Column on Whose Wealth is It?

Whose Wealth Is It?

Tibor R. Machan

There is an application of the tragedy of the commons little discussed but
worth knowing about. Public wealth, actual or borrowed, is subject to
being raided by everyone who can manage to do so since nearly everyone
believes the public weal is available to any member of the public who can
get his or her hands on it. That’s what explains the proliferation of
lobbyist through the political landscape. Send in the experts who can
bring home the bacon to you and yours! As one sensible commentator put it
on a recent The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, the demonization of lobbyists
is wrongheaded. And he was a supporter of Barack Obama!

When I was smuggled out of Hungary back in October of 1953, four adults
were part of the group making its way out of the country to Austria (and
then who knows were in the West). I came penniless but the four adults had
thousands of Hungarian forints with them, having raided the Hungarian
national motion picture assocation’s treasury for which they were working.
Of course, they thought they were doing nothing at all wrong–the money
belonged to all the people of Hungary and they were some of those people,
so what could be wrong with taking a goodly portion of it?

The tragedy of the commons is clearly evident here–people think that what
is commonly owned is theirs as much as anyone else’s and by now very few
people believe that governments have any moral authority to decided who
gets what. After all, why should those people, perfectly like us (unlike
they were thought to be in feudal days), be the ones to make such
important decisions?

The more American society becomes a collective community, the more the
people will start thinking of the funds in the public treasury as
belonging to whoever can get it dip into first. Why not? The people are
said to own all the wealth, no? That is what famous political theorists
are telling us now, namely that private ownership is a myth! So public
ownership is the alternative and being a member of the public entitles
everyone to grab some of the booty.

The point many thinkers, starting with Aristotle, saw in a system of
private property rights was exactly to ration wealth according to a
reasonable, ethical first come, first serve basis. Find it or make it or
get it as a gift from willing others, then go ahead and keep it, use it,
sell it, bequeath it, whatever. It’s yours. And this applies to everyone
and the government is supposed to secure your right to your property and
all your other rights.

But no, dreamers of a collective utopia want to destroy this system, laid
out originally by John Locke and later by jurists and political economist
who refined it, and regiment us all as some kind of army of servants to
the whole, to "the people." That means, of course, that some of us will
have to rule the process of using the common weal and here is where all
the trouble starts–who will be the rulers and why they, not you or I? Who
will redistribute the wealth for various valuable purposes and who will
establish what is valuable?

With the private property system, with its often chided but actually quite
harmless inequality of riches, there is a simple answer: you own it and
you decide what is going to be done with it. Others do not get to steal,
rob, burglarize, trespass, intrude or otherwise violate your private
property and other rights, and you don’t get to violate theirs. And
government is simply there to make sure anyone who breaches this rule
doesn’t get away with it.

It is this system, which is of course quite complex and nuanced but can be
simply stated as above, is a moral and practical invention and now a great
many utopians want to ruin it. I hope they do not get away with that plan!

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