Arguments were recently heard by the Supreme Court of the United States concerning a case in which plaintiffs contended that a California law that permitted limited visits by union organizers to farmworkers on the property of farm owners was unconstitutional by virtue of its violation of the Fifth Amendment, which directs that property “shall … not be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The decision of the court will not be made public until later this year.
The law in question, signed in 1975, allows United Farm Workers (UFW) organizers to enter farm property to speak with workers for an hour before and after work and at lunchtime, for 120 days a year. The plaintiffs, two growers, argue that these intrusions on their land qualify as government “takings,” without compensation, and violate their property rights.
The persistence of the plaintiffs in appealing this case all the way to the Supreme Court suggests that they anticipated a sympathetic hearing from the conservative court. The fear of liberals is that if the plaintiffs win this case, it will become a precedent for hundreds of cases targeting government regulatory laws that require inspectors to visit private properties. Questions asked by several justices during the arguments phase suggested that they expected the plaintiffs to be victorious and were trying to word the court’s decision in such a way that it does not provide support for such cases.
The California law clearly reflects the state’s concern for the rights of farmworkers. It was enacted in the first decade after the creation of the UFW union, which, under the leadership of the charismatic Caesar Chavez, sought to obtain decent pay and working conditions for California farm laborers.
The law took into consideration the fact that farmworkers were (and are) difficult for union organizers to communicate with. These workers lead nomadic lives, constantly moving with the harvests and frequently residing in temporary dwellings that are located on grower’s properties. They are very poor, often illiterate and largely Spanish-speaking, though many speak only native languages, such as Quechua. Even today, they rarely own smartphones or have televisions, so finding ways of communicating with them regarding the benefits of joining the UFW is difficult. Personal contact is the only effective means of doing so. The California law recognized the right of all workers to join unions, and supported that right by allowing union recruiters limited access to farmers’ properties.
The state of California, like all other states, recognizes property rights and utilizes the usual judicial apparatus to protect those rights. But it also recognizes a great many other citizen rights, and sometimes those rights necessitate the imposition of restrictions (with compensation, if necessary) upon property rights. In other words, as California sees things, property rights must, on occasion, yield to other public concerns.
Idaho sees things differently. For a great many Idahoans, especially Idaho legislators, the rights associated with property have a special claim upon state government. Libertarian-types believe that property rights have their origin in natural law and are absolute and sacrosanct. They are, moreover, the basis for that purportedly most perfect of all economic systems: laissez-faire: capitalism, which, they insist, magically maximizes well-being and fairly distributes wealth.
The word “property” sometimes refers only to land (and structures upon it), as is the case in the Supreme Court case. Idahoans’ attitude toward property in that sense is exemplified by the dairy incident of 2014. After the revelation of cruelty to dairy cattle at the Bettencourt Dairy, the legislature passed an “ag-gag” law that criminalized secretly filming animal abuse. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter said that the legislation was intended to ensure that agricultural producers would be “secure in their property and their livelihood.”
A more recent example is Gov. Brad Little’s action to control the spread of the coronavirus, which involved temporarily closing, or heavily restricting, some businesses’ activity. Though the public outcry of libertarians was — typically — about a violation of personal liberty, the real issue was interference with the freedom to utilize business properties, and is simply an instance of the right-wing’s ongoing crusade against any and all business regulation.
“Property” can also refer to anything of value that someone may legally receive, including pre-tax profits from a business, wages for work, social security payments, investment income, etc. Libertarians believe that all such income is protected property and is rightfully theirs, and therefore that taxation of any kind is, essentially, a violation of their property rights.
They might be persuaded that the tax money that pays for the maintenance of public order and sustains the judicial system that defends their property rights is well-spent, but if their money goes to the poor as part of some nefarious “redistribution of income” scheme, libertarians are outraged.
The results of this attitude? Idaho would still be without expanded Medicaid if the legislature had had its way. As it is, in 2019, Idaho was the 10th lowest state in welfare spending per capita. In that same year Idaho was next to last in spending for education. A survey revealed that 48 percent of Idahoans have bought into the libertarian lie that aid to the poor does more harm than good. And Idaho has no General Assistance program to provide a last-resort safety net for the poorest of the poor.
Libertarianism is a capitalist fantasy. In the real world, private property rights are not pre-existent, or somehow more fundamental, than other rights. Property doesn’t even exist without government and whatever rights a government attaches to property, those rights may be curtailed whenever the public’s desire for social and economic justice (or, increasingly, its wish for a livable environment), calls for government action.
The libertarians’ public posture is simply selfishness and greed masquerading as a principled commitment to a seemingly lofty, but actually narrow and self-serving, conception of rights. According to that conception, the primary right that the state must honor is an individual’s right to make money with minimal regulation, and spend it only as he or she wishes. That is perhaps Libertarianism’s most pernicious pretense: that your property is entirely yours to dispose of, when, in fact, your debt to your fellow citizens, past and present, is immeasurable, and your obligation to contribute to the general welfare is as binding as your duty to obey the laws of the land.
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.