Of Common, Public, and Private Property and the Rationale for Total Privatization
I have three goals. First, I want to clarify the nature and function of private property. Second, I want to clarify the distinction between “common” goods and property and “public” goods and property, and explain the construction error inherent in the institution of public goods and property. Third, I want to explain the rationale and principle of privatization.
I. Theoretical Preliminaries
I will begin with some abstract but fundamental theoretical considerations concerning the sources of conflicts and the purpose of social norms. If there were no interpersonal conflicts, there would be no need for norms. It is the purpose of norms to help avoid otherwise unavoidable conflicts. A norm that generates conflict, rather than helps avoid it, is contrary to the purpose of norms, i.e., it is a dysfunctional norm or a perversion.
It is sometimes thought that conflicts result from the mere fact of different people having different interests or ideas. But this is false, or at least very incomplete. From the diversity of individual interests and ideas alone it does not follow that conflicts must arise. I want it to rain, and my neighbor wants the sun to shine. Our interests are contrary. However, because neither I, nor my neighbor controls the sun or the clouds, our conflicting interests have no practical consequences. There is nothing that we can do about the weather. Likewise, I may believe that A causes B, and you believe that B is caused by C; or I believe in and pray to God, and you don’t. But if this is all the difference there is between us nothing of any practical consequence follows. Different interests and beliefs can lead to conflict only when they are put into action—when our interests and ideas are attached to or implemented in physically controlled objects, i.e., in economic goods or means of action.
Yet even if our interests and ideas are attached to and implemented in economic goods, no conflict results so long as our interests and ideas are concerned exclusively with different—physically separate—goods. Conflict only results if our different interests and beliefs are attached to and invested in one and the same good. In the Schlaraffenland,1 with a superabundance of goods, no conflict can arise (except for conflicts regarding the use of our physical bodies that embody our very own interests and ideas). There is enough around of everything to satisfy everyone’s desires. In order for different interests and ideas to result in conflict, goods must be scarce. Only scarcity makes it possible that different interests and ideas can be attached to and invested in one and the same stock of goods. Conflicts, then, are physical clashes regarding the control of one and the same given stock of goods. People clash because they want to use the same goods in different, incompatible ways.
Even under conditions of scarcity, when conflicts are possible, however, they are not necessary or unavoidable. All conflicts regarding the use of any good can be avoided if only every good is privately owned, i.e., exclusively controlled by some specified individual(s) and it is always clear which thing is owned, and by whom, and which is not. The interests and ideas of different individuals may then be as different as can be, and yet no conflict arises so long as their interests and ideas are concerned always and exclusively with their own, separate property.
What is needed to avoid all conflict, then, is only a norm regarding the privatization of scarce things (goods). More specifically, in order to avoid all conflict from the very beginning of mankind on, the required norm must concern the original privatization of goods (the first transformation of nature-given “things” into “economic goods” and private property). Further, the original privatization of goods cannot occur by verbal declaration, i.e., by the mere utterance of words, because this could work and not lead to permanent and irresolvable conflict only if, contrary to our initial assumption of different interests and ideas, a prestabilized harmony of the interests and ideas of all people existed. (Yet in that case no norms were needed in the first place!)
Rather, to avoid all otherwise unavoidable conflict, the original privatization of goods must occur through actions: through acts of original appropriation of what were previously “things.” Only through actions, taking place in time and space, can an objective—inter-subjectively ascertainable—link be established between a particular person and a particular good. And only the first appropriator of a previously un-appropriated thing can acquire this thing without conflict. For, by definition, as the first appropriator he cannot have run into any conflict with anyone in appropriating the good in question, as everyone else appeared on the scene only later. All property must go back, then, directly or indirectly, through a chain of mutually beneficial and hence likewise conflict-free property-title transfers, to original appropriators and acts of original appropriation.
As a matter of fact, this answer is apodictically, i.e., non-hypothetically, true. In the absence of a prestabilized harmony of all individual interests, only private property can help avoid otherwise—under conditions of scarcity—unavoidable conflict. And only the principle of property acquisition by means of original appropriation or mutually beneficial transfer from an earlier to a later proprietor makes it possible that conflict can be avoided throughout—from the very beginning of mankind until the end. No other solution exists. Every other ruling is contrary to the nature of man as a rational actor.
In conclusion, even under conditions of all-around scarcity it is possible that people with divergent interests and ideas can peacefully—without conflict—coexist, provided they recognize the institution of private (i.e., exclusive) property and its ultimate foundation in and through acts of original appropriation.
II. Private Property, Common Goods and Public Property
Let me now move from theory to practice and application. Let us assume a small village with privately owned houses, gardens, and fields. In principle, all conflicts regarding the use of these goods can be avoided, because it is clear who owns and has exclusive control of what house, garden, and field, and who doesn’t.
But then there runs a “public” street in front of the private houses, and a “public” path leads through the woods at the edge of the village to some lake. What is the status of this street and this path? They are not private property. Indeed, we assume that no one claims that he is the street’s or the path’s private owner. Rather, street and path are part of the natural environment in which everyone acts. Everyone uses the street, but no one owns it or exercises exclusive control regarding its utilization.
It is conceivable that this state of affairs with ownerless public streets can go on forever without leading to any conflict. It is not very realistic, however, because this requires the assumption of a stationary economy. Yet with economic change and growth, and in particular with a growing population, conflicts concerning the use of the public street are bound to increase. While “street conflicts” initially might have been so infrequent and so easy to avoid as not to cause anyone to worry, now they are ubiquitous and intolerable. The street is constantly congested and in permanent disrepair. A solution is required. The street must be taken out of the realm of the environment—of external “things” or common property—and brought into the realm of “economic goods.” This, the increasing economization of things previously considered and treated as “free goods,” is the way of civilization and progress.
Two solutions to the problem of managing increasingly intolerable conflicts concerning the use of “common property” have been proposed and tried. The first—and correct—solution is to privatize the street. The second—incorrect—solution is to turn streets into what is nowadays called “public property” (which is very different from the former, unowned “common” goods and property). Why the second solution is incorrect or dysfunctional can best be grasped in contradistinction to the alternative privatization option.
How is it possible that formerly unowned common streets can be privatized without thereby generating conflict with others? The short answer is that this can be done provided only that the appropriation of the street does not infringe on the previously established rights—the easements—of private-property owners to use such streets “for free.” Everyone must remain free to walk the street from house to house, through the woods, and onto the lake, just as before. Everyone retains a right-of-way, and hence no one can claim to be made worse off by the privatization of the street. Positively, in order to objectify—and validate—his claim that the formerly common street is now a private one and that he (and no one else) is its owner, the appropriator (whoever it may be) must perform some vis
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