This column addresses President Obama's fallacious reasoning about property rights. I wrote it a few months ago (updated here) when Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts candidate for the US Senate), said, "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody." And so she is said to reject that it is possible for Americans to become wealthy "in isolation." (As if someone argued that silly idea!) This is now something President Obama rolled out against Mitt Romney!
So Warren sounded off about this, with evident righteousness, as follows:
"You built a factory out there? Good for you… but I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did." And she goes on to declare, "Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."
First of all, nothing at all follows from any of this about how Ms. Warren has any authority at all to rearrange the world her way. Or Mr. Obama! My nose and ears and kidneys and eyes weren't created on my own but none of that implies for a second that Elizabeth Warren or anyone else is entitled to start invading my body and deciding how its parts ought to be used. Nor even that my parents actually own me!
Of course, property rights start simple enough and then become complex. But that is just why a free country has a law of property instead of Ms. Warren or Mr. Obama as a tyrant who orders us all to do as she or he wishes. It is necessary to be careful about how property is properly allocated, with close attention to original and subsequent creation, with what has been voluntarily shared, exchanged, given away, earned through work, etc. Why?
Well, from the time of Aristotle it has been clear to quite a few political theorists and economists that common ownership is a trap. As the ancient Greek sage put the point:
"That all persons call the same thing mine in the sense in which each does so may be a fine thing, but it is impracticable; or if the words are taken in the other sense, such a unity in no way conduces to harmony. And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few." (Politics, 1262a30-37).
Then there was the historian Thucydides on the commons, noting that "[T]hey devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile, each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays." (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, bk. I, sec. 141).
So then in time John Locke came along who didn't deny that to start with property is commonly owned but pointed out that it is best to create a system of private property so that property will be taken good care off and those who work hard to improve it can benefit from this.
So not only are Ms. Warren and Mr. Obama way off with the idea that the state gets to decide what happens to property and that there is some kind of unwritten − i.e., not consented to − social contract that obligates us all to give to the state. It is also a wasteful and bad idea, as the Soviets and other socialists who disallow private property in their realm have found out to everyone's demay.
But, of course, it is not going to be easy to get agreement to statist redistribution policies if all this is admitted. So Warren and Obama and their cohorts need to attempt the impossible and show that they, and not you and I, get to say what happens to what we own because how we obtained it involved other people! Again, it doesn't follow!
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