Rights, Property… and Blogging

Because one blog is obviously not enough, I will now also be blogging for the CBA National Magazine. Initially at least, I will only be writing for them once a month. In any event, my main blogging focus will remain here, at Double Aspect. However, I am excited about this new venture and the possibility of reaching out to a somewhat different (and broader) audience that comes with it, not to mention what I hope will be additional publicity for this blog, so I’m grateful to the Magazine’s editor, Yves Faguy, for the kind invitation to contribute.

My first post there argues that Canadian constitutional law’s failure to protect property and economic rights, although motivated by a concern that these rights would be invoked in the interest of the well-off and to the detriment of the poor, ends up hurting the vulnerable and the marginalized members of society. I have already made this case here, when discussing the “victim surcharge” imposed on offenders in addition to their normal sentences, which is in effect a transfer of wealth from the poor to the better-off. I now take up this theme in discussing Bill C-36, the federal government’s response to the Supreme Court’s judgment in Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101. The  Supreme Court’s persistent refusal to acknowledge that the liberty protected by section 7 of the Charter includes economic self-determination means that the discussion about the bill’s flaws and possible (although by no means certain) constitutionality essentially ignores the question of the sex workers’ right to earn their living as best they can. That is unfortunate:

A recognition of the sex workers’ right to earn a living in their own way would obviate the need for an uncertain balancing of the sex workers’ right to be safe and the government’s moral indignation at the idea of prostitution, to which the Bedford approach leaves the door open. It would, instead, put the spotlight on the real question that the government’s chosen path raises, which is whether this moral indignation is a good enough reason to prevent vulnerable individuals from making a living in what for some, and perhaps many, of them is the only way accessible to them.

It is not the rich, who seem to be doing just fine, thank you, who most need their property and economic rights protected. It is the poor.

One point I do not make in the National Magazine blog post but want to add here is that it would be a mistake to suppose that economic rights are generally secondary to civil and political rights as a matter of liberal political theory. The better view, I believe, is that defended by James Madison in an eloquent essay called “Property.” Madison argues that what we now call rights are a form of property, so that

a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them. He has a property very dear to him in the safety and liberty of his person. He has an equal property in the free use of his faculties and free choice of the objects on which to employ them. In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights. (Paragraph breaks removed)

The role of government, Madison says, is

 to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.

A government is not just if suppresses speech or violates the rights of conscience. But nor is it just if

arbitrary restrictions, exemptions, and monopolies deny to part of its citizens that free use of their faculties, and free choice of their occupations, which not only constitute their property in the general sense of the word; but are the means of acquiring property strictly so called.

“[T]he rights of property and the property in rights” go together. They are both indispensable for human freedom and self-worth. The point that respect for the latter is connected to respect for the former might seem abstract or theoretical. But we can see that violations of one go hand in hand with violations of the other.

One thought on “Rights, Property… and Blogging

  1. Pingback: Strange Property | Double Aspect

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