Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st-Century America

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Cornerstone of Liberty: Property Rights in 21st-Century America by Timothy Sandefur Cato Institute * 2006 * 126 pages * $19.95 hardcover; $11.95 paperback

Reviewed by George C. Leef

Property rights are under constant and often successful attack in the United States. In 2007 the idea that an individual is entided to own property and do with it as he pleases is fast becoming a relic of our quaint, long-forgotten past. One reason for that unhappy circumstance is that the general population has a dwindling understanding of the importance of property rights. The enemies of private property, who maintain that its use should be controlled for "the public good," have made great inroads into the only ultimate defense that institution has-the belief in its essential Tightness.

Timothy Sandefur, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation who has fought in the trenches against die anti-property onslaught, sees the danger we face. To combat it he has written this excellent book. The Cornerstone of Liberty is a primer covering four crucial topics: why private property is important and must be defended; the place of property rights under our Constitution; the weakened state of property rights today; and the author's views on the course of action we need to follow if property rights are to be restored. This is an important project, and Sandefur is to be congratulated for his good work.

His chapter "Why Property Rights Are Important" gets the book off to a blazing start. If readers don't understand the moral and economic reasons for insisting that the rights of individuals to acquire, use, and sell property as they choose must be protected, they certainly won't get much out of the book. Sandefur wants to see that they do. "Private property," he writes, "is one of humanity's great discoveries, like fire, DNA, or the scientific method. Like fire, property has the ability to release a kind of unseen power from nature...." That is why societies that have defended property rights have rising standards of living and both social and technological progress. Conversely, the easier it becomes for people to deprive owners of their property, the less energy people put into productive work.

When societies regard private property with hostility, far from reaching some communitarian Utopia, they not only get poorer but their people also lose the ability to live the lives they choose. Unless individuals can say, "This is mine and no one may take it," they're left at the mercy of those who are in control. Sandefur reminds us that people with the power to take property are usually anything but merciful-and not just in dictatorships, but also in "free" countries like the United States. …