Article 17

Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others; no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Most people in America would be surprised by just how radical an idea this is. While this right is more or less universally accepted, if not respected, it has not always been that way. It has only been a handful of centuries that it has even been acknowledged in even the most enlightened civilizations. For most of human history property has only been the right of those strong enough to take it or keep it, either by arms, or right of lopsided law.

The Industrial Revolution turned all that on its head. Sure, it was not completely unheard of for commoners to own property, but by and large ownership was the right of nobility, or the wealthy merchant class. Technological advancement, and the labor-saving devices it brought, opened up the possibility of the lower classes finding other opportunities for themselves. No longer needing to labor dusk to dawn for their landlords, they could use their new-found spare time to pursue enterprises of their own. Often small, but sometimes large enough to get out from under their masters.

It is amazing how, a little more than two hundred years later, we have come to take this right for granted. We have, especially in America, twisted it into the idea that we never have to part with any of our property except by explicit choice. Tacit agreement to pay taxes as part of a civil society has come to be viewed as tyranny by some in our country. The terrific irony in this is that in tilting at that particular windmill has opened us up to real tyranny, as the neediest among us see services cut in the name of austerity and are willing to take work in conditions that should be seen as inhumane in a world where there is plenty to go around.

Protecting all property at all costs is not freedom except for those rare few powerful enough to hold unto it all. In protecting every last cent of their money and every last square inch of their land, we deny so many the chance to have any property of their own. We have become a debtor nation where once again the poorest will not truly own the most mundane item in their living space, as it will all technically belong to their creditors. This isn’t a new phenomena in America, but it is one you would think we would be more aware of by now.

There are, of course, places where this is far worse. Places where people are not just deprived of ownership, but possession whatsoever. The question we have to ask ourselves is do we want to measure our well-being against the lowest common denominator, or do we want to raise everyone up, making sure everyone has legitimate, and not just rhetorical, opportunity to have something to call their own.


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