Private Rights to Property: Forward

Private Rights to Property
by John W. Allen

John Allen’s excellent explanation of the fundamental role of private property rights in providing wealth, harmony and freedom deserves a wide audience. If you have an inquiring mind and seek to understand what makes things happen, read it. You will find it both informative and entertaining.

As background to Allen’s exposition, I would like to discuss the concept of freedom. We often talk and think we are in agreement when we really are not because we don’t realize the words we use mean something different to the other person, if they mean anything at all. One such word is freedom. When I use the term freedom, I mean a situation in which people in a society are controlled and coerced in a system of private property rights.

Every society is plagued with scarcity; each person wants more of what is available, and more to one means less to another, unless more is obtained by production. But whatever the amount produced, the way people are controlled or coerced determines whether they are free or not. They may be coerced by being enticed to act in response to an opportunity to make themselves better off, just as I have been coerced in the past to lecture by the enticement of a handsome honorarium. The alternative I would have taken was playing a round of golf, but the program sponsors coerced me, by their offer, into staying indoors instead of enjoying the pleasures of golfing. That is surely a very powerful bit of coercion. Yet I call it freedom.

Freedom clearly is not the absence of coercion; it is a system in which the approved kind of coercion is used. What kind of coercive system will keep people in line where they will act with regard to other people’s interest and do so in a manner that differs from the jungle and the military-command systems and governmentally directed police powers? The answer is clear. It is a system that assigns resources to individuals as private property and protects those rights with the government’s physical coercive powers. Government must exist, and it must have a monopoly of physical force that it uses to uphold private property rights against both domestic and foreign usurpers. Government must not deny property rights or weaken them or shift them around arbitrarily without due process of law and compensation.

Other concepts that are considered components of freedom, the right to live where one wishes, the right to speech and communication, the right to work where one will at what one wishes, are absent without private property rights. It is private property rights in one’s body and brain, it is access to paper and pencil as private property that enables me to express myself to willing readers and listeners; it is private property rights of other people to their resources that enables mutually agreeable contracts about where and for whom we will work at what wages. If private property rights are absent, none of these can occur–people instead would have to appeal to a political authority for permission to have such things as paper or radios or job assignments.

For example, when Protesters” invade a shopping center and allege their free speech is violated when they are removed, the fact is that they were seeking to take someone’s property (the land) to communicate (with not necessarily willing people). The protesters did not invade a stationery store and take paper and signboards without payment on the pretense that they were expressing their rights to free speech. Yet they were doing exactly that when invading the shopping center under the guise of Free speech.” But absent a private property system they could not have bought even the paper for signs. Instead, they would have to get them by appeal to a governmental agency. Then, indeed, they could complain that their right to free speech was denied. To have free speech one must first have a system of private property rights in resources that can be used for speech. Free speech doesn’t mean free resources for the taking; it means the right to use privately owned resources to communicate with others without permission of a government agency. And without private property sights, there is no way to avoid the necessity of first seeking permission from the agency in charge of resources that enable communication, as for example radio and television (in contrast to newspapers). The same reasoning applies to freedom of choice of occupation, place of residence, all of the things we regard as elements of freedom.

Surely, it should not be necessary to belabor the fact that such a system is more productive and conducive to prosperity and growth than any other system yet discovered. Still, that a system of private property also is the one that means freedom is surprising to many people today, although it was obvious and fundamental to the framers of our Constitution. Attenuate private property rights, and you attenuate freedom.

If that is surprising or implausible, I hope you will accept a challenge. Read John Allen’s excellent essay and decide whether or not freedom and a free society are dependent on a system of private rights to property. I am confident you will agree that it is.
Armen Alchian

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