On Rand Paul, Private Property, and What it Means to be a U.S. Senator (Short)


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[Note: This is shortened version of a longer post.]

Rand Paul, the Republican nominee  in Kentucky for the U.S. Senate, says he doesn’t support parts of the 1964 Civil Right Act (specifically, Title II).  To summarize, Mr. Paul questions  the right of government to dictate how private property is disposed and is therefore “ambivalent” about the parts of the act that deal with private businesses.

Mr. Paul seems to believe that “private” property just exists, on its own, independent of laws, governments and meddling politicians.  This view is naive and almost entirely incorrect.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment to illustrate the problem.  Let’s assume that 100,000 of us, just random people, are dropped into a pristine wilderness somewhere (I don’t know, maybe Wyoming?) and abandoned.  Imagine that a young republican type runs over to a nearby river (the only source of fresh water for miles) and announces that he “owns” the river (because he claimed it first).  Does he own the river?

In a letter to a contemporary, Thomas Jefferson wrote “Stable ownership is the gift of social law, and is given late in the progress of society.”  That was in 1813.  Lawyers and our court system have been busy defining what “ownership” means ever since.

Private property is defined into existence by “the gift of social law”–in other words, private property exists because we, as a society, have gotten together and defined it as such.

And this is where the hypocrisy starts.  Property rights are negotiated.  The process is messy and involves lobbyists, politicians, money, and complex arguments that are often reduced to sound bites, but it is a negotiation process nonetheless.  There is an endless list of companies actively trying to massage the definition of “private” property so that is slants in their favor.

Businesses can’t rely on society to define and enforce property rights, and then claim that society doesn’t have the authority to establish laws governing the disposition of that same property.

The problem with Mr. Paul is that he doesn’t seem to realize that part of the job description of a U.S. Senator is not only to set the basic ground rules of what individuals in society can do with their property, but also TO DEFINE WHAT PRIVATE PROPERTY IS IN THE FIRST PLACE (for example, see the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998).

If we, through our elected officials, don’t have the authority to define property rights, then who, exactly, does?  Should we wait for God himself to descend and decide who has rights to that bag of Cheetos in the lunch room (or to tell us that we should let blacks use the front entrance to the movie theater)?  We need people, now more than ever, who understand what it means to be a U.S. Senator.  Until Mr. Paul figures that out, he should lock himself in his hotel room until further notice.

About the author

Brent D. Beal is an associate professor of management in the College of Business and Technology at the University of Texas at Tyler. In his spare time, he enjoys debating religious and political issues, reading and writing short stories, playing Scrabble, and hanging out with his wife and their three kids.

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