On Independence Day, Celebrate Property Rights—the Foundation of the Pursuit of Happiness

Jonathan Wood,

Editors note: This piece was coauthored by Anastasia Boden.

This Fourth of July, many of us will gather with friends and family around the barbecue to celebrate our country and the freedoms it was founded upon. It is a day for all to reflect on the Declaration of Independence’s recognition, 241 years ago today, of our rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

For one Wisconsin family, this year’s celebration will feel less jovial than in years past. Two weeks ago, the nation’s highest court ruled against the family in a devastating decision that invites government to take away property rights and frustrate the pursuit of happiness.

Fifty years ago, the Murrs bought a cabin along the banks of the St. Croix River as a place of recreation and relaxation for their growing family. They liked the area so much that they bought the neighboring lot as an investment. The parents having passed on, their children continue to gather at the cabin with their now much larger family.

After so many decades, the cabin is in need of repair and upgrades. Thanks to their parents’ foresight, the Murr family had the investment lot to sell to fund those repairs. For generations to come, the banks of the St. Croix River would be the family’s oasis.

propertyrights_small On Independence Day, Celebrate Property Rights—the Foundation of the Pursuit of Happiness America

Or so they thought. County officials dashed their plans, announcing that the Murr family could not sell the vacant lot to fund the repairs.

The county had decided to treat the two lots as one, forcing the family to decide between leaving the investment lot vacant or selling their cabin retreat with it. Upholding this unfair treatment, the Supreme Court held that government does not have to compensate you even if it totally deprives you of the use of your property, so long as you have some other property that you are allowed to keep.

The Supreme Court’s decision is more than just a loss for the Murr family, it is a significant blow to property rights, the foundation of civil society. Private property is the foundation for all of us to pursue our own conceptions of happiness. For families like the Murrs, it enables them to work hard and save money to buy a place for their family to gather and reconnect.

Property rights also enable us to define ourselves. For many, a father’s watch, a grandmother’s ring, or a family bible passed down through generations is our most precious property—treasure, really—that connects us to our past and gives us identity. Even concert stubs, or old records are meaningful tokens of the past. Having them taken away doesn’t feel like we’ve only had a piece of property stolen, but a part of ourselves.

We express ourselves through property. The way we decorate our homes says a great deal about us—to the people we choose to show it. Property enables us to express ourselves in countless other ways, whether it’s the clothes we wear, the art we create, or the speech we support. Property rights are essential to expressing the ways in which we are all unique—whether we prefer the Stones or the Beatles—and give us a way to signal whether we agree or disagree, perhaps through a political sign in our yard, or a bumper sticker on our car.

People express their values through their property. Environmentalists may set aside land for conservation. The religious may construct a church or youth camp. Someone else may construct an art gallery to share their work with the world.

Property rights also give us a small sphere of privacy in the world. In our homes, we can do what makes us happy without interference or worrying about what others might think. Like Thoreau at Walden’s Pond, solitude and peaceful reflection may be your bliss. Perhaps, instead, it’s a private hobby or time alone with close friends and family. Whatever makes you happy, private property enables you to pursue it, free of judgment or prying eyes.

Property also brings us together by allowing us to choose whom we hold close. It lets us build a family under a single roof. It allowed three friends to form a modest company in a parent’s garage—and eventually grow it into Apple. Property allows us to behave cooperatively with, and apart from, others. It gives us a means of both putting up boundaries and sharing with others.

It is particularly fitting that the Supreme Court decided Murr on the anniversary of the widely reviled Kelo v. New London decision, which allowed government to seize people’s homes to give them to politically powerful corporations. Both share the same fundamental flaw—they ignore the central role that property plays in all of our lives and why its protection is essential to the pursuit of happiness.