Sunday, September 04, 2005

Column on Public Onwership and Lack of Care

The Myth of Public Ownership

Tibor R. Machan

Recently I have been struck by how many smart people advocate that
society and its realm belongs to us all, that we or the government owns it
all. Important books, such as Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy?s The Myth of
Ownership (Oxford UP, 2002), propound this view, while rejecting the
principle of private property rights according to which only individuals
or their voluntary associations can come to be owners.

The doctrine of public ownership had its pedigree in the history of
monarchies, although looked at up closely monarchies actually endorsed a
perverse idea of private property?everything was owned by the king and his
family, not in fact by the public. It is when monarchies came into
disrepute?since the claim that a king had the authority to own and rule
simply couldn?t be justified?that the idea came up that ownership of
oneself and property is something only individuals can enjoy. John Locke
showed that it is you and I an every other individual who owns his or her
?person and estate.? The only ownership by ?the public? would involve
government having been provided with what it needs to do its job, such a
court houses, military bases or police stations. And this public ownership
came from ?the consent of the governed.? It wasn?t the natural kind,
whereby individuals acquire stuff from nature that no one owns.

Yet some clung to the old monarchist idea and treated ownership
collectively, claiming that instead of the monarch, everyone owns society
and its realm. And there have been and continue to be many injustices that
have been perpetrated with the aid of this phony idea of public
ownership?mostly that some few people in a society get to use and dispose
of things, with the ruse that they stand in for ?the public.? But another
important injustice the idea promotes is a vast war of all against all,
with everyone?and every special group?fighting to get hold of some of what
the public supposedly owns.

We see this all around us as people and their various organizations and
associations vie for ?public support,? out of the national, state, county
or municipal treasury they all consider ?ours.? Once the government takes
private property with the excuse that it really isn?t private property at
all?that?s just a myth, after all?everyone then comes to hold the utterly
confusing notion that the loot so taken belongs to us all, whatever that

A very good example of the disastrous results of such confusion occurs in
the area of environmental policy. Everyone is supposed to own the
environment. It is, then, held that government is supposed to care of it
and preserve it for members of future generations. Yet, no individual
person owns any of it, according to this ?myth of ownership? doctrine, so,
of course, no one and no group of private individuals has a stake in
caring for it. As the ancient Green philosopher Aristotle already warned,
this creates the tragedy of the commons, a state most recently identified
by the late professor of evolutionary biology at UCSB, Garrett Hardin, in
his seminal piece ?The Tragedy of the Commons? (Science, December 1963):

For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care
bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of
the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an
individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined
to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill?.(Politics,

One reason John Locke and others identified ownership as a principle of
private property rights is that such rights are natural, meaning, they
accord with human nature and the nature of human community life. Public
ownership, in contrast, is artificial, a make belief?indeed, it is public
ownership that is a myth, contrary to what the likes of Nagel and Murphy
champion and, sadly, so many others unthinkingly accept and try futilely
to implement in practice with mostly devastating results.

Private property rights do not guarantee responsible use of resources but
clearly encourage it a lot more than does public ownership?as recent
history has demonstrated all too clearly. It is no mystery, then, that the
publicly owned and maintained facility that was supposed to protect New
Orleans against the see ?ha[d] the least care bestowed upon it.?

Machan, the R. C. Hoiles Professor of Business Ethics at the Argyros
School of Business & Economics, Chapman University, Orange, CA, edited The
Commons: Its Tragedy and Other Follies (Hoover Institution Press, 2000).

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