Monday, February 02, 2009

Whose Wealth Is It?

Tibor R. Machan

There is an application of the tragedy of the commons little discussed but worth knowing about. Public wealth, actual or borrowed, is subject to being raided by everyone who can manage to do so since nearly everyone believes the public weal is available to any member of the public who can get his or her hands on it. That's what explains the proliferation of lobbyist through the political landscape. Send in the experts who can bring home the bacon to you and yours! As one sensible commentator put it on a recent The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, the demonization of lobbyists is wrongheaded. And he was a supporter of Barack Obama!

When I was smuggled out of Hungary back in October of 1953, four adults were part of the group making its way out of the country to Austria (and then who knows were in the West). I came penniless but the four adults had thousands of Hungarian forints with them, having raided the Hungarian national motion picture assocation's treasury for which they were working. Of course, they thought they were doing nothing at all wrong--the money belonged to all the people of Hungary and they were some of those people, so what could be wrong with taking a goodly portion of it?

The tragedy of the commons is clearly evident here--people think that what is commonly owned is theirs as much as anyone else's and by now very few people believe that governments have any moral authority to decided who gets what. After all, why should those people, perfectly like us (unlike they were thought to be in feudal days), be the ones to make such important decisions?

The more American society becomes a collective community, the more the people will start thinking of the funds in the public treasury as belonging to whoever can get it dip into first. Why not? The people are said to own all the wealth, no? That is what famous political theorists are telling us now, namely that private ownership is a myth! So public ownership is the alternative and being a member of the public entitles everyone to grab some of the booty.

The point many thinkers, starting with Aristotle, saw in a system of private property rights was exactly to ration wealth according to a reasonable, ethical first come, first serve basis. Find it or make it or get it as a gift from willing others, then go ahead and keep it, use it, sell it, bequeath it, whatever. It's yours. And this applies to everyone and the government is supposed to secure your right to your property and all your other rights.

But no, dreamers of a collective utopia want to destroy this system, laid out originally by John Locke and later by jurists and political economist who refined it, and regiment us all as some kind of army of servants to the whole, to "the people." That means, of course, that some of us will have to rule the process of using the common weal and here is where all the trouble starts--who will be the rulers and why they, not you or I? Who will redistribute the wealth for various valuable purposes and who will establish what is valuable?

With the private property system, with its often chided but actually quite harmless inequality of riches, there is a simple answer: you own it and you decide what is going to be done with it. Others do not get to steal, rob, burglarize, trespass, intrude or otherwise violate your private property and other rights, and you don't get to violate theirs. And government is simply there to make sure anyone who breaches this rule doesn't get away with it.

It is this system, which is of course quite complex and nuanced but can be simply stated as above, is a moral and practical invention and now a great many utopians want to ruin it. I hope they do not get away with that plan!

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