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Boxer’s Confusion about Ownership

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California Senator Barbara Boxer sent around a letter to the editor that was published in The OC Register on April 30th, hoping to clarify my[!] California Wild Heritage Act. She states in this letter that the approximately 2.3 million acres included in the bill are all publicly owned lands. Not one acre of private land is included in the proposal. These lands are now and will continue to be owned and enjoyed by the American people.

To appreciate the absurdity of Boxers idea that the lands are now and will continue to be owned and enjoyed by the American people, I wish to recall a story told of the famous early 20th century Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his memoir of Wittgenstein, the late Professor Norman Malcolm tells the following illustrative story about ownership:

When in very good spirits [Wittgenstein] would jest in a delightful manner. This took the form of deliberately absurd or extravagant remarks uttered in a tone, and with the mien, of affected seriousness. On one walk he ‘gave’ me each tree that we passed, with the reservation that I was not to cut it down or do anything to it, or prevent the previous owners from doing anything to it: with those reservations they were henceforth mine.

The moral of Wittgenstein’s gesture is plain: Ownership without the authority to decide to what use what is being owned will be put is meaningless, absurd. In other words, the American people do not now and will not continue to own and enjoy the lands Senator Boxers bill legally transfers to the federal government. No, it will be the administrators of those lands who will own it. They will have the authority to decided what happens to it.

Senator Boxer, of course, is fully aware of this, as is made clear in the caveat she adds, namely, that the wilderness is not about locking out the public. The uses allowed include hunting, fishing, hiking, cross-country skiing, among other activities.

Consider, however, that if one owns something one isn’t allowed to do one or another thing with it, one has the right to do so. If the American people need to be allowed to make certain kinds of use of the lands Senator Boxers bill makes public property, they aren’t the owners of such property. So Senator Boxer knows that the American people will not own those lands, since the American people will only be allowed, by the real owners, namely, the government, to carry out certain activities on those lands.

The idea of collective ownership, by the way, is totally anti-American. It belongs within the political-economic framework of socialism in which, as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels made clear in their book, The Communist Manifesto, the right to private property must be abolished. In its place the incoherent idea of public or collective ownership is introduced, and idea that ultimately means that some very few people in society actually own what is called public property. Of course, these few people will allow others to make some use of their lands because, well, they need to in order to remain in power. But what they allow, and whom, is for them to decide.

The American idea, laid out in the political theory of John Locke, is the right to private property. It is this right that makes possible, if property defended in the legal system, the freedom of diverse uses of lands and other property, uses that will serve the purposes of a highly diverse population. In fact, if this is rejected in favor of Senator Boxers preferred system of public-which is to say government-ownership, a very serious problem of the tragedy of the commons will afflict society.

This happens when everyone believes that the so called public property may well indeed belong to him or her and then jockeys to make as much private use of it as possible. In a representative democracy this means that all sorts of special interest groups will send lobbyists and pay off politicians so that they turn out to be allowed the use of the lands instead of others.

The idea that some kind of fair general, universal use can be made of public lands is a myth, one identified by, among others, Thucydides. As he observed, when people own things in common, 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).

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    Tibor Machan holds the R. C. Hoiles Chair in Business Ethics & Free Enterprise at Chapman University's Argyros School of B&E and is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution (Stanford University, CA). His most recent book is "Libertarianism Defended" (Ashgate, 2006).