The notion of property rights is often considered or treated, even by proponents, as some separate conceptual set of things – something that can be treated, somehow, separately from the deepest existential consideration of the human life: whose right is it to decide what the individual does with his or her life and time on Earth?

While this might sound rather esoteric and ambitious as an ideological contention, the briefest philosophical consideration of the first-principle foundations of property rights reveals the depth of the roots of property rights in the soil of human endeavour and choice. Without relying on anything the opponents might dismiss as ideological or philosophical special pleading, let’s see where the simplest reasoning on this topic can get us.

Your life is yours

Working from the fundamental assumption that your life is yours and no-one else’s cannot be contentious. If it is not, the cans of worms and sea monsters opened by the negation of this fundamental statement are all-encompassing and threaten to lead us down every single rabbit hole. If you are not the owner of your time, who is? The people venturing an answer to this have their work cut out building any sort of stable societal consensus on which a constitutional democracy or anything resembling a modern government could be constructed.

Almost anything falling short of an essentially individualist endorsement of an individual’s holding ownership, if not as manifestation of power, then at least as manifestation of responsibility over his or her own life, must unavoidably invoke Hobbes’s Leviathan. Whether clerical, cultural, or chaotic, if the individual is spectator rather than protagonist in his or her own life, any other protagonist will be powerful beyond constraint and unaccountable beyond comfort – an earthly entity of such extensive power as to make slave-owners and gas chambers seem tame.

If we are then to accept, even if for no other reason than the enormous consequences of the alternative, that your time is yours to do what you choose, short of harming that same freedom of others, the implications are significant. If your life is yours and no-one else’s, it means the decision of what to do with your time and talents is yours and no-one else’s.

This means what you earn from your time and talents is yours and no-one else’s.

This means what you buy with what you earn and own is yours and no-one else’s.

Ultimately, this means that the issue of your property rights is actually about whether your life, your time, your talents, and your earnings are yours and no-one else’s.

Importance and significance of property rights

To escape the moral enormity of the denial of the importance and significance of property rights requires the denial of one of these key points of fundamental logic: that your property is, at the very least, that which you choose to spend your life and time and talents earning.

I am put in mind of what Robert Mugabe said on 27 January 1980: “We will not seize land from anyone who has use for it. Farmers who are able to be productive and prove useful to society will find us cooperative.”

This statement, for its cold familiarity and precursor of Zimbabwe’s woes to come, should send shivers down the spines of all South Africans. For us, who’ve been following the events leading up to this point where Parliament, under the dominance of the ANC of course, is blindly steamrolling ahead with its constitutional vandalism and decimation of property rights, this Mugabe-like assurance rings all too familiar and all too hollow.

Yet, we’ve seen prominent academics and media personalities paving the way for the fundamental devaluation of property rights by meekly, maliciously, or misguidedly accepting this type of dangerous reassurance. What acceptance of this type of assurance illustrates is the willingness of opponents of property rights to accept as fact the assumption underlying all antagonism and apathy to the security of property rights: that property rights can be (mis)treated as some bundle of socio-economic privilege, rather than a core manifestation of the right of any individuals to have ownership of what they do with their lives and talents.

Abstractions

Now, it’s easy to fall into the abstractions of political theory and its extrapolations. In fact, think-tanks are often accused of exactly this. This often-valid criticism considered, it must be accepted that the most destructive action did not take place without a chain of events with the abstraction of an idea as catalyst. Neither apartheid, nor slavery, nor the gas chambers erected themselves as monuments of the banality of evil without the architectural underpinnings of principles arrived at from fundamental assumptions.

Do not mistake what I am about to say: I am not going to equate South Africa in 2021 with any of these historical events, nor argue that expropriation without compensation is equivalent to apartheid, slavery, or the Holocaust. Bear with me as I merely point out the fact that horrific actions follow from horrific policies that follow from horrific ideas that follow from horrific fundamental assumptions.

While it is as easy as it is lazy to criticise proponents of property rights for seeking to protect property rights in the interests of some group or the status quo, the opponents of property rights and their accomplices would be better off explaining to people why they make the fundamental assumption that individuals deserve something close to zero sovereignty over their own lives. If the agitators and constitutional vandals seek to deny the property rights of a person, any person, they bear the onus of explaining why that person has the weakest right to his property, therefore the weakest right to the fruits of his time and talents, therefore the weakest right to consider himself the author of his own life.

To seek the decimation of property rights is not to seek the reallocation of some bundle of socio-economic privileges, but something fundamentally more sinister, something that has led to the most horrific evils of political and policy decisions: the devaluation of the life of the individual. To devalue property rights, you cannot but devalue the individual and the human dignity of choosing how to live out one’s time on earth.

Human dignity

To cut a long story of philosophical extrapolation short: you cannot abolish property rights without diminishing the individual in her or his own life. Is this not the heart of what we mean when we speak of human dignity? If we as a country continue down this path of the destruction of property rights, we must be honest about what we are sacrificing: not some ill-gotten status or privilege, but the fundamental assumption of human dignity.

Sacrifice this, and history’s monuments to the banality of evil show us we’ve gone beyond the edge of the map – and here be monsters.

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