Provision #653: Property Rights

Laser Provision

Most people know of the most famous sentence in the United States Declaration of Independence, namely that people “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Most people do not know, however, that earlier documents and drafts asserted the Rights to “Life, Liberty, and Property.” It was taken as self-evident that people had the right to own things and to protect as well as to add value to what they owned. “Do not steal,” the eighth commandment of Moses, reflects that understanding. But property rights are a complicated guideline for living, and I invite you to read further to explore them more fully.

LifeTrek Provision

We’re in the midst of our series on Guidelines for Living and we’ve covered several of the most universal and obvious, including empathy, responsibility, solidarity, nonviolence, and honesty. Although expressed in different ways, these elements and values appear in virtually every version of “The Ten Commandments,” across every culture and creed, from the most ancient and religious to the most modern and secular. Even when these values are contradicted, such as in times of war, they are usually suspended reluctantly and with cause. People want to get back to them as soon as possible.

Today, however, I want to consider a guideline for living that is a more complicated and nuanced affair: respect ownership. In the six different versions of “The Ten Commandments” that I reprinted at the start of this series, only two explicitly site the rule: “Do not steal.” Both versions come from Jewish and Christian cultures. The other versions, if they talk about ownership at all, do so rather obliquely and with reference to other needs:

  • Be neither miserly nor wasteful in one’s expenditure.
  • Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person.
  • Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect.
  • Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good.

If you detect a certain discomfort around the notion of property rights in these other versions, you are on to one of the conundrums growing out of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. When starving people in dire circumstances steal food from razed buildings, are they to be condemned as looters or respected as survivors? If everyone has the right to “security of person,” to be “treated with respect,” and to “dedicate a share of their efforts to the greater good,” then perhaps “Do not steal” is not as clear cut a guideline for living as we might, at first, presume.

That said, even in Haiti there’s a huge difference between stealing for survival from razed buildings and stealing for gain from each other. My heart constricts when I hear stories of fit, young men muscling their way to carry off food and water meant for women, children, and the elderly. I grow even more discomfited when I read of rescue workers being stoned by volatile crowds. “Survival of the fittest” may be a tenant of natural selection, but it does not reflect and embody the guidelines that make life worth living. There is more to life than self-serving actions and personal-aggrandizement. Even in the midst of poverty and crisis there is a place for mutual respect and dedication to the common good.

This represents at least one way to understand the notion of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as being “unalienable Rights.” When Thomas Jefferson penned those words, arguably among the most famous in the English language, he was standing in a long tradition of Enlightenment thinkers, going back at least a hundred years to John Locke and others in the mid-seventeenth century. These thinkers wrote many treatises and essays regarding the notion of universal human rights and the role of government in protecting those rights.

Locke and others preferred to describe those rights in terms of “Life, Liberty, and Property.” The role of government, Locke held, was to preserve and protect those three fundamental rights, all of which were seen as inextricably interrelated. Little children let us know how that works. Often one of the first words a toddler learns, and one that is pressed into service gleefully, again and again, is “Mine!”. Even very young children have an emerging sense of connection between identity and property. When one gets threatened, the other gets threatened, and vice-versa.

Jefferson and the others who drafted the United States Declaration of Independence took things in a new direction when they substituted “the pursuit of Happiness” for the ownership of property. In making that change, perhaps they were anticipating the critique of Karl Marx, namely, that protecting and asserting property rights was mostly a way for the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. At least that’s one way to interpret the import of how the Declaration of Independence is worded. It challenges us to start asking larger questions as to what constitutes Happiness and how to pursue it in the context of society.

When I was visiting Hồ Chi Minh City in Viet-Nam last November, I was surprised to learn that Viet-Nam proclaimed its independence from French colonial rule in 1945 with those exact same words. The assertion of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as “inalienable Rights” was described as an “immortal statement.”  It was taken to mean that, “All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.” Since those Rights were being abused and denied under French colonial rule, Hồ Chi Minh and others asserted theProclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam. Just like in Haiti, it can be dangerous and revolutionary to push people beyond the brink of despair.

So property rights, when viewed from the vantage point of those universal Guidelines for Living, must be seen and set in the context of every other right. We do not have a right to property, no matter what. Our rights and the rights of others must coexist in mutually creative and life-supporting ways. When we assert our rights over and against the rights of others, we must consider factors other than selfish gain. We must also consider the question of the greater good and how we can best serve the world with our property.

I am pleased, therefore, that the world is responding to the situation in Haiti with such compassion and charity. Notwithstanding the issue of the world’s response to Haiti’s chronic poverty, it is right for the world to respond now. One country’s pain is every country’s responsibility. The recent, celebrity Hope for Haiti Telethon has raised more than $58M US and counting. 100% of those funds are being channeled to relief organizations, including those I mentioned in last week’s Provision, such as the Red CrossPartners In Health, and the United Nations World Food Programme. If you have not already done so, or even if you have and you want to do more, I  encourage you to participate in the effort.

The point here is simply to recognize that all people have a right to property at the most basic of levels. When subsistence-level needs go wanting, the “pursuit of Happiness” takes predictable form and urgency. When people are hungry, they want food. When people are thirsty, they want water. When people are naked, they want clothes. When people are homeless, they want shelter. When people are broke, they want money. When people are sick, they want health care.

Basics matter. It’s not possible for everyone in the world to have more than enough. Property rights cannot make that claim. It’s essential, however, that everyone in the world has at least enough. Property rights and the pursuit of Happiness assert that claim. Given that more than 3 billion people • about half of the entire human population • live on less than $2.50 a day, we are a long way from realizing the dream and protecting the right that everyone have at least enough. But the dream lives on and the right to Happiness will not be denied.

Coaching Inquiries: How do you understand your right to the property you own? How can you best use your property and resources to preserve and protect the rights of others? What fears do you have when you think of sharing your property with others? How can you reach beyond your fears to see the needs? Who embodies for you a happy and healthy relationship to money? How can you become more like them?

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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.

Thank you for today’s Provision, “Be Honest,” as well as the link to “Outsmart Your Brain.” What I really liked about today’s Provision is the way that you talk about the different perspectives or sayings on honesty, and what it would mean to bring those to life in our own lives. The link to Mandela’s leadership and approach to honesty was compelling. Thank you so much for all you to do to help us reflect and grow.

I just read my first Provision. You write with heart and beauty. I can see why you have so many followers. I am honored you shared my newsletter and that it touched one of your readers so positively. Thank you. I look forward to sharing your words with others, too. Here’s to our success with our parts in making the world a more connected, caring place to be.

I just saw the cover for your new book at I love it and can’t wait to read it!:) With peace, light and gratitude for all your wonderful stories from the heart. Your writing on honesty last week was very thought provoking! Thanks. 

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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