Friday, August 29, 2008

Walter Williams and Property Rights

Walter Williams is one of my favorite economists. He is principled, often humorous, and very good at concretizing complex ideas. Below are a few excerpts from articles he has written, followed by a few comments from me.

Failure to recognize the effect of different property rights structures on outcomes leads to faulty analysis. Think about several questions. Which lake will yield larger, more mature fish -- a publicly owned or a privately owned lake? Why is it that herds of cows flourished and buffalos did not? Who will care for a house better -- a renter or owner? Entire article here

Privately owned resources are always used more efficiently than “publicly” owned resources. When resources are publicly owned, no single individual has an incentive to maximize the long-term use of that resource. If he doesn’t use the resource today, someone else likely will. Consequently, his interests (like everyone else) lead him to deplete the resource. This is known as the “tragedy of the commons”.

Creating false distinctions between human rights and property rights plays into the hands of Democrat and Republican party socialists who seek to control our lives. If we buy into the notion that somehow property rights are less important, or are in conflict with, human or civil rights, we give the socialists a freer hand to attack our property. Entire article here

Obfuscation is a common ploy among politicians and political activists. They fail to define their terms and play on emotion in an attempt to win votes. They can win much greater political support by decrying the plight of the poor than by championing the rights of the rich (which are the same rights all individuals possess). They can maintain their positions of power by encroaching on the rights of some to the benefit of others.

This is what politics has become in America. Despite the rhetoric, few (if any) politicians can define rights, let alone defend them. It is much easier to promise everyone roast on Sunday than tell them to go earn the money to pay for it. It is much easier to pass a law to prohibit the Ashby High Rise than defend the rights of the developers. Playing to the mob is always more politically expedient.

I disagree with the ways some people "unwisely" use their property. Many drink and smoke too much, wear gaudy attire, become couch potatoes, and don't buckle up when they drive. But the true test of one's commitment to liberty and private property rights doesn't come when we permit people to be free to do those voluntary things with which we agree. The true test comes when we permit people to be free to do those voluntary things with which we disagree.

Undoubtedly, my position is offensive to many, and mankind's history is on their side. Private property rights and self-determination has always received a hostile reception. People have always had what they consider to be good reasons for restricting the liberties of others. Entire article here

Freedom means the right to pursue one’s values without intervention from others, so long as you respect their mutual right to do so. The world is full of mother hens who cannot stand the idea that someone might actually be enjoying something that the mother hen finds abhorrent. And rather than accept the fact that others might have different values, the mother hen seeks to impose hers upon all of society.

We see this in virtually every infringement of property rights. Some group does not like the way a property owner is using, or proposes to use, his property. They descend upon City Hall demanding that somebody do something. And politicians, every wary of their next election, appease the angry mob.

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