such luxuries can be considerable to many families, so the appeal of a ten percent discount would make a solid incentive to draw in customers on a weekly basis. It is the prerogative of any business owner to engage in such deals to their own self-interest and should be the responsibility of any proper government to defend their rights.

Instead, the state government, responding to the man’s complaint and the ensuing endorsement from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, issued a sixteen page report to the restaurant owners notifying them of their violation of the Human Relations Act and, in later correspondence, suggesting not that they end the discount to church attendees, but that they sign a compromise extending it to all civic organizations in the town. To the credit of Pennsylvania, they are not pursuing such an irrational course alone. Their Human Relations Act is in keeping with a much broader context of state and federal anti-discrimination laws founded on the same basic errors. To illustrate the trouble with their reasoning, treating the state official’s recommendation to a reductio ad absurdum (which is a valid reasoning technique), if the town of Columbia, Pennsylvania should develop a chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, Nazis, Communists, or any lesser evil which was contrary to the moral convictions of these business owners, in the presence of such an agreement they would be legally obligated to subsidize the activities of their destroyers with discounted meals. When discrimination itself is outlawed, one is forbidden from discriminating not only on unjust terms, but just alike.

If one believes in property rights, one must, by necessity, believe in economic freedom— that is, the freedom to buy, sell, use, modify, and destroy property however one pleases in exchange with whomever one chooses. This is one severely abused corollary to property rights that is misunderstood by the moderate Left today, who would prefer to believe that one can maintain a society based upon private property in the presence of a state that taxes it away, dictates its permissible use to the owners in the name of “social justice”, or promotes the regulatory culture in our government that is strangling an economy already on its knees. There is another threat to private property, however, that began on the Left, but since then seems to show signs of emergence in an unlikely culprit: the presidential campaign and supporters of Governor Gary Johnson.

Again, it must be stressed that one’s sentiments regarding the persons and ideologies in question must be set aside for the purpose of this discussion. The actions in question should appear evidently flawed to any rational observer. I refer you to a release written by a Johnson supporter in the Southeast, but reposted approvingly by the Johnson 2012 website. It reads, in part:

“July 15 & 16, supporters of Gov. Johnson – and folks who just believe in fairness – are gathering at CNN Headquarters in Atlanta to let the network know that voters deserve the chance to learn that there is another choice in November besides President Obama and Gov. Romney.
People need to know that there IS a voice for social tolerance and fiscal sanity in the presidential race, and that voice is Gary Johnson.
This isn’t just about Gov. Johnson. And it isn’t just about CNN. If the major media organizations across the country don’t even include Governor Johnson in their polls, much less their coverage, millions of Americans who are ready for a third choice in 2012 will be robbed of their opportunity to be heard.
We want to let CNN – and all the other networks – know that we will not be shut out.” [emphasis mine]

I personally have no strong feelings about Gary Johnson. I see him as generally preferable to the existing alternatives and yet, in moments, so deeply flawed and confounding as to make his preferability vanish in a feat of utter ineptitude. He has that frustrating quality which one finds in someone so close to the right ideas and yet so far away. Regardless, this protest and its endorsement by his website may be just that– an act of campaign staffers which Johnson himself knows nothing of. Thus, I can’t credit or blame him directly for it. However, it shows signs of the same illogic.

The Johnson supporter appears, in the italicized words, to be operating on the same basic errors of the Leftists in Pennsylvania: the belief that some individuals or groups have a right to a certain manner of use of another party’s private property. To their great credit, the Johnson supporters are not calling for government to forcibly exact this debt on their behalf– that would not be much in keeping with libertarianism. By this alone, they are already miles ahead of the Pennsylvania state government and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Rather, they seek to engage in an honorable, very American means of persuasion: public protest. Up to this point, they have done no wrong, only sought to be heard in a political media environment that has not afforded them much exposure.

The problem arises when you look to the language utilized in their call to action. In the italicized portions, one can witness trace signs of a sense of deservedness in Johnson’s supporters. Voters “deserve” a chance to learn of their candidate, they argue. If not, they will be “robbed” and “shut out.” This, they contend, can plainly be witnessed by anyone who “believe[s] in fairness.” The underlying assumption which would appear to be present in this release is that CNN, a private company (or Time Warner if you prefer the parent company), owes the debt of its coverage to any political campaign that desires it.** If it does not afford this, they think of it as a crime against fairness, their birth right having been taken, an active policy to oppress and disenfranchise them. Fortunately, they stop short of calling it a “right”, but the sentiment is clearly closer to a belief that they have been “robbed” by CNN than that CNN is a private corporation with no obligations to make its services, facilities, or coverage available for any group that wishes to have them.

There is a stage short of full collectivism in which men may not attempt to exact what material satisfaction they desire from another by means of force, but may nonetheless feel entitled to it and cheated when they don’t receive it. They may not seek to extort what they want, but with no shortage of enthusiasm they will attempt to inspire unearned guilt in the minds of those who do not provide it to them willingly. It is a culture of entitlement. It is not in keeping with a full and appropriate respect for property rights. If Johnson supporters feel that their candidate is not receiving the recognition that he should, they should argue for him on the evidence, extol his virtues, recount their reasons for endorsing him more and louder every time, persuade men by offering value and not simply by taking it. They should remember that in the Republican primary elections in 2008, Ron Paul received a showing in the low single-digits, but returned just a few years later to be one of the last remaining contenders in that same primary race. His campaign achieved that progress not by stomping their feet in indignation and going on about what they deserved from others, but on what their candidate brought to every debate and every issue. Whether you agreed with him or not, perhaps no candidate in years has as boldly diversified the discussion on the American Right as the congressman from Texas.

Whether from the Left, the Right, or Libertarians, flawed perspectives on the not simply legal, but deeper, philosophical meaning of property rights are rampant. It is when one witnesses this as being so pervasive throughout the political spectrum that one realizes the primacy of philosophy over politics, the importance of understanding issues on a deeper, more fundamental level to avoid contradictions in one’s conclusions. As has been argued so often in these pages, if the current political trend in America is to achieve real and lasting success, it will be because we made it part of a larger moral framework, a broader system of thought and of belief, a philosophy grounded in certain unwavering core ideas: objective reality, reason, self-interest, capitalism.

*Why do I say “envy”? It is an imperfect term for the pathology I describe, but perhaps the best that English has to offer. I defer to its meaning and description provided by Ayn Rand in her essay “The Age of Envy” in which she defines it more clearly as “The hatred of the good for being good.”

** Intriguingly, this is the whole premise behind the Fairness Doctrine, the government-dictated terms of broadcast political discussions that was a bane on the First Amendment for much of the 20th century, and which most self-respecting libertarians would reject as prima facie evil.

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