Imprimis

Property Rights and Religious Liberty

Larry P. Arnn
President, Hillsdale College


Larry P. ArnnLarry P. Arnn is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to 1980, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American EducationThe Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution; and Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government.



The following is adapted from a speech delivered on October 16, 2015, in Omaha, Nebraska, at a Free Market Forum sponsored by Hillsdale College’s Center for the Study of Monetary Systems and Free Enterprise.


What is it about the family that stands in the way of the socialist project? My wife was born to an old English family. It has a long history and has been in the same part of England forever and ever. Compared to that I am a mongrel. I was raised in a small town in Arkansas, and my family was not wealthy. But on the other hand, my dad went to college, and he loved to read books. He became a schoolteacher. My mother was proud that she was valedictorian of her class—dad was only salutatorian—and she too loved books. So there was always someone around to read to me and encourage me to read. And there were always books around to read. That is a blessing, but it is not a blessing that everybody enjoys—and that is perceived as unfair. The president of France has proposed in that country that homework be outlawed, because it is unfair that some parents but not others help their kids with it. Along the same lines, the U.S. Secretary of Education recently said that there are so many broken homes in the inner city—broken families that are subsidized of course by government policy—that we are going to have to think about building dormitories in which to raise the children. Think what this means for the liberal state, if it commits itself to an engineering project to take over childrearing and make everything equal—to remake society on a scientific basis.

The British Fabians wrote about this extensively. They believed that if we could get competition out of society, society would become more productive. People’s talents would be liberated from the necessity of trying to outdo each other. Writing in the late 19th century, they saw that a scientific revolution was beginning to transform our relationship to nature. It occurred to them: why not take the techniques and attitudes of science and apply them to the governance of human beings? Only by that means, they thought, could we put this conflict over inequality behind us and set everything right. That is the plan of the Fabians in Britain and of the Progressives in America. That is the reason the government of the United States grew to a multiple of its previous size over two generations—the idea that if we put experts at the center we can make things more rational, and poverty and strife and envy can at last be mitigated.

Of the greatest statesmen in history, Churchill is the only one to witness this attempt to apply modern science to human affairs—an attempt that entails a massive increase in state power and is accompanied by the understanding that to make everything better, we are going to have to control everything about the human being. And for one thing that means replacing religion with science, which is why Marx excoriates religion as the opium of the people—opium in the sense that it teaches the masses to abide their pain rather than do something about it, to put off to the next world a gratification that is possible in this one.

Churchill was among the first to see this new ideology put into practice, but he was following a long tradition in understanding the connection of property rights to the right of conscience and religious liberty. James Madison wrote an essay on property in 1792 in which he connects property rights to all human rights, including freedom of religion, speech, and the press. Madison defines property as “every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right, and which leaves to every one else the like advantage” (emphasis in original)—the italicized words distinguish the natural rights of the Declaration of Independence from the kind of rights proclaimed by socialism, such as the right to a guaranteed income or to free education, which by definition make claims on the property of others.

Madison continues:

In [one] sense, a man’s land, or merchandise, or money is called his property. In [another] sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person.

Here Madison refers to the freedom not to be killed or injured or enslaved as “a property very dear.” And then immediately following this he writes: “[A man] has an equal property”—equal to the right not to be killed—“in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them.”

Madison’s point rings in every corner of the American Revolution: give me liberty, and especially liberty of the mind, or give me death. And this liberty is inseparable from property rights. Thus Madison concludes: “In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”

Madison’s broad definition of property is based on the understanding of the integrated human being that I began with—the human being as consisting of a body and a soul. Think of the prime moral virtues, the first of which is courage, which has to do with the right disposition toward pain and danger. As bodies, humans feel fear and pain as much as horses and dogs—but as integrated beings they understand that there are things for which they must risk their lives. Cowardice is shameful because we humans know that some things are more precious even than our lives. The second prime virtue is moderation, which is the correct disposition of the soul toward pleasure. As bodies, we are seduced and tempted all the time; but in every action we take, our souls are set as judges over our desires. In other words, the testing place for human beings is in this connection between the body and the soul; we are good or we are bad, and therefore we are happy or we are unhappy, according to how we regulate that connection. Understood properly, then, to do away with the right to property would be to deprive us of the foundation upon which we exercise our humanity.

In our age, this foundation of our humanity is under attack by the combined forces of modern science and modern ideology. Churchill saw this with breathtaking clarity as a very young man. He saw it first in warfare, where the power of modern science to destroy as much as to save first became apparent. At the turn of the century he fought in Sudan against the Dervish forces of the Mahdi—the great-grandfather of a current Imam and former prime minister of Sudan, and the founder of what was probably the first Islamic state. Churchill wrote about this in a book called The River War. He despised the enemy and wished their defeat, but at the same time he described the way they were defeated—mowed down with machine guns and artillery from a distance, they themselves having no such weapons—as cruel and unfair. And he lamented that courage in the future will not count for so much on the battlefield—that in the past it was the bravest who tended to win, whereas now it is the ones with the most advanced weapons.

Churchill saw corresponding dangers confronting humanity in peacetime, in the form of socialism. In the same way that men had transformed their ability to kill, they were transforming their ability to impose tyrannical rule. The proof came about for all to see in the two great tyrannies of the twentieth century, Nazism and Soviet communism. Never had anything like them been seen before, and Churchill thought they were the same kind of thing and hated them both. One thing he hated about them was their war on independent thought. Not even family dinners were uncontrolled, because the children were taught by the state to act as witnesses against their parents. Prayers and table talk were dangerous.

Tyranny is not stable, because human nature rejects it. What does it take to make tyranny live? The fifth book of Aristotle’s Politics teaches us that tyrants seek to wear down every excellence in society and to obstruct friendships, especially friendships among the best people, on the principle that if they degrade everyone then people will submit. What is Big Brother’s target in George Orwell’s 1984? Not just people’s property—it is all of the qualities that make up the full or integrated human being. Speaking of the Bolsheviks, Churchill said that they had perfected a kind of government that was not exactly like that of the honey bees, because it could not produce honey; rather it was like the government of white ants. But Churchill also believed that the Bolshevik way of ruling was only an extreme form of something that was growing up in the Western democracies as well.