When we think of private property rights (PPRs), most people think of
- “No trespassing” signs,
- A poor old grandmother getting her house stolen from her by the government,
or both of those things. But for most people, that’s about it.
That being said, we seem to have a very limited idea of what private property rights are, and, perhaps more importantly, which things violate private property rights.
As a result, I imagine a lot of the preparing LDers out there are thinking, “Needs of the public vs. private property rights? Eminent domain, of course!” but are stuck wondering, “How do I justify eminent domain to conservative, homeschool judges?” However, in this article I hope to broaden your topic horizon; I want to show that this debate can—and should—be about far more than eminent domain.
What are PPRs?
First, one needs to understand what a (general) property right is. According to the libertarian-leaning Library of Economics and Liberty (EconLib): “A property right is the exclusive authority to determine how a resource is used, whether that resource is owned by government or by individuals.” Put simply, it’s just the general right of ownership, whether by government or individuals.
Now, to add on the “Private” part (Again from EconLib):
“Private property rights have two other attributes in addition to determining the use of a resource. One is the exclusive right to the services of the resource. Thus, for example, the owner of an apartment with complete property rights to the apartment has the right to determine whether to rent it out and, if so, which tenant to rent to; to live in it himself; or to use it in any other peaceful way.
Finally, a private property right includes the right to delegate, rent, or sell any portion of the rights by exchange or gift at whatever price the owner determines (provided someone is willing to pay that price). If I am not allowed to buy some rights from you and you therefore are not allowed to sell rights to me, private property rights are reduced.”
In case this was confusing, the article sums it up as follows:
“[T]he three basic elements of private property are (1) exclusivity of rights to choose the use of a resource, (2) exclusivity of rights to the services of a resource, and (3) rights to exchange the resource at mutually agreeable terms.”
Now, I could leave it at that, but I should mention there is one extra dimension that some people include: they argue that private property rights include not only the right to possess property, but also the right to acquire it (at least through diligent, legal work. The article explains it far better than I can, and is a great overview of PPRs in general.).
Now personally, I question the validity or at least scope of this view, in part because it seems to open up PPRs to self-contradictions and in part because even Armen Alchian with EconLib didn’t bother mentioning it. However it is at least something worth exploring, and deciding on your own.
That dimension aside, what do these qualities translate to in application? It means that debaters can look at way more than just eminent domain. In fact, I’d suggest not even mentioning that as aff 😉
12 PPR violations that aren’t eminent domain
Some of these might be obvious once you think about it, but you may also be surprised at some of them.
- Antitrust (anti-monopoly) laws: by taking away property/business control from private companies, the government is violating private property rights. Simple.
- Quality/safety/health regulations on products/services. This one is not as intuitive, but nonetheless any requirements such as pharmaceutical testing, restaurant hand-washing, FDA food inspections, or even mandatory GMO labeling, violate the third aspect of PPRs. That is, it is preventing consumers from buying products on what would otherwise be mutually agreed terms. Without the government, they are consenting to buy and sell products that don’t have GMO labels.
- Regulations against insider trading: if a stockholder lies about having insider information to a potential buyer, that would be fraud and illegal, but currently our stock trading laws “violate” the third aspect of PPRs because buyers are not allowed to even knowingly buy stocks that are sold with insider information.
- Price controls, such as on apartment rent or medicine: this is for the same reasons as listed above (the third aspect of PPRs).
- Ownership/use restrictions: Drug laws that bar the possession and use of drugs like marijuana violate the first aspect of PPRs as well as the “right to ownership” aspect. Age limits for alcohol sale/consumption violate the first and third aspects. Even restrictions on stockpiling C4 technically violate PPRs’ ownership aspect, since that person hasn’t technically done anything to forfeit those rights.
- FCC regulations: that a radio or television station can’t broadcast obscene content even when listeners/viewers aren’t being “forced against their will” to observe, violates private property rights.
- Labor laws. This includes laws against child labor, as well as basic protection standards for workers in dangerous conditions (e.g. chemical plants). These violate PPRs because it prevents mutually agreed exchange of services (employment) for payment. That being said, laws against slave labor are not violations of PPRs.
- Production regulations/inspections: to be clear, chemical plants and other factories do not have the right to pollute with impunity, since that causes unconsented harm to others. However, the fact that they must consent to various inspections does violate PPRs. Similarly, the government violates PPRs in requiring permits for operation.
