The Power of Property Rights

Why have property rights? Rich people like
them of course. They get to live in fine homes, drive nice cars, and enjoy all the material
comforts that property law secures. Property rights aren’t just for the rich,
however; they serve us all. By marking out who can do what with each home, car, and other
things, property rights help us live together in peace and prosperity. Property rights pervade
our social world, encouraging productive labor and discouraging waste. We all benefit from
property rights. Indeed they prove especially valuable to those who own the least. To see
why, let’s take a drive down to the beach. Want a good example of how things go wrong
without property rights? Consider a foreclosed home subject to a title dispute. When it isn’t
clear who owns something, nobody has an incentive to preserve and protect it. The result: neglect,
ruin, and waste. Property rights help us avoid conflicts over
all sorts of resources, from houses to cars to waves. Basically, even the best break provides
a certain number of rideable waves. To make matters worse, each wave basically provides
only one ride at a time. Combine lots of surfers with just a few good waves, and a conflict
over scarce resources looms. Property rights come to the rescue. Surfers have adopted customs to help them
share the waves. Basically, the rider who takes off first near the breaking part of
the wave has the exclusive right to keep riding it. But if that surfer falls or misses the
wave or gets caught in the foam, the next surfer can take over. In this way surfers
can share the waves without having them go to waste. In effect, surfers respect property
rights in waves. Indeed if one surfer takes off on another surfer, the surfer in the right
will yell, my wave. Harsher words or even physical blows might follow if the trespass
continues. Property rights in waves may not last long, but surfers take them very seriously. Classical liberal scholars take property rights
seriously too. To find out why, let’s hit the books. These days, happily, almost everyone understands
that property rights encourage economic growth. Classical liberal thinkers, however, have
an especially profound appreciation of where property rights come from and why they matter
so much. Classical liberals see property rights as
more than simply privileges created by benevolent and far-seeing politicians. Nobel Prize winning
economist Friedrich Hayek placed the origin of property rights even before history itself:
There can be no question now that the recognition of property preceded the rise of even the
most primitive cultures, and that certainly all that we call civilization has grown up
on the basis of that spontaneous order of actions which is made possible by the delineation
of protected domains of individuals or groups.” We can hardly imagine life without property,
which Hayek elsewhere described as “the only solution men have yet discovered to the
problem of reconciling individual freedom with the absence of conflict. Law, liberty,
and property are an inseparable trinity.” As legal scholar Randy Barnett described them,
“Property rights are ‘natural’ insofar as, given the nature of human beings and the
world in which they live, they are essential for persons living in society with others
to pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity.” Granted that property rights prove vital to
human society, what should we do about inequalities in wealth? We cannot prevent such inequalities,
as philosopher Robert Nozick explained, unless we can stomach the state to “either continually
interfere to stop people from transferring resources as they wish to, or continually
(or periodically) interfere to take from some persons resources that others for some reason
choose to transfer to them.” To those who would redistribute wealth to achieve equality,
Nozick wryly observed, “Liberty upsets patterns.” At any rate, we should support a diversity
of wealth. Those capable of supporting a luxury trade drive innovation. That trickles down
to the mass market. And steadfast respect for property rights generates so much wealth
that everyone benefits. As Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises observed, “Even the poor
man, who can call nothing his own, lives incomparably better in our society than he would in one
that would prove incapable of producing even a fraction of what is produced in our own.”
From rich to poor, from oceanside to mountaintop, property rights help us live together in peace,
prosperity, and freedom. We can all appreciate that.

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