Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Column on "Whose Wealth is It?"

Tibor R. Machan

There is an application of the tragedy of the commons little discussed butworth knowing about. Public wealth, actual or borrowed, is subject tobeing raided by everyone who can manage to do so since nearly everyonebelieves the public weal is available to any member of the public who canget his or her hands on it. That's what explains the proliferation oflobbyist through the political landscape. Send in the experts who canbring home the bacon to you and yours! As one sensible commentator put iton a recent The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, the demonization of lobbyistsis wrongheaded. And he was a supporter of Barack Obama!When I was smuggled out of Hungary back in October of 1953, four adultswere part of the group making its way out of the country to Austria (andthen who knows were in the West). I came penniless but the four adults hadthousands of Hungarian forints with them, having raided the Hungariannational motion picture assocation's treasury for which they were working.Of course, they thought they were doing nothing at all wrong--the moneybelonged 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 whatis commonly owned is theirs as much as anyone else's and by now very fewpeople believe that governments have any moral authority to decided whogets what. After all, why should those people, perfectly like us (unlikethey were thought to be in feudal days), be the ones to make suchimportant decisions?The more American society becomes a collective community, the more thepeople will start thinking of the funds in the public treasury asbelonging to whoever can get it dip into first. Why not? The people aresaid to own all the wealth, no? That is what famous political theoristsare telling us now, namely that private ownership is a myth! So publicownership is the alternative and being a member of the public entitleseveryone to grab some of the booty. The point many thinkers, starting with Aristotle, saw in a system ofprivate property rights was exactly to ration wealth according to areasonable, ethical first come, first serve basis. Find it or make it orget 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 everyoneand the government is supposed to secure your right to your property andall your other rights. But no, dreamers of a collective utopia want to destroy this system, laidout originally by John Locke and later by jurists and political economistwho refined it, and regiment us all as some kind of army of servants tothe whole, to "the people." That means, of course, that some of us willhave to rule the process of using the common weal and here is where allthe trouble starts--who will be the rulers and why they, not you or I? Whowill redistribute the wealth for various valuable purposes and who willestablish what is valuable?With the private property system, with its often chided but actually quiteharmless inequality of riches, there is a simple answer: you own it andyou decide what is going to be done with it. Others do not get to steal,rob, burglarize, trespass, intrude or otherwise violate your privateproperty and other rights, and you don't get to violate theirs. Andgovernment is simply there to make sure anyone who breaches this ruledoesn't get away with it.It is this system, which is of course quite complex and nuanced but can besimply stated as above, is a moral and practical invention and now a greatmany utopians want to ruin it. I hope they do not get away with that plan!

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