The promise by politicians to protect the sanctity of private property is not exactly a new idea in American politics. It just got lost somewhere back there when environmental radicals started dictating how private land could be used, municipal authorities started using their eminent domain powers recklessly and lawyers became birds of prey, hunting for deep pockets to pick. That has been a dangerous trend, because the protection of private property has been fundamental to American economic and political development.
Alexis de Tocqueville in "Democracy in America" (published in 1835 and 1840) discovered the social value of property rights: "Why is it that in America, the land par excellence of democracy, no one makes that outcry against property in general that echoes through Europe?" His answer: "It is because there are no proletarians in America. Everyone, having some possession to defend, recognizes the right to property in principle."
Indeed, the Founding Fathers planned it that way. James Madison, perhaps the most influential politician in the design of the American Constitution, wrote: "That alone is a just government which impartially secures to every man whatever he owns."In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk put it somewhat more succinctly: "freedom and property are closely linked: separate property from private possession, and the Leviathan becomes master of all."
The freedom to accumulate property and use it as you wish does more than merely protect economic interests. Economic liberty, of which the rights of private property are the foundation, is a necessary concomitant of personal liberty—the two have almost always marched hand in hand. The pursuit of property has been a major factor in destroying arbitrary class distinctions, moreover, by enhancing personal and social mobility. At the same time, the manifest failure of socialist systems to deliver reasonable standards of living has undermined their viability as an alternative to democratic capitalist societies in which accumulation of property is a paramount societal goal. Accordingly, it seems fair to argue that the economic liberty to pursue and use property is an effective means for achieving a variety of moral ends.
Unfortunately, we live in a society in which neither party is fully committed to protecting private property rights. Both parties routinely infringe on property rights through taxation and regulation. At least since the Reagan Revolution, of course, the GOP has been the lesser of two evils on this score. If Bush is serious about creating an ownership society, however, he must convert the GOP into an affirmative friend of private property-promoting and protecting ownership by all (not just corporate elites).