Quasimodo, Property and Sanctuary

Alexander Volokh
Middletown (Oh.) Journal, August 8, 1996

Is private property good or bad? Americans are confused on the issue. They value the right to use their property as they please but don't trust their neighbors to do the right thing. The environmental movement is ambivalent toward property rights, even where relying on property rights instead of regulation would lead to environmental improvements.

Disney, the embodiment of all things American, is similarly confused. While Pocahontas delivers an environmentalist anti-property message, The Lion King portrays property as a necessary condition for stability, prosperity and environmental protection. The most recent addition to the debate, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, goes further and shows property to be a bulwark against tyranny and intolerance.

The song "Colors of the Wind" is Pocahontas' environmental manifesto. Spiritualistic Native American culture, good; land-and-money-grubbing, imperialistic English culture, bad.

"You think you own whatever land you land on;
The earth is just a dead thing you can claim --
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name."

For Pocahontas, the inherent life of the thing itself is what's important, not who owns it (if anyone). Overall, though, private ownership is more destructive than creative.

And if we actually lived in Pocahontas' animate universe of talking trees, property ownership may indeed be tantamount to slavery. But The Lion King sings a different tune. The first lesson that the lion king Mufasa teaches his son Simba is that everything they can see from their hill is their property and that someday that property will pass to Simba. (The second is that they must never go onto other people's property, the shadowy land of the hyenas.) With property comes the awesome duty to be responsible stewards of the land and protect the "Circle of Life."

Original sin occurs when Mufasa's brother, Scar, steals the kingdom, disrupting the bonds of ownership and overrunning the land with scavenger hyenas. While Mufasa treated his property with the reverence of a property owner, Scar treats his stolen land with the contempt of a dictator. The hyenas are portrayed as goose-stepping soldiers; they themselves own nothing and live off other animals' discarded remains. Unlike Mufasa, they have no tradition of stewardship or property, and the "Circle of Life" -- which environmental analysts today call "sustainable development" -- means nothing to them.

When Simba returns to claim his kingdom, the results of Scar's rule have become apparent. Mufasa, the rightful owner, took care not to deplete his natural resources; Scar, who never worked a day in his life and never acquired the responsible habits of ownership, carried waste, misery, and environmental degradation with him, turning the land into a desert.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame elaborates on the role of property beyond the environmental context. The plight of the gypsies -- dark-skinned, persecuted, reviled as lazy thieves and pursued in the dead of night as they try to illegally enter Paris -- is a thinly veiled allegory for the plight of illegal immigrants today. In this parable, the forces of the evil Claude Frollo play the part of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Frollo's soldiers harass and arrest otherwise law-abiding gypsies, whose only crime was to seek safe haven within the city, disrupting the lives of countless ordinary citizens in the process.

Frollo's ultimate dream is to stamp out the immigrants, even if it means burning down every house in Paris. But his power has limits. Outside their own secret community, gypsies can escape the heavy hand of oppressive government on church property. When Quasimodo triumphantly shouts "Sanctuary!", he is declaring that there are privately controlled spaces where not even government can go. Whether sectarian or secular, private ownership implies private control.

Private property, in Hunchback, is shown to be the only way for individuals to pursue unpopular agendas like protecting gypsy immigrants. In a world of unrestrained government power, personal safety depends on the whim of the ruler; in a world of separate, inviolate spheres of private property, all it takes is one property owner to protect the unprotected. And in a world where despots doesn't respect the rights of property owners, it helps if one's property has walls strong enough to withstand a battering ram. Good fences make good neighbors.

Most Americans are oblivious to the Disney private-property debate, but it is going on in front of our very eyes. Pocahontas' view is that "You can own the earth and still, / All you'll own is [] Earth until / You can paint with all the colors of the wind." Who owns the land is at best irrelevant and at worst spiritually deadening. But as The Lion King shows, secure possession makes possible the very conditions in which Pocahontas' rocks, trees and creatures can thrive. Erosion, deforestation, desertification, resource depletion, pollution -- environmental problems both in reality and in The Lion King -- are attributes of Scar's world, not of Mufasa's. Mufasa, who respected property rights, knew that he and his successors would bear the consequences of shortsighted management; Scar didn't care. Like in reality, the rightful owner has the greatest incentive to watch out for his own. Property promotes safety, stability, and prosperity.

And just as importantly, as The Hunchback of Notre Dame illustrates, property is the last line of defense against an unjust, intolerant, and tyrannical government. Own the earth and you own sanctuary.

Alexander Volokh is an assistant policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a public policy think tank in Los Angeles.

(This article also appeared in Miami (Okla.) News-Record, July 30, 1996; Oshkosh (Wisc.) Northwestern, August 4, 1996; Niagara (N.Y.) Gazette, August 13, 1996; San Mateo (Ca.) County Times, August 8, 1996; Daily Review (Hayward, Ca.), August 12, 1996; Tri-Valley Herald (Pleasanton and Danville, Ca.), August 12, 1996; Argus (Fremont, Ca.), August 12, 1996; Texas City (Tx.) Sun, August 18, 1996; Culpepper (Va.) Star-Exponent, August 19, 1996; Valley Morning Star (Harlingen, Tx.), August 25, 1996)

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