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Human Rights are
More Important than Property Rights

by Paul L. Poirot


property rightsIt is not the right of property
which is protected, but the right
to property. Property, per se, has no
rights; but the individual-the man-has three great rights, equally
sacred from arbitrary interference: the right to his life, the
right to his liberty, the right to his property . . . . The three
rights are so bound to together as to be essentially one right. To
give a man his life but deny him his liberty, is to take from him
all that makes his life worth living. To give him his liberty but
take from him the property which is the fruit and badge of his
liberty, is to still leave him a slave
U.S. Supreme
Court Justice George Sutherland.

Tricky phrases with favorable meanings and emotional appeal are
being used today to imply a distinction between
property rights and human rights.

By implication, there are two sets of rights-one belonging to
human beings and the other to property. Since human beings are more
important, it is natural for the unwary to react in favor of
human rights. 

Actually, there is no such distinction between property rights
and human rights. The term property has no
significance except as it applies to something owned by someone.
Property itself has neither rights nor value, except as human
interests are involved. There are no rights but human rights, and
what are spoken of as property rights are only the human rights of
individuals to property. 

What are the property rights thus disparaged by being set apart
from human rights? They are among the most ancient and basic of
human rights, and among the most essential to freedom and progress.
They are the privileges of private ownership which give meaning to
the right to the product of one’s labor-privileges which men have
always regarded instinctively as belonging to them almost as
intimately and inseparably as their own bodies. Unless people can
feel secure in their ability to retain the fruits of their labor,
there is little incentive to save and expand the fund of
capital-the tools and equipment for production and for better

The Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution recognizes
no distinction between property rights and other human rights. The
ban against unreasonable search and seizure covers “persons,
houses, papers, and effects,” without discrimination. No person
may, without due process of law, be deprived of “life, liberty or
property”; all are equally inviolable. The right to trial by jury
is assured in criminal and civil cases alike. Excessive bail,
excessive fines, and cruel and unusual punishments are grouped in a
single prohibition. The Founding Fathers realized that a man or
woman without property rights-without the right to the product of
his own labor-is not a free man.

These constitutional rights all have two characteristics in
common. First, they apply equally to all persons. Second, they are,
without exception, guarantees of freedom or immunity from
governmental interference. They are not assertions of claims
against others, individually or collectively. They merely say, in
effect, that there are certain human liberties, including some
pertaining to property, which are essential to free citizens and
upon which the state shall not infringe.

Now what about the so-called human rights that are represented
as superior to property rights? What about the “right” to a job,
the “right” to a standard of living, the “right” to a minimum wage
or a maximum work week, the right to a “fair” price, the “right to
bargain collectively, the “right” to security against the
adversities and hazards of life, such as old age and

The framers of the Constitution would have been astonished to
hear these things spoken of as rights. They are not immunities from
governmental compulsion; on the contrary, they are demands for new
forms of governmental compulsion. They are not claims to the
product of one’s own labor; they are, in some if not in most cases,
claims to the products of other people’s labor. 

These “human rights” are indeed different from property rights,
for they rest on a denial of the basic concept of property rights.
They are not freedoms or immunities assured to all persons alike.
They are special privileges conferred upon some persons at the
expense of others. The real distinction is not between property
rights and human rights, but between equality of protection from governmental compulsion on the one hand and demands for the
exercise of such compulsion for the benefit of favored groups on
the other.





  • You own yourself and you own those material things you’ve
    created or traded for freely with others. These are rights to
    property-property in yourself and in your possessions-and cannot be
    separated from human rights.
  • America’s Founders made no distinction between “human rights”
    and “property rights” for good reason: there aren’t any. They are
    one and the same.
  • Your right to what’s yours is very different from a claim on
    the person or property of others.
  • For further information, see:


“Human Rights Are Property Rights” by Murray Rothbard:

“The Primacy of Property Rights and the American Founding” by
David Upham:

“The Property Basis of Rights” by Clarence B. Carson:

“Freedom or Free-for-All?” by Lawrence W. Reed:


(Editor’s Note: This essay was first published in 1962. Paul
L. Poirot was a long-time member of the staff of the Foundation for
Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman,
from 1956 to 1987.)





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