Quasimodo, Property and Sanctuary
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
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
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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