- Government influence/control in industries during times of war: by forcing the industries to do something with their inventory/equipment/resources that they do not consent to doing, PPRs are violated.
- Restrictions on discrimination: government prevention of negative discrimination against customers or employees based on race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. violates PPRs. WARNING: this could backfire on an affirmative.
- Zoning laws, such as on the county level. This violates the first aspect of PPRs, in that a person’s use of property can be limited to certain activities, such as residency or commerce.
And last but not least, what would be a killshot to an unsuspecting negative:
Indeed! By taking a person’s property from them without their consent, taxes do in fact violate PPRs. Don’t believe me? Take it from the Libertas Institute.
What does all of this mean, you may ask? Put simply, it means that negatives are in a good bit of trouble. The fact that even things such as taxes violate PPRs means that PPRs are not as inviolable as negs might try to argue; you can quote all the philosophers you want, but unless you can convince the judge that
- Taxes are more harmful than beneficial, or
- Somehow this discussion of taxes is not very relevant
Then you will not be able to win rounds. It’s that plain… or is it?
The neg side
You are pretty much left with arguing option B: that valuing PPRs does not mean despising taxes—that the two are compatible. Unfortunately, as of right now I only see one line of argumentation (but where would the fun be if I gave a perfect solution?). Here it is:
- “All of those things do not violate private property rights, because you implicitly agree to the government-governed social contract to reside in that country.
- Everyday examples:
- Imagine a physical, everyday contract; you can’t say your rights have been violated if there is something on that contract you don’t like, but you signed it because you liked other things in it.
- Imagine living in a certain neighborhood which has certain homeowner association requirements. You can’t say your property rights are being violated when they prevent you from crafting garbage sculptures in your yard; you agreed to a homeowner-neighborhood contract that you “void your right to sculpt creations—appealing or not—from refuse and/or waste, on or off your property.”
- Your rights are only violated if the other person coerces you against your will to do something—if you had no choice in the matter.
- In the same way, you can’t choose to reside in a country—partaking in the public goods of security, justice, infrastructure, etc.—but then claim that your rights are violated when the taxman comes.
- Thus, a PPR violation would only be if the government acts in a way that is not in accordance with its laws (e.g. it takes your property without just compensation as required by the Fifth Amendment), or if a non-government actor takes your property without your consent.”
It just gets deeper
This issue can—and will—go back and forth repeatedly; I only detailed a single layer of refutation. An affirmative might come back and say “The fact that you can’t go somewhere to avoid this kind of government rule means ‘your rights have been violated’ (oh dear) because you have no choice in the matter.”
A neg might come back and say “Regardless of whether there is or isn’t a ‘no-government zone,’ nobody would want to live there because it is total chaos without consenting to a government-governed contract. Thus, the amount of PPRs that are actually violated is minimal to none. We are left to debate issues of serious violations, such as eminent domain abuse….” And so on the issue goes.
This all being said, an aff has the opportunity to make a very compelling case that PPRs are overrated, since actually trying to uphold them (by not charging taxes or making any regulations) is extremely impractical, to say the least. This goes along with the first of the takeaways:
- For the affs: You don’t need to just make this debate about eminent domain; there is so much more depth when it comes to PPRs. With this depth (arguably) comes more weaknesses than strengths, and you should look to expose these weaknesses in PPRs.
- For the negs: Without proper preparation, your debates will boil down to examples debates of “Eminent domain is bad” vs “Maybe… but we need taxes, so aff wins.” You will probably lose this debate (unless you have Ron Swanson as your judge, or just some other wacko-libertarian who thinks taxes are from Satan). Thus, you need to be prepared to delink certain examples (e.g. taxation) from violations of PPRs.
- Another for the negs: don’t try taking an “Ends don’t justify the means” stance towards this issue… It’s likely not going to play out well unless you think somehow you can convince the judge that “peaceful” C4 ownership should be legalized, monopolies should be left alone, taxes should be banned, and so on, all out of “moral rightness.”
This article is just one among a series that is being done on the Stoa LD resolution topic. Wyly already wrote an article that more deeply explores the history and importance of PPRs. In that regard, you may want to subscribe to make sure you don’t miss anything new on this or other great speech and debate related topics. But I’m not coercing you to… that would violate your rights 😉