Liberty and Property


Dr. Kelley is Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department at Vassar College.

Modern liberals, for years, have had a selective love of liberty.

In the realm of ideas, they defend the individual’s right to freedom of thought, to freedom of expression, and his right to choose the values he will live by. They reject state censorship, as well as "the enforcement of morals." Their approach is from the point of view of the individual, pitted against a state that tends toward oppression. In the realm of material production and exchange, however, they identify with the state, repudiating individual property rights, sponsoring economic regulations that cover the entire course of production, from the capital markets to the consumer’s hands. In a word, they advocate freedom in intellectual, but not in economic matters. But this distinction among realms is artificial; the doctrine based upon it is false; and its consequences in reality are self-destroying.

The source of rights, of man’s moral claim to freedom, is his rational nature. Reason is man’s tool of survival, his means of living. Human action by nature is rational action, proceeding from the mind of an individual. And freedom from coercion is a requirement for such action. A man cannot act on the basis of his mind if the will of another is interposed between his mind and his actions. Man has, therefore, a moral claim — a right — to freedom of action.’

Because freedom is a condition of human action as such, it is a condition for all human action. Indeed, the different rights, including the right to property and the right to liberty, merely specify different aspects of free action. The right to property is a recognition that man is not a disembodied spirit, that he lives in a material world and needs to make use of physical objects. The right to liberty is a recognition that man is not an automaton or an animal, that he must act on the basis of his reason, translating his ideas into reality. But the use of property and the use of the mind are not two different types of action; they are two different aspects of one type of action —human action. Each implies the other.

The Uses of Property

On the one hand, any exercise of liberty involves the use of property: a thought cannot be translated into reality without the physical means of doing so. And this applies to the expression of ideas as much as to any other sort of activity. The expression of an idea requires a physical medium — printing presses, airwaves, lecture halls. The right to express oneself must then include the right to acquire and use these media. A government which owned or controlled all the media, thereby abrogating individual property rights in them, would violate the right of expression. It is not merely that this government would be likely to restrict freedom of speech by restricting access to the media. Even if it allowed access to anyone who wished it, it could not recognize their right to access, since it owns the media. Freedom of access would be a privilege, on which the state could place any conditions it wanted. The same may be said for the moral choices that the liberal says we have a right to make freely, all of which involve the use of material goods.

On the other hand, any use of property is an exercise of liberty. The physical plant of a newspaper, publisher or university is an obvious example: its use is determined by the ideas which its owners wish to communicate. But the same is true of a steel mill, a bank, or the family plot of land —these too are used by their owners to realize their ideas. It is true that the latter are not expressing ideas; they have goals other than the communication of knowledge or opinion. But communicating an idea is only one form of acting on it. The industrialist, the financier, and the home-owner are acting on their judgment in using their property; they are expressing their ideas in action.

The Power of an Idea

Liberal intellectuals have shown a narrow insularity in restricting the concept of liberty to intellectual freedom, as if their own specialty were the only possible outlet for the mind. It is not. The discovery and communication of knowledge is one branch of production; but all production, regardless of the product, is an intellectual process requiring the producer to act consistently on his reason.

Correspondingly, freedom of speech and of the press are specific forms of liberty, with special relevance for the work of intellectuals; but there is no valid distinction in importance between these and other forms of liberty. Intellectual freedom is necessary because man needs knowledge of reality, and such knowledge is the product of independent minds. But material goods are no less important, and they too are the products of independent minds. An intellectual properly objects when he is prevented from speaking because someone else does not like the content of his thought. But exactly the same injustice occurs when a businessman is prevented from offering a new product, or completing a merger, or firing a worker. He is being prevented from translating an idea into reality because someone else does not like the content of his thought; he is being prevented from using his mind freely.

Thus liberal theory, in separating liberty and property, separates the inseparable. For this reason, liberal practice backfires: the regulation of the economy spawned by liberalism entails the regulation of ideas as well.

Consider, for example, the Federal Communications Commission. Under its power to regulate the broadcast media, it sets criteria that stations must meet to obtain and renew FCC licenses. These criteria include regulations on the content of what is broadcast. The Commission enforces the "fairness doctrine," for example, which requires broadcasters to give air time to opponents of views and politicians they have presented. The FCC also hears petitions from people who object to material presented on the air, and it has the power to revoke the licenses of offending stations. These powers are based on the liberal doctrine that the airwaves are a material resource that should be used in "the public interest." But the consequence is a substantial control over the ideas presented through this medium.

Medical Controls

Another obvious example is the regulation of medicine, which has mushroomed in recent years. The New York Times, noting "the increasing bureaucratization of medicine," points out that "today the Federal Register, with its daily avalanche of new rules and regulations, is the highest authority in American medicine."² Among other regulations, doctors are told how, where and at what cost they may treat patients, as well as which patients they must treat. The liberal justification for this is the material well-being of the patients. They overlook the fact that they are destroying the freedom of doctors to use their own minds, to disagree with the regulators, to try new products and techniques, in treating patients. In short, doctors are losing their intellectual freedom, just as if journalists were told by the government how they must write articles, where they may publish them and for what fee.

