Rethinking private property rights


by Richard E. Wentz

In Kenneth Graham's "The Wind in the Willows," Otter, Rat, and Mole are visiting with Mr. Badger in his home beneath the ground in the Wild Wood. Rat and Otter are busy with river-gossip, so Badger and Mole start sharing ideas about what is home.

There were badgers around these parts, says Mr. Badger, long before humans had planted their city here.

"People come they stay for a while, they build and they go. It is their way. But we remain. Now Mole, I know you've had some difficulty with some of the other animals here in the Wild Wood, continues Badger; however, we must live and let live.

"But I'll pass the word around tomorrow, and I think you'll have no further trouble. Any friend of mine walks where he likes in this country, or I'll know the reason why!"

Is it possible to have a home to call your own and still walk where you like? Only if the concept of private property changes from our rather naive notion that the land is a thing, an object to which single individuals can lay absolute claim.

From earliest times in colonial America we have assumed that land is potential wealth, something to accumulate as you might store up furs, corn, dried fish, pieces of gold or pretty crystals. It was assumed that land could pass forever into private hands, and that ownership of land could increase indefinitely if a person was shrewd enough or could justify the increases by the number of other things he owned, like workers or cattle.

In this way many people were kept in their places and complacently accepted the fact that the owner of considerable private property was a person to be honored. As a result we have always lived in this republic with a class system that contradicts our commitment to encourage the people "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility."

We cannot change the past. It may be that this persistent notion of private property was justified during the early centuries of our history, although there are certainly reasons for doubting it. It has meant that the task of politics has been to protect the right to compete for ownership of property.

The struggles between propertied and unpropertied classes have been misleading because everyone has agreed that the aim is to acquire property as an indication of wealth or power. This fact has made us a democracy of greed rather than a democracy of fraternity concerned with unity, justice and tranquility in a place where the land is the mother and sister of all life.

The point is, the understanding and practice of private property must change if we are to survive in this cosmos. We are at that state in human history where ownership rather than use of the land has led to conflict, oppression and terrorism in a world where we constantly want what we do not need.

Isn't it rather obvious that the land changes from place to place, from season to season? Everyone should be able to own what can be used to sustain life. For most of us the only direct use of the land is to provide a house as a home, the right to own a place to rest. You can use the land for its food, its fertility, its water, its place to provide a home. You can own those uses; you cannot own the land itself.

As Mr. Badger put it, "Up and out of doors is good enough to roam about and get one's living in; but underground to come back to at last that's my idea of home!"

The individual's right to private property must be balanced by the sacredness of the human community and its personal relationship to the land in which we live and move and have our being.

Richard E. Wentz is Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University and resides in Strawberry. He is the author of numerous books and articles and also is a professional storyteller. His column appears on the first and third Fridays of each month. Dr. Wentz welcomes comments and questions. Send them to the Payson Roundup at P.O .Box 2520, Payson, AZ 85547 c/o Richard E. Wentz.

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