The Inheritance Of Property Rights
by Mark Elam


Early in the life of our nation, even prior to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, "public land was generally perceived to be owned by the government, and as early as 1785 was offered for sale by government to the public. Under the Ordinance of 1785, which was largely the work of Thomas Jefferson, a land survey system was established and land was offered for sale at a minimum price of $1 per acre. The land was offered for sale at public auction, the only catch being that the auction was held only in New York City, the nation's capitol at the time.

Initially it was hoped that land sales would finance the costs of operating the federal government, however, this quickly proved to be little more than wishful thinking. The government in its infinite wisdom proceeded to flood the market with land for which there were no buyers, and offered the land for sale only in minimum quantities too large to be affordable or practical for farming at the time. Recognizing that there were problems involved in the terms of sale which were discouraging sale of public lands, the government decided that it would confront the problem head on and proceed to double the minimum price of land in 1796.

Over the next century the government made numerous changes in public land sales policies, some of which actually facilitated the sale or "disposal" of public lands. Despite these changes, and despite the fact that some land was given free under the Homestead Acts and in payment for military service, one central idea permeated the thoughts and actions of those who directed our government: this being that government was the owner and proper distributor of the public lands. Land was not simply held in trust by the government, but was owned and controlled by it. The memory of English violation of what the founding fathers referred to as the inalienable rights of life, liberty and property helped to minimize potential restrictions upon private ownership of property; nonetheless, government ownership of the public lands was still the predominant view. This view was evidenced by government sale of the public lands, government control over the terms of sale, and the government claim to the power of eminent domain.

There were some who departed from this view however. One of the few notable exceptions was Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who, among other things, was championed as a defender of squatters' rights. The squatters in this instance were not squatters on privately held property, but rather, pioneers who settled the public lands prior to their being SUNEYed and offered for sale. Benton held that land rightfully belonged to the people and was only held in trust by government until such time as it could be settled or productively used.

While Benton's views were not widely held by lawmakers at the time, they did represent an important concept in relation to Biblical teaching regarding the private ownership of land. Benton's view of land ownership and his sympathy for these so-called squatters was important not only because it emphasized the value of land to the individual but also because it recognized that property rights are derived from a source other than the state. Benton's view further recognized the value of labor, itself a form of property. The labor of the squatters, represented by the settlement and improvement of these frontier lands, correspond with the Biblical commandment to have 'dominion' over the land, and served as a form of payment for the land.

Biblically (as opposed to the humanistic "sovereignty" view of government) man does not own the earth, but rather holds it in trust as a "trustee to God". The right of private ownership of land, including the right to exclude others from its use, is reaffirmed on numerous occasions in scripture. The commandments "thou shall not steal" and "thou shall not covet", implicitly affirm the right of private ownership. It is difficult to square this fact with the claims of men such as Leo Tolstoy, an anarchist who professed Christianity and yet rejected private ownership. it is apparent to most individuals (if not to Tolstoy) that private ownership necessarily precedes the possibility of theft and covetousness. If nothing is owned, then covetousness and theft are impossible. Christ himself reaffirmed not only private ownership but also the rights of exclusivity and transferability when he said, "Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own?" (Mat. 20:15) Private property ownership is an inheritance of Gods law. The importance of private ownership and inheritance to the existence of the family can easily be seen in studying scripture. It is important therefore to consider the role which government plays in relation to property rights. If it is the state which has sovereignty over the land, then man serves as a trustee to the state rather than to God, and the potential for the limitation or denial of property rights is increased.

Government-created inflation is a critical modern day example of government violation, rather than protection, of property rights. By reducing the value of money through inflation, governments effectively steal property from their citizens, who have their purchasing power reduced by the amount of government debasement of the currency. Government ownership and control of a nation's money, as does government ownership of a nation's land, represents a tremendous potential for the abuse of individual property rights, for the violation of the biblical prohibition of theft. Unhappily, our federal government continues to provide us with abundant and painful examples of theft via both massive inflation of the currency and gargantuan legislative land grabs. We should expect little else of a lawless humanistic state governed by fallen and rebellious men.

For man to exercise economic and ultimately political freedom it is necessary that he be free to privately own and control property. As Madison points out in Federalist No. 10, property, humanly speaking, derives from the individual's use of his faculties, his mind, and property in its fullest sense includes ideas and beliefs as well as material things. Madison does not make it clear that property ultimately derives from the triune Creator, but Madison's desire to protect both material and non-material property against individual, group or governmental theft and destruction is essentially biblical in its refusal to distinguish between a man's thoughts and his actions, and in its desire to protect the material fruits of a man's just thoughts.

Protection of a man's property is essential to the preservation of his liberty under God. Thought is necessary to acquire and retain property, and control over one's property is the essential attribute of ownership. To the extent that the state usurps this right of private ownership (via expropriation or eminent domain) or restricts the ability of men to control their property (via property taxes, rent controls, and other regulations), it not only reduces economic freedom but also impinges upon the right and ability of individuals to prosper and to utilize their property for the glory of God.

The proper role of government in relation to property is necessarily limited to protecting the right of property ownership and use by individuals. The use of property is not unlimited, for God's law places certain limits on the uses which one can make of his property (murder and injury and theft are obvious examples). But the biblical role of government in relation to property is ordered by the fact that it is not the state, but God who ultimately owns the land and other property of men. And it is individual men who inherit property from God, together with the responsibility to exercise dominion over and replenish the earth, in order to prosper from the blessings of its godly use, and to glorify God — not the state.


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