A more gruesome constraint threatens to arise over the issue of abortion. The Supreme Court recently ruled that a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy if she wishes, and that the state may not prevent her from doing so. In my opinion, the Court was right in this decision. But of course it does not mean that doctors and hospitals are legally obliged to provide abortions. Yet there are signs of a movement to enforce such an "obligation." According to the liberal doctrine of "economic rights," everyone has rights to have — not to acquire by voluntary exchange, but to have provided them — various economic goods that are considered necessities. If abortions move into that category of goods, liberals will doubtless argue that doctors and hospitals may not refuse this "right" to women desiring abortions. This would all be in the name of purely economic welfare, of course. But consider the violation of liberty involved. Some doctors are morally opposed to abortion, regarding it as murder. One may disagree with them entirely, but surely there is no more hideous form of tyranny than forcing someone to commit what he regards as murder. Yet this is the implication of an "economic right" to abortion.³

A final example is the subsidies to artists, writers and academics granted by such government agencies as the National Endowment for the Humanities or the various state councils on the arts. These subsidies constitute an establishment of ideas and artistic trends; and they should be prohibited for the same reason that the state is prohibited from establishing religion. Liberal proponents of the grants argue that they are designed to support the artist or the intellectual, not to support his art or his ideas. They are supposed to be a specialized form of welfare. But why are such grants felt to be necessary? Because the beneficiaries could not otherwise support themselves by their work. And why is that? Because the public, exercising its judgment about their work, will not voluntarily support them by buying their products or contributing money to them directly. The government policy of subsidies is a way of reversing these judgments by force (through taxation). The taxpayers have tastes, standards, and values; they express them through purchases of art-works, books and theater tickets; their money is their means of expression. By confiscating the means, the government violates their freedom of expression.

So far as one can tell, the liberal sponsors of these regulations were not aiming at thought control. Liberals generally place themselves on the side of reason and the individual’s freedom to use his mind, and they seem genuinely outraged at any violation of that freedom. This in itself is an interesting comment on the liberal philosophy. It implies that in their view the use of property does not require the use of the mind; that there is an utter gulf between an intellectual world of ideas and a material world of commerce. Despite its alleged modernity, liberalism is caught up in a mind-body dichotomy with which Plato or Augustine would have felt quite at home. Nevertheless, industry and commerce are works of the mind, requiring as much disciplined, rational thought as a scientific discovery. The liberal bureaucracy that regulates this work is regulating the minds of men.

A Systematic Attack

Beyond these actual violations of liberty, moreover, the liberal doctrine has opened the door to precisely the sort of conscious, systematic attack on liberty from which liberals themselves would recoil. Many extreme leftists have lost any attachment to intellectual liberty; they are prepared to suppress the opinions of those who disagree with them. But no Western country would yet tolerate an explicit censorship of ideas. The left must therefore proceed by indirection, covering its tracks as it seeks control. The liberals have offered them the perfect device. Because of the connection between liberty and property, government controls over the expression of ideas can be disguised as common and familiar controls on property. Modifications of established economic controls can be used to silence dissent. Thus the liberal precedent of a regulated economy may help bring about the regulation of ideas as well.

Canada and Britain have recently furnished examples of how this works. In Britain, the issue is one of labor law. Under the Conservative government of Edward Heath, the closed shop had been banned; but the Labor Party, returned to power last year, is moving to restore it. If they are successful, the government would back the closing of a shop, making union membership a condition for employment. This in itself is a fairly typical form of labor law. But it is being put to a new use. The National Union of Journalists, "an increasingly militant union,"4 insists that a closed shop in a newspaper must include editors and writers as well as other staff: the former must join the union, take part in union-authorized strikes, and refuse to publish non-union writers. (This could even prevent publication of letters to the editor from non-union writers.) And part of the reason for the union’s militancy on the issue, it seems clear, is a desire for control over editorial content. In a country where the social issue is the power of the unions over the economy, this would give one party to the dispute control over what may be said on the issue.

The Canadian case involves a technical matter of tax policy. The cost of advertising in the print media can normally be deducted as a business cost for tax purposes. Ten years ago, Canada restricted this deduction to advertising in Canadian publications, but allowed the Canadian editions of Reader’s Digest and Time (and a few smaller magazines) the same conditions as their Canadian competitors. A bill has recently been introduced in the Parliament, however, that would terminate this allowance. If passed, the cost of advertising in the American magazines would not be deductible, thus effectively doubling that cost. Spokesmen for Time and Reader’s Digest say they could not continue in business. Nevertheless, the bill is expected to pass.

The new legislation appears to be nothing more than a modification of established policy. That is the point. An established precedent serves as the vehicle for a new intent: to regulate ideas. The nationalist sponsors of the bill resent the American "cultural influence" represented by these magazines. In regard to Time, the nationalists object that it "gives Canadian readers a view of the United States and the world through the eyes of American editors writing in New York.”5 Thus the government’s tax policy is to be used to censor views that certain groups disagree with. The intention is to keep from the eyes of Time’s large Canadian readership a set of opinions that their government finds unsuitable. This is an open, explicit attack on the freedom of the press — on the right of liberty — but it is masked as a simple matter of taxes.

