It is often asserted by critics of the free-market economy that they are interested in preserving “human rights” rather than property rights. This artificial dichotomy between human and property rights has often been refuted by libertarians, who have pointed out (a) that property rights of course accrue to humans and to humans alone, and (b) that the “human right” to life requires the right to keep what one has produced to sustain and advance life. In short, they have shown that property rights are indissolubly also human rights. They have, besides, pointed out that the “human right” of a free press would be only a mockery in a socialist country, where the State owns and decides upon the allocation of newsprint and other newspaper capital.
There are other points that should be made, however. For not only are property rights also human rights, but in the most profound sense there are no rights but property rights. The only human rights, in short, are property rights. There are several senses in which this is true. In the first place, each individual, as a natural fact, is the owner of himself, the ruler of his own person. The “human” rights of the person that are defended in the purely free-market society are, in effect, each man’s property right in his own being, and from this property right stems his right to the material goods that he has produced.
In the second place, alleged “human rights” can be boiled down to property rights, although in many cases this fact is obscured. Take, for example, the “human right” of free speech. Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, then, there is no such thing as a separate “right to free speech”; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.
The concentration on vague and wholly “human” rights has not only obscured this fact but has led to the belief that there are, of necessity, all sorts of conflicts between individual rights and alleged “public policy” or the “public good.” These conflicts have, in turn, led people to contend that no rights can be absolute, that they must all be relative and tentative. Take, for example, the human right of “freedom of assembly.” Suppose that a citizens’ group wishes to demonstrate for a certain measure. It uses a street for this purpose. The police, on the other hand, break up the meeting on the ground that it obstructs traffic. Now, the point is that there is no way of resolving this conflict, except arbitrarily, because the government owns the streets. Government ownership, as we have seen, inevitably breeds insoluble conflicts. For, on the one hand, the citizens’ group can argue that they are taxpayers and are therefore entitled to use the streets for assembly, while, on the other hand, the police are right that traffic is obstructed. There is no rational way to resolve the conflict because there is as yet no true ownership of the valuable street-resource. In a purely free society, where the streets are privately owned, the question would be simple: it would be for the streetowner to decide, and it would be the concern of the citizens’ group to try to rent the street space voluntarily from the owner. If all ownership were private, it would be quite clear that the citizens did not have any nebulous “right of assembly.” Their right would be the property right of using their money in an effort to buy or rent space on which to make their demonstration, and they could do so only if the owner of the street agreed to the deal.
Let us consider, finally, the classic case that is supposed to demonstrate that individual rights can never be absolute but must be limited by “public policy”: Justice Holmes’ famous dictum that no man can have the right to cry “fire” in a crowded theater. This is supposed to show that freedom of speech cannot be absolute. But if we cease dealing with this alleged human right and seek for the property rights involved, the solution becomes clear, and we see that there is no need at all to weaken the absolute nature of rights. For the person who falsely cries “fire” must be either the owner (or the owner’s agent) or a guest or paying patron. If he is the owner, then he has committed fraud upon his customers. He has taken their money in exchange for a promise to put on a motion picture, and now, instead, he disrupts the performance by falsely shouting “fire” and creating a disturbance among the patrons. He has thus willfully defaulted on his contractual obligation and has therefore violated the property rights of his patrons.
Suppose, on the other hand, that the shouter is not the owner, but a patron. In that case, he is obviously violating the property right of the theater owner (as well as the other patrons). As a guest, he is on the property on certain terms, and he has the obligation of not violating the owner’s property rights by disrupting the performance that the owner is putting on for the patrons. The person who maliciously cries “fire” in a crowded theater, therefore, is a criminal, not because his so-called “right of free speech” must be pragmatically restricted on behalf of the so-called “public good,” but because he has clearly and obviously violated the property rights of another human being. There is no need, therefore, of placing limits upon these rights.
Since this is a praxeological and not an ethical treatise, the aim of this discussion has not been to convince the reader that property rights should be upheld. Rather, we have attempted to show that the person who does wish to construct his political theory on the basis of “rights” must not only discard the spurious distinction between human rights and property rights, but also realize that the former must all be absorbed into the latter. - Murray Rothbard