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Property Rights Are Human Rights Too


The Human Rights Commission wants to prevent landlords from screening tenants with a simple financial test, claiming tests constitute discrimination. Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, even charging rent would become illegal, since it discriminates against those who can’t pay. So-called “human rights” laws ignore the property rights of landlords and others. In fact, property rights are among the most fundamental human rights. Depriving a person of property is like retroactively enslaving him for that portion of his life spent earning the property.

An edited version of this article first appeared in the June, 1993 issue of Canadian Lawyer.


Karen Selick

 Author Notes

Libertarian (NOT conservative) lawyer practising in Belleville, Ontario and a columnist for Canadian Lawyer magazine.

Ms. Selick maintains her own web site at which others of her writings can be found.

 Essay - 6/1/1993

The Ontario Human Rights Commission has embarked on a campaign to prove that landlords discriminate against low-income groups - primarily young people, old people, women and welfare recipients. Specifically, the complaint is that some landlords apply a standard financial test to screen prospective tenants, requiring that the rent not exceed 30 per cent of the applicant's income.

Never mind that the Human Rights Code doesn't specify "low income earners" as a protected group. If the recent judicial fad towards reading missing words into statutes doesn't remedy this oversight, then the reference to specific card-carrying Victims--women, the elderly, etc.--should still save the day.

Never mind that there are plenty of wealthy young people, old people and women who can afford the rent in some pretty tony tenements. Never mind that landlords themselves are often young people, old people, women and yes, even welfare recipients. Never mind that they are sometimes no wealthier than their tenants. Forget these troublesome little inconsistencies.

What's really interesting about this case is the vast new frontiers it will open up if the Commission is successful. Their staff must be hopping up and down with excitement. Myself, I'm keeping my bags packed.

After all, the 30 per cent test is not unique in its effect. All worthwhile financial tests would have similar results--they would weed out people who are likely to have difficulties paying the rent. That's exactly what financial tests are designed to do. So if the 30 per cent test is adjudged a forbidden form of discrimination, every other financial test should be too.

The Toronto Star, in an editorial on this subject, described the Commission's campaign as "a good first step." A step towards what, I wonder?

I hesitate to apply the reductio ad absurdum technique here, lest the Commission adopt my examples of absurdity as the second, third and fourth steps in their crusade. But if you follow their line of thinking through to its logical conclusion, the very act of fixing the rent at a particular level would constitute an act of discrimination against those poor but honest souls who won't apply for that apartment because they know they can't afford that rent.

Similarly, charging a deposit for first and last months' rent would be discriminatory against those who can't afford deposits. Taking eviction proceedings for non-payment of rent would also be discriminatory. In fact, the only act that wouldn't be discriminatory would be giving away free shelter--no questions asked and no strings attached--to all who express a desire to squat on your premises.

You can really go a long way towards destroying the vestiges of a market system with this kind of screwy logic. Consider: isn't it discriminatory for butchers to charge more for filet mignon than for hamburger? Low income groups are consequently going to eat less steak than the rich. Aren't the poor being discriminated against by supermarkets because they have to pay a higher percentage of their incomes for food than the rich? Shouldn't food, like shelter, be given away for free in order to truly eliminate discrimination? Shouldn't all goods and services?

Of course, the effect of such policies would be that there would eventually be neither food, shelter nor any other commodity available in the province at all. Ultimately, the inhabitants (those who hadn't fled) would achieve true equality: they'd all be equally dead of starvation or exposure. This is in fact the direction things take in countries where the right to own, control and trade one's property is overridden.

Yet for some reason our policy makers have chosen to exclude property rights from the definition of human rights. Property rights must be subordinate to human rights, they tell us. It's almost as though they believe that property rights are an attribute of the property itself, rather than of the human beings who own the property.

This, of course, is nonsense. The right not to be trespassed upon doesn't belong to the building; it belongs to the owner of the building. The right for groceries not to be stolen doesn't belong to the groceries; it belongs to the grocer. Property rights are human rights.

In fact, property rights are the inevitable extension of those most basic of all human rights, the rights to life and liberty. If a person chooses to spend some of his precious time on earth converting his energy into property (i.e. working for a living), then depriving him of that property later is equivalent to retroactively depriving him of that portion of his life which he spent working. It's like expropriating an entire chunk of his life. It's like enslaving him.

It's about time "human rights" advocates figured out that all of us--including the disadvantaged--would be better off if the rights we could rely on having protected were our rights to life, liberty and property, rather than these phony licenses to loot posing as rights under the Human Rights Code.

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