Thursday, November 30, 2006

Watch out For Growing Public Sector

by Tibor R. Machan

In a free society adult men and women have the rights to their lives, liberty and property proficiently protected. That's what it means when the Declaration of Independence states that governments are instituted to secure our rights and, presumably, for no other purpose that conflict with this one.

Of course, rights must be exercised some place—if I have a right to my life, I must have a right to obtain some location where this life may be lived; if I have the right to liberty, this too, involves the right to seek out places where my liberty may be exercised. So the right to private property is implicitly affirmed by any of our basic rights. Effectively, then, a free society is one wherein private property is ubiquitous.

Public property, in contrast, is highly limited, namely, to whatever is required to operate the courts, house the police and the military and some other administrative structures. (Here is the only place where eminent domain law applies, in obtaining—with appropriate compensation—the places needed for such public uses.)

But when the free society is compromised Left and Right, meaning, the major political factions don't give a hoot about private property rights as they do not in this country for sure, the private sector— which includes not just individual but a bulk of social affairs— contracts. More and more of the society becomes public—schools, colleges and universities, business establishment, forests, parks, rivers, lakes, museums, concert halls, massive portions of land of all sorts, and, of course, all the roads and traffic hubs, including airports and so on.

One consequences of this expanding public sector is that the rights people have to carry on their activities, such as their freedom of expression of all kinds, begin to be exercised all over the entire society, and to be regulated by the government. Freedom to pray would then have to be granted on public lands and in public buildings, not just private churches and homes and halls. Freedom to speak up about various matters would have to be granted on any public property. And, because the public realm is normally under the jurisdiction of public authorities, local, county, state or federal, these rights to exercise ones liberty now no longer amount to bona fide freedoms but highly restricted "freedoms," regulated and regimented by the public authorities. And this is natural—after all, in my own house, for example, the exercise of free expression is regulated by, well, me! I own the place. If you are invited and want to speak up, you have no unlimited freedom to speak out but whatever freedom I grant you.

Same with newspapers—whoever owns them sets the limits of what goes in the pages—only the owners have the right to freely use the space as they see fit. Ownership, in short, confers the authority to set terms of use and when public spheres are being used by citizens, governments set the terms. And this invites nothing less than government supervision over our supposedly free conduct, conduct we have the right to engage in and would be able to exercise without interference on our own private property but not on public property.

Now this situation, which I sketch in broad terms here, accounts for much of the hassle about what is and as not permitted by the legal authorities when we try to exercise our right to liberty on public property, such as a high school football field or classroom or a state college or university newspaper or research laboratory. The whole stem cell research controversy is largely understandable as a function of how such research is conducted mostly at public facilities—hospitals, universities, etc.

The only nearly private sector in America today—though now also in peril from IRS intrusions—is where religion is being practiced—churches are virtual private property and what goes on there, barring criminal conduct, is protected against interference and regulation and censorship. It is also true that from such private places anyone who is not invited may be excluded (except meddling bureaucrats, unfortunately), whereas this isn't so with public places. Because these are public, they generally must admit anyone who is a member of the public, so allocating use will be needed, as will be the imposition of various conditions—political correctness, for example, in what goes into student newspapers or is being said in classrooms.

The bottom line is that with the expansion of the public sector, something widely championed by thinkers both Left and Right, there is greater and greater contraction of our liberties to do as we judge correct. The free society is clearly being more and more compromised.

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