Advocacy Advertising

A similar restriction on freedom of speech has been attempted within the United States government. Like the foreign cases, it seems minor in scope, but its implications as precedent are enormous. It concerns the recent phenomenon of "advocacy advertising."

The oil shortage of 1973 and 1974 brought with it an hysterical barrage of attacks on the oil and power companies, who were charged with causing the shortage in order to increase profits. To defend themselves, many of these companies used paid advertising space to explain the causes of the shortage and their own actions in regard to it. Some of them went further, to defend free enterprise, the legitimacy of profits, and the evils of government regulation. These advertisements provoked a new wave of criticism from liberal columnists, who argued that the companies were wrong on all counts.

In January, 1974, however, a group of three Senators and three Congressmen° tried to go beyond mere argument. The Federal Trade Commission requires that commercial advertisers must be prepared to document any claims they make about their products —a rule many liberals endorse as a protection of the consumer. The legislators petitioned the FTC to extend this rule to advocacy advertising. Citing advertisements by Exxon, Mobil, Shell, General Electric, and the American Electric Power System, among others, the petitioners claimed that the ads made "misleading claims about energy crisis causes and environmental effects of corporate activities."7 The companies, they said, should be compelled to prove these claims or else withdraw them.

Implications in Economics, Technology, Politics, Ethics

Consider the implications of this petition. The issues it mentions8 are among the most controversial of the day. They involve abstract questions of economics, technology, politics and ethics. And the petitioners want to prevent the expression of non-liberal opinions on these issues. They are saying, in effect: before a viewpoint may be published, the government must be convinced of its truth; if an advocate disagrees with the regulators, he must either change their minds or remain silent. This is censorship, an explicit attempt to suppress dissenting opinion. Even worse, the censorship was directed at the victims of government regulation, who were taking their case to the public. The petition was thus an attempt to prevent the victims of coercion from standing up for their rights.

The fact that the censorship was proposed only for advertisements is irrelevant. Other federal agencies have control over the other media of expression; the universities, because they receive federal aid, are increasingly coming under federal control; the precedent could easily be extended to all forms of expression. Indeed, if freedom of speech does ever die in this country, it is likely to happen in just this way: not choked off dramatically by jackbooted censors, merely smothered in a blanket of the sort of regulations we have grown used to. It is the more important, therefore, to recognize that this is censorship.

Fortunately, the FTC rejected the petition, arguing that advocacy advertising is protected by the First Amendment. According to Advertising Age, however, the Commission reserved the right to take action against such advertisements "if they are ‘unfair or deceptive,’ and their commercial effect outweighs First Amendment considerations." This means that the government claims the right to pass judgment on fairness and deception — i.e., on truth — in the discussion of controversial ideas. This constitutes a control over ideas. For this reason, at least one of the petitioners, Representative Benjamin Rosenthal, regarded the FTC decision as a partial victory.

These recent events represent a quantum step along the road to serfdom. Violations of property rights, which have become quite common, are implicitly violations of the right to liberty; and they are wrong not least because of that. But a restriction of the freedom of speech and press is an explicit violation of the right to liberty; and that is much worse. It is an open, naked attack on the source of human values, the source of independence, and the source of property — man’s mind. A campaign against man’s ability to act on the basis of his own reason is the crucial step in the collectivist assault on the individual. And it should be resisted as such. Advocates of capitalism should defend freedom of speech and press, and the right to liberty generally, above and beyond the issue of property rights.

But in the end the individual’s right to use his mind cannot be implemented, and certainly will not be safe, until his right to acquire and use property is acknowledged and protected by a limited government. For it is precisely the disregard of property rights that has opened the door to suppression of ideas. Human freedom is an integrated whole; no part of it may be destroyed without endangering it all. Communist totalitarians understand this: a guide to taking over a Western democracy, purportedly written by a Soviet Central Committee member, asserted that "The destruction of the private sector [of the economy] is the first step toward eliminating an independent press."¹º It is time that American liberals learned the same lesson.


1Ayn Rand, "Man’s Rights," The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: New American Library, 1964).

² New York Times, June 24, 1975. Editorial.

3 Most liberals, fortunately, would not carry their principles this far, but of. Lucy Komisar’s "My Turn" column, Newsweek, June 9, 1975.

4 Brian Wicker, "Unionizing the Editors," Commonweal, April 11, 1975.

5 New York Times, March 21, 1975.

6 Senators Thomas J. McIntyre, Frank E. Moss, and Birch Bayh; Representatives Les Aspin, Benjamin Rosenthal, and Andrew Young.

7 Advertising Age, May 5, 1975.

8 According to a story in the New York Times, May 1, 1975, the petition mentioned "environmental, political and public policy issues."

9 Advertising Age, May 5, 1975.

¹º The document was printed in space given by Le Quotidien de Paris to the editors of Republica, the Lisbon newspaper that has been closed by the left-wing Portuguese government.  


May 1987

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