5th September 2011
Private property rights specify the property owner’s rights to decide how property will be used, to accrue income from its uses, and to transfer these rights to others in various voluntary arrangements. Because the content of private property rights is complex, threats to such rights can arise from many different sources, including actions by legislators, administrators, prosecutors, judges, juries, and others (e.g., sit-down strikers, mobs).
Because of the great variety of ways in which government officials can threaten private property rights, the security of such rights turns not only on law “on the books,” but also to an important degree on the character of the government officials who administer and enforce the law. An important reason why regime uncertainty arose in the latter half of the 1930s, for example, had to do with the character of the advisers who had the greatest access to President Franklin Roosevelt at that time—people such as Tom Corcoran, Ben Cohen, William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, and others of their ilk. These people were known to hate businessmen and the private enterprise system; they believed in strict, pervasive regulation of the market system by—who would have guessed?—people such as themselves. So, as bad as the National Labor Relations Board was on paper, it was immensely worse (for employers) in practice. And so forth, across the full range of new regulatory powers created by New Deal legislation. In a similar way, the apparatchiki who run the federal regulatory leviathan today can only inspire apprehension on the part of investors and business executives. President Obama’s cadre of crony capitalists, which he drags out to show that “business is being fully considered,” in no way diminishes these worries.