It has been a common progressive move for more than a century to argue that property rights are not sacrosanct because the government creates them. Government creates them and government can take them away. I heard this in seminars in law school. And I recall Elizabeth Warren making this argument on the campaign trail in 2020. And Morris Cohen said it in 1927.
But I do not understand why this argument has so much appeal to progressives, because it does nothing more than assert a contrary position to that taken by libertarians. It does not prove anything in favor of government intervention.
The question, after all, is how the government should use its power. Should the government use it to protect and expand property rights? Or should the government use it to dissolve and restrict property rights?
The libertarian asserts that the government should protect property rights because these are in some sense prior or fundamental.
And the progressive, in arguing that the government giveth and so can taketh away, asserts no more than that government action—regulation—is in some sense prior or fundamental.
There is no more substance than that to the government-giveth argument.
It resolves nothing, just as libertarians’ assertion that property rights are prior and fundamental resolves nothing. It merely asserts the opposite of what the libertarians assert.
The fact that government is needed to enforce property rights does not in itself imply that government need not enforce them. It does not imply that property rights are not in some sense prior or fundamental. It may well be that property rights guaranteed by government are prior and fundamental in relation to all things. And that government elimination of property rights is posterior. I do not personally believe this to be so, but I do not see why the fact that government is needed to guarantee property rights implies that property rights need not be fully and absolutely guaranteed.
And that is before we even get to social contractarian arguments that claim that government is no more than a mutual defense pact between prior possessors of things that come to be called property under the terms of the social contract.
Moreover, as a historical matter, it is not clear to me which side has the better of the argument. On the one hand, government enforcement does reduce outside interference with one’s possessions, and one cannot speak of property in the legal sense without assuming the existence of a legal authority committed at least in principle to recording and enforcing such rights.
On the other hand, it is the case that people living in places that have no central government possess things and enjoy them quietly for long periods of time, so long as they are individually powerful enough or in sufficient harmony with their neighbors to protect their possession of the things.
The only thing that progressives’ assertion that the government giveth really does is to demonstrate to progressives that there is an alternative to the view that property is fundamental—namely, that government regulation is fundamental.
But it does not answer the question how much to protect property and it does not even establish that the libertarian view is necessarily wrong.