Montreal, June 7, 2003  /  No 125  
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Sheldon Richman is the Editor of Ideas on Liberty. This article was first published on June 2, 2003, by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).
by Sheldon Richman
          Israel Kirzner, the economist and champion of liberty, has suggested that the freedom philosophy can be summed up in two words: Private Property. I believe he is correct. Respect for private property entails the other features of a liberal capitalist (or libertarian) society: liberty, the rule of law, and strict limits on government power.  
          But being the editor I am, I propose reducing the summary another 50 percent, simply to: Property
          Like "unmarried bachelor," "private property" is redundant, making "public property" a contradiction in terms. The confusion about these terms can be seen in the following questions: Is a restaurant a private or public place? Why are only the government's called "public schools"?  
          The concept "property" implies exclusiveness. It signifies that the owner of a thing, unlike anyone else, is entitled to use and dispose of it. He requires no one else's permission. Property rights are the most fundamental rights of all, the purpose of which is to identify an "assured free sphere" for each individual, to use F.A. Hayek's term. Rights serve to avert violent conflict among people, leaving each person free peacefully to pursue happiness and enjoy the prosperity that social cooperation makes possible.  
          Thus while the qualifier "private" is useful for emphasis, it adds no new information to the concept "property."  
          That being the case, the term "public property"—insofar as it denotes non-exclusiveness—is incoherent. A good that may be used by anyone is not property at all. Rather, it is in a pre-property state, waiting, as it were, to be appropriated from nature. To call it "property" when it does not function as such is to subvert the concept into something that induces rather than averts conflict. As we will see, what is typically called "public property" is actually de facto private property. 
Controlled by Government  
          So-called public property is a good controlled by the government, or, more precisely, government officials with the legal authority to exercise that control. The word "public" is an obfuscation, since members of the public typically cannot act toward the property like real owners. John Blundell, writing in Ideas on Liberty a couple of years ago, pointed out that in England, when the water industry was "publicly" owned, the roads leading to the water resources were gated shut with signs warning: "Public Property: Keep Out." After the industry was privatized, the roads were opened and the signs changed to read: "Private Property: Public Welcome." That is a dramatic demonstration of the difference between "public" and private property.  
          Even when government property is open to the general public, it is laden with restrictions no bona fide owner would have to put up with. For example, so-called public parks often may not be used after dark. "Public schools" can be used only in ways that government officials permit. A member of the public needs a government license to use the "public airwaves."  
     « In what sense is public property the property of the public? It might be said that the officials who have the authority to regulate the use of government property do so on behalf of the public. But that is an unsatisfactory answer, because all it does is introduce the distinction between de jure and de facto owners. »
          In what sense, then, is public property the property of the public? It might be said that the officials who have the authority to regulate the use of government property do so on behalf of the public. But that is an unsatisfactory answer, because all it does is introduce the distinction between de jure and de facto owners. Abstract political theory does not change the fact that the putative owners may not act like owners—and will be arrested if they do. Nor does it help to point out that the public elects the people who manage their collective property. At most we can say that the people elect the de facto owners of the property. It is a peculiar notion of ownership, indeed, that is restricted to electing those who will control the property. I trust that readers will see the difference between political collective ownership and ownership by a group of individuals who have each explicitly consented to an arrangement in which ownership is joint and conditional, such as a club or, perhaps, a corporation.  
Collectives Can't Own 
          Nothing said to this point should be startling. Being abstractions, collectives such as "the public" do not act. Neither can they own. Only individuals do these things. As James Sadowsky wrote in a classic article nearly four decades ago, "The question we should ask is not so much whether society has the rights attributed to it as whether such an entity can be meaningfully said to exist at all." ("Private Ownership and Collective Ownership," Left and Right, 1966, reprinted in The Libertarian Alternative, edited by Tibor Machan) 
          Since only individuals exist, rights apply to them, not to collections of them as such. As Sadowsky argued, one of those rights is the right to appropriate unowned goods; that right proceeds logically from the right of self-ownership. The denial of that right leads to a contradiction. Sadowsky wrote: 
              Now let us suppose that in various manners I deploy my activity upon material non-human goods that are previously unowned. By what right does anyone stop me? There are but two possible justifications: either he has the right to direct my activities by using violence (in other words he owns me) or else he owns the material goods in question. But this contradicts the assumptions we have already made: that each human being is self-owned and that the material goods in question are not previously owned. The man is claiming either to own me or the property I think I have acquired. The only factor open to question is whether the other man had peacefully acquired the land before me. But to raise this question is to concede the right of private property which is the thing we are trying to establish.
          Sadowsky goes on to note, "Now, if no one man has the right to do this, it follows that no greater number may do so, for the same question that was asked of A may be asked concerning C, and so of all the others. Surely, if this is true of any of them taken singly, there is no reason to suppose that they could properly do this if they banded together." 
          We can readily understand how a person can come to own, through first use, an unowned parcel of land, a fish in an unowned body of water, or an unused broadcast frequency. The mystery is how the public, members of which have not engaged in first use, comes to own forests, oceans, or the airwaves. For the sake of clarity, let's not talk about public property. All property is controlled by individuals. The question is whether that control is legitimate or not. 
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