Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Private Property and Freedom of the Press

Tibor R. Machan

Ownership confers control, as everyone associated with a church, a magazine, a newspaper or a publishing company should know. Even the most left wing publications—among them those typical "independent" newspapers that parade as forums of free thought—have a viewpoint which they champion good and hard. Indeed, most of the latter make no distinction between news coverage and editorial opinion. Most mainstream media tend to uphold some kind of distinction between out and out editorializing and relatively non-partisan news reporting.

In any case, in a free society private individuals and groups of them—such as corporations, partnerships and so forth—own the organs of opinion. And they tend to operate it in a way that reflects their values. This includes championing causes of their own choosing.

The famous left wing magazines, The Progressive and The Nation, behave exactly accordingly, as do The Economist and National Review. The LA Weekly and The OC Weekly do just exactly what the LA Times and The OC Register do - they attempt in their editorials (and even elsewhere) to influence their readers to think more like they do rather than their intellectuals competitors.

In this way, curiously perhaps, all parties to political debate confirm the importance of the right to private property. The Nation would not give over its editorial page to William F. Buckley, Jr., or Steve Forbes any more eagerly than would Buckley or Forbes give their editorial pages to those whose views they find objectionable. Having these magazines and newspapers in private hands, with a fairly secure institution of the right to private property, makes all this possible and gives the reading public its great variety of opinions.

Of course, those who belly ache about the right to private property and how it only favors the rich do not usually acknowledge their complete reliance upon that institution. They would often complain about "censorship" at other publications if someone who is not in line with the owners' point of view is muzzled and sacked.

But they are plainly wrong: Such muzzling or firings are not censorship, not by any stretch of the imagination. They are what amounts to holding editorial control. And not permitting those whose views they reject to pen opinions is exactly what any publication's owners do with folks who express views not favored by them.

A thought experiment will easily confirm this: Imagine The Nation's editorial writers suddenly encountering an argument that convinced them of the superiority of capitalism over socialism. And imagine that they proposed to publish editorials saying so. How long would they last? Not an hour—as long as it takes to clear their desks.

Now, however, imagine the owner of The Nation becoming convinced that capitalism is, after all, superior to socialism. This would pretty much spell doom for The Nation, a consistently socialist periodical, as we know it.

It is ironic that the very institution that so many on the political left detest the most, the right to private property, enables all—including those on the left, the right, the middle or wherever one is politically, philosophically—to spread their ideas without fear of real censorship: of being muzzled by the government for doing so. If only these folks realized that with this institution lie many other of the benefits of civilization! They extend over such areas as religion, economics, art, culture, athletics and the rest, everywhere where there are individual differences and there is need to maintain peace in the face of such differences. As Robert Frost said long ago, "Good fences make good neighbors."

My own personal experience testifies to this. I lived in a country as a boy without the protection of freedom of religion or of the press. If one disagreed with the government and this became known, one faced the very real threat of being deported to Siberia to work in some Gulag. That is the nature of a socialist system—one must conform to "the general will," something mysteriously divined by the government!

In a country that enjoys greater freedom, in contrast, one sees vigorous debate on many issues. Yet there is much unity there of the right kind, namely, among those who freely gather so as to pursue some goals, including spreading certain ideas and ideals in the hope that others will find them agreeable. This is one of the benefits of capitalist private property rights—a genuinely free press which makes it possible even for those who want to destroy the system to carry on.

I have worked for a media organization for eight years, owned by a family that does in fact champion the free market. Since the company buys and sells newspapers, I often go around to explain the principles to newcomers. Some of them, even among editorial writers, have found the consistent, principled embrace of private property rights and the control that comes from it quite curious, even upsetting. They cannot fathom the connection between ownership and control—as if they had never placed a political placard on their own front yard, implicitly affirming that they, not their neighbors, control their own realm.

Alas, this is one reason human life will always remain something of a free for all: one cannot ever guarantee consistency even from the smartest of people! They are all too willing to pull the rug even from under themselves.

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