Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - Misunderstanding Private Property Rights
by Tibor R. Machan

A misguided understanding of the right to private property—and of the free market spawned by it—has to do with what George Hotchkiss of NYU said many moons ago, namely, "People are primarily interested in themselves and the things that pertain to them—their homes, their children, their health, complexion, comfort, recreation, financial security, their friends, their own struggles and triumphs of daily life" (An Outline of Advertising, 1957). While there is some truth in this, there is also much that the statement neglects.

For one, sadly too many people are not diligently enough interested in themselves—certainly not in taking good care of themselves, their children, etc. Too often they are quite negligent, which makes it plausible for others to promote the idea that they need taking care of by others even in their adulthood.

More importantly here, however, many people while taking reasonable care of themselves are also very interested in promoting various causes that do not directly involve them at all. They want to contribute to the arts, to curing various diseases, to advancing the sciences, and to advocating certain political ideas and ideals or public policies. Indeed, billions and billions of dollars are spent on such goals that do not directly benefit the persons themselves who do the giving (except in the vacuous sense that they are interested in these goals).

Now if it is clearly understood that the respect and protection of the right to private property facilitates not only the pursuit of one’s direct, immediate self-interest but also all those other projects that people so evidently and widely support, then the abrogation of that right can be seen in a different light from the usual.

Many who oppose private property rights do so on the grounds that they hold to the Hotchkiss position—it simply facilitates the pursuit of private goals. Thus it must neglect others and impersonal goals. But if we understand that private property rights facilitate much else besides taking good care of one’s immediate concerns, including many of those I have listed above, then attacking it takes on a very different coloration.

Attacking private property rights comes not so much to making sure that people don’t just care for themselves but to making sure that they don’t get to choose what the goals are that gain support, including goals having little to do with themselves. In other words, attacking private property rights amounts to attacking the right of individuals to choose, to decide what kind of goals they support and how much support they receive.

Putting it a bit differently, attacking the right to private property amounts to attacking the judgments of private individuals who would have the option to support various goals they believe in. Instead, government officials—politicians, bureaucrats and their advisors—get to confiscate private property in taxes and other takings and they get to say to what ends these will be contributed.

But seeing it this way should make us all realize that the issue isn’t about "selfish versus benevolent" goals but about who gets to be benevolent and who gets to say who and what will be benefited. Why, one might ask, should it be people with political clout get to make that decision? Are they really better at making such decisions? Are they really less likely to engage in unreasonable acquisitiveness, to be greedy, to be narrow-minded, to serve vested interests?

In fact the evidence seems clear that those in politics are far more inclined to serve vested interests than are ordinary folks who on their very own tend to be quite generous. Billions of dollars, for example, are sent abroad by American citizens, all on their own initiative, to help people who are in dire straits. Much more is contributed to various domestic causes.

Besides, the idea that those going into politics or signing up as bureaucrats are the most benevolent types in society is, despite what they often wish to have us believe, so contrary to what we all know from the daily news as to be utterly ridiculous. It is shear gullibility to believe such a thing, but because of this mistaken notion of the right to private property and some defend it, it gains undeserved credibility. It’s time to call the confusion—or indeed trick—for what it is, namely, a way to bamboozle people into relinquishing their right to distribute their own resources as they judge best when they are, indeed, the best ones to judge.
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