Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Column on What Private Property Rights is Really About (sans tyupos)

Misunderstanding Private Property Rights

Tibor R. Machan

A misguided understanding of the right to private property?and of the
free market spawned by it?has to do with what George Hotchkiss of NYU said
many moons ago, namely, ?People are primarily interested in themselves and
the things that pertain to them?their homes, their children, their health,
complexion, comfort, recreation, financial security, their friends, their
own struggles and triumphs of daily life? (An Outline of Advertising,
1957). While there is some truth in this, there is also much that the
statement neglects.

For one, sadly too many people are not diligently enough interested in
themselves?certainly not in taking good care of themselves, their
children, etc. Too often they are quite negligent, which makes it
plausible for others to promote the idea that they need taking care of by
others even in their adulthood.

More importantly here, however, many people while taking reasonable care
of themselves are also very interested in promoting various causes that do
not directly involve them at all. They want to contribute to the arts, to
curing various diseases, to advancing the sciences, and to advocating
certain political ideas and ideals or public policies. Indeed, billions
and billions of dollars are spent on such goals that do not directly
benefit the persons themselves who do the giving (except in the vacuous
sense that they are interested in these goals).

Now if it is clearly understood that the respect and protection of the
right to private property facilitates not only the pursuit of one?s
direct, immediate self-interest but also all those other projects that
people so evidently and widely support, then the abrogation of that right
can be seen in a different light from the usual.

Many who oppose private property rights do so on the grounds that they
hold to the Hotchkiss position?it simply facilitates the pursuit of
private goals. Thus it must neglect others and impersonal goals. But if
we understand that private property rights facilitate much else besides
taking good care of one?s immediate concerns, including many of those I
have listed above, then attacking it takes on a very different coloration.

Attacking private property rights comes not so much to making sure that
people don?t just care for themselves but to making sure that they don?t
get to choose what the goals are that gain support, including goals having
little to do with themselves. In other words, attacking private property
rights amounts to attacking the right of individuals to choose, to decide
what kind of goals they get to support and how much support these goals

Putting it a bit differently, attacking the right to private property
amounts to attacking the judgments of private individuals who would have
the option to support various goals they believe in. Instead, government
officials?politicians, bureaucrats and their advisors?get to confiscate
private property in taxes and other takings and they get to say to what
ends these will be contributed.

But seeing it this way should make us all realize that the issue isn?t
about ?selfish versus benevolent? goals but about who gets to be
benevolent and who gets to say who and what will be benefited. Why, one
might ask, should it be people with political clout who get to make that
decision? Are they really better at making such decisions? Are they really
less likely to engage in unreasonable acquisitiveness, to be greedy, to be
narrow-minded, to serve vested interests?

In fact the evidence seems clear that those in politics are far more
inclined to serve vested interests than are ordinary folks who on their
very own tend to be quite generous. Billions of dollars, for example, are
sent abroad by American citizens, all on their own initiative, to help
people who are in dire straits. Much more is contributed to various
domestic causes.

Besides, the idea that those going into politics or signing up as
bureaucrats are the most benevolent types in society is, despite what they
often wish to have us believe, so contrary to what we all know from the
daily news as to be utterly ridiculous. It is shear gullibility to believe
such a thing, but because of this mistaken notion of the right to private
property and some defenses of it, it gains undeserved credibility. It?s
time to call the confusion?or indeed trick?for what it is, namely, a way
to bamboozle people into relinquishing their right to distribute their own
resources as they judge best when they are, indeed, the best ones to judge.

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