Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Property Rights Pluses

Tibor R. Machan

A most controversial feature of the free society is its strict adherence to the principle of private property rights. Indeed, such a society would have few public places, apart from its court houses, police, and military stations. So valued items, including land, water, and even the air mass, would be privately owned, at least to the extent that this is practically possible.

Private property rights, in turn, imply that different individuals and groups would have no authority to make use of property that doesn’t belong to them. Trespass would be forbidden. Any invasive behavior on the part of one’s neighbors would be legally impermissible. Should it occur, that kind of conduct would be subject to severe sanctions.

Apart from the many great benefits of this kind of system--mainly to secure for members of human communities their own, inviolate space or spheres and, thus, their liberty--there would also be the overall benefit of greater care bestowed upon valued resources. No project could be undertaken without the full consent of those whose spheres are needed for it. A dam, for example, could only be built with the consent of all the property owners whose land would be flooded.

This result of the regime of private property rights would be of immense benefit to the environment. No massive projects that make use of forests, lakes, prairies and the like could be undertaken unless all owners agree and make sure that there are no harmful, injurious side effects from them. Thus no one would be authorized to dump waste into the atmosphere--it would amount to the invasion of private property or, if that is not fully feasible, personal assault or property damage. Development would be more measured and reasonable than when it comes from central planners.

Such a system--which can be outlined but the details of which would be evolving within a private property rights legal regime--would most likely contain the greater portion of likely environmental mismanagement and spoilage since the owners would very probably guard what belongs to them against any misuse and squander.

No, there is never any guarantee that all property owners will be prudent and cautious. But this kind of system is more likely to follow what environmentalists call precautionary principles throughout the society. They would have a strong incentive to make sure their property remains valuable, usable, safe, and productive. There could, of course, be some who are negligent and take little care of what belongs to them but the consequences of such lack of care would very quickly boomerang and make itself felt by the negligent property owner, not by the public at large, which is what happens when public authorities mismanage valuable resources.

As Aristotle remarked nearly 3000 years ago, "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; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few" (Politics, 1262a30-37). This pretty much explains why environmental problems arose in the first place: the tragedy of the commons.

Unfortunately there is too much bellyaching about the anticipated inequality that can arise from the regime of private property rights, so it is being compromised everywhere and instead of owners being left to deal with what belongs to them, mostly like quite responsibly, public authorities, bureaucrats, are counted upon to manage the realm. And that cannot but lead to widespread neglect. Both the problems of the commons and of public choice--authorities pursuing their own agendas in the name of the public--stand in the way of a sustained concern for conservation, preservation, and sensible use. All because of the envious resentment of many against those who might well parley their own private property into serious wealth.

The naïve idealism of egalitarianism, thus, stands in the way of the best prospects for the environment. Another case of the imaginary perfect being the enemy of the practically good!

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