CONSERVATION REPORT, Sept. 91 Storm Petrel1

Property Rights Vs Biodiversity Part I2

America's peculiar views on property rights?3 "You can't tell a man what he can do with his own land."

Behind many of the environmental problems we encounter is an implacable resistance to the idea that government, even with the consent of the governed, can interfere with property rights. A state forester once told me when I complained about a beautiful river that was trashed by a ridge-to-ridge 1000 acre clear cut, "Well you can't tell a man what he can do with his own land." It is easy to imagine that a person's irresponsible behavior could lead to the state taking away custody of his children, why is it so hard to imagine the state taking away a person's land because of irresponsibility towards his "property"? The idea that a person has the right to do whatever he wishes with his own land has become an impediment to both ecological balance and Biodiversity.

Biodiversity can be viewed in terms of who controls land; what it is to be used for; the rights of other species to "hold" property jointly with us; how control is to be apportioned; and the responsibilities and obligations of landowners and land stewards. Since economic criteria and values cannot measure aesthetic or biological values we also are groping for a new yardstick, which can bring into a common denominator a plurality of values. The present system that converts the value of wild fish into mere dollar values is an example of the completely obsolete and really obscene ways we are trying to measure ecological values with a financial yardstick.

The American View of Property Rights

Because of unique circumstances that existed at its creation the United States adopted a concept of property rights which, while possibly appropriate for the 1700's, has been totally outdated by the developments of modern industrial technology, particularly the mechanization of the extractive industries. At the time of the revolution the founding fathers had to develop a policy that would justify the existence of human slavery, protect private property even if the title was questionable, and establish the principles of liberty and democracy so that local landowners could control things instead of absentee ones. By mixing and matching political theories the founding fathers developed the original concept that the consent of the governed, acting through their government, could cancel preexisting British property rights without due process, but that once these rights were acquired no one could ever retake them. Property rights would underlie and supersede all other rights. Americans developed a way of thinking about property rights that derives from John Locke. His influence on the founders of the United States cannot be overstated. His ideas are the basis of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The inviolability of property rights, limited government, and the inalienable rights of individuals are all ideas taken from Locke. One of the most influential of Locke's ideas to be adopted by the founders of America is his view of the relationship of government and private property. Writes Locke, "The great and chief end therefore, of men's uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property..."

At the time of the revolution it was necessary to develop strong laws against ever having to give property back once it was stolen fair and square; after all that was a common way to get it in those days. Moreover, there seemed to be an unlimited amount of it around. The thinking was find your own land to steal and leave mine alone. The 1700's and 1800's in the United States were the biggest speculative orgy and land grab in the history of the world. A whole continent was up for grabs. George Washington was not only the father of his country but the mother of all land speculators and the grandfather of all developers.

The first few hundred years of this country were a constant struggle of people to take land away from the Native Peoples, the French, the English, the Spanish, the Mexicans and each other. During the revolution title to the estates of British sympathizers, who were majorities in some places like New York, were simply transferred to revolutionary officers and politicians. If at any time serious challenges to property rights were allowed they could have unraveled the whole social fabric of the country.

Also, if challenges to private property rights had been allowed to develop they could have threatened slavery that was practiced, even by the early presidents of the United States, under the legal rubric that slaves were legal property and you couldn't tell a man what he should do with his own property. Many people are under the misguided notion that the holding of human slaves in the United States was a phenomenon limited to the southern states where they were used to operate plantations. In the New York City of 1770 one person in 7 was a slave. It had more slaves than any other American city except Charleston, South Carolina. At the time of the first census in 1790 40% of the white households in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island reported at least one slave: 20% of the families in New York City were slaveholders. It should be noted that in 1669 John Locke helped draw up the constitution of Carolina, which accepted slaves as rightful property.

Times Change

The world of America in 1600 and 1700 when Locke' ideas were developed was much simpler. The biggest hole a person could dig was with a shovel and trees were cut down with axes. Since John Locke we have developed the chainsaw; heap leach mining; oil drilling platforms; the ability to alter the planet's weather; nuclear waste; and countless poisons, toxins and chemicals whose effect on man and nature, acting in combination or even singly, are totally unknown. It is more than a matter of scale to go from watering your stock from a river to running an outflow pipe from a chemical plant into it. Moreover, we have converted the entire process of communicating information about these matters to a mere byproduct of advertising, which is essentially controlled by the companies that have a vested interest in these matters.

Our concept of property rights was developed before humans had the ability to eliminate very many species; when neither modern technology had been invented nor the concept of evolution yet discovered. While downstream effects were causing sanitation problems in those days, there was no experience with Love Canals or extensive species extinction. People couldn't even think about the possibility of human technology being able to eliminate species, let alone be concerned about it. Between the time the theory of the evolution of species was worked out and the end of nature was reached was only about 100 years.

Whether one is examining foreign policy, domestic energy policy, or the extermination of endangered species, America's policies can always be predicted by first determining what is in the best interest of protecting the property rights of the strong in this country. That will be the policy to be followed. The only countervailing force will be American's susceptibility to claims for mercy. To be sympathetic to appeals for mercy, resistant to appeals for tolerance, and value property rights above all is a heritage we have inherited from Protestant Britain and John Locke.

to be continued [ed note: these ideas were more fully developed in the four "Consensus Papers"]

Kalmiopsis Audubon Society Receives Award

At its annual meeting in September the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) named our chapter as member organization of the year and presented us with a plaque which is on display at 'Neath the Wind" basket studio in Port Orford. In the presentation, note was taken of our activism in forest, ocean and land use issues during the past year.

  1. Kalmiopsis Audubon Society - Storm Petrel Newsletter
  2. Part 2 of this article
  3. America’s views of property rights was further discussed in the four-part “Consensus Papers” parts 1, 2, 3, 4, this article and also the dictionary.

#59, (v 1.3) 3/13/11

©1990 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.

Home | Consulting Services | Biography | Index of Writings | jim@britell.com