Civilizing the Economy A New Economics of Provision

Civic Liberty vs. Property Liberty

Posted Jan 9, 2011 by Marvin Brown in Uncategorized, 1 Comment

Libertarians come in different stripes, and the differences largely depend on their foundation.  Some have their origin in the peculiar Anglo-American tradition of grounding liberty in property.  Some others see liberty as a civic right guaranteed by the Constitution. The American Civil Liberty Union, for example, seeks to defend and preserve the rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution and Laws of the United States.  The rights to due process, to equal treatment under the law, and other Constitutional rights are based on membership—a member of the political/civic community.

This civic tradition of liberty, however, has been largely overshadowed by a property-based view of human freedom.  This tradition of libertarianism believes that liberty is control over one’s property.  It believes that ownership is an absolute right.

In this property-based notion of liberty, one could argue that even deeper than the desire for self-control is the fear of others.  When one remembers that this view of liberty developed in the context of the enslavement of millions of Africans for economic gain, one can imagine why early libertarians were afraid.  In Thomas Jefferson’s state of Virginia, for example, 40% of the population was slaves when he was writing the Declaration of Independence.  What could be more important for privileged whites in such a situation than the control of their “property”?

One can perceive a similar fear in many libertarians today.  I would hope that they would recognize that there is a security in membership not found in ownership, a security that allows individual’s to disagree with each other about rights and responsibilities—about our civil liberties.  It is a disagreement, however, that does not divide a community into haves and have-nots, but into different points of view about how we should develop individual/community relationships.  It seems to me that we could more effectively address the issues we face today if we explored them together as members of a civil society rather than as haves and have-nots in a commercial society.

One Response to “Civic Liberty vs. Property Liberty”

  1. Mark says:

    January 12, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Very nice post. You make an important distinction between two kinds of libertarianism. But in the short term, rather than trying to get right-leaning, property-focused libertarians to recognize the error of their ways, it may be more productive to find issues where people on the left can build coalitions with them. In the case of Kelo vs. New London, for example, a city used the power of eminent domain to seize people's homes in an established working-class community, for the purpose of a redevelopment project that was likely to benefit only wealthy corporations and rich consumers. (In the end, people lost their homes, but the project was never built.) In that case, property-rights advocates allied with various left-leaning organizations like the NAACP to oppose the project.

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Marvin T. Brown, Ph.D teaches business and organizational ethics at the University of San Francisco and Saybrook University in San Francisco.

This book is the culmination of 30 years of teaching and writing on business and society from a communicative perspective. Visit for more information.

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