Monday, June 26, 2006

Private Property Commands Respect

One of the most common defenses of property rights is the idea that when people have ownership of something, they’ll have an incentive to look after it. What’s not mentioned as often is the role that strong property rights play in creating law-abiding citizens among the non-owners. While hiking through some federal land this weekend in the beautiful Mount Hood National Forest, I was reflecting after seeing a sign regarding fishing regulations in a relatively difficult-to-reach stream (i.e. catch and release only, no live bait, etc.). And I thought, “I wonder how many people actually follow those regulations? Would they be more apt to do so if they were fishing on a privately owned stream?” And my conclusion is this: ownership not only confers a sense of responsibility to the property owner, but also commands the respect of non-owners. Most people are much more likely to respect someone else’s property rather than follow guidelines for “public” places. While it’s obvious that people steal other’s private property, there seems to be a genuine and widespread belief that this is inherently wrong. On the other hand, there are many, many people who feel that cheating the government is not at all wrong (some even going so far as to say it is one’s duty). We seem to have a built-in belief that public property is not as worthy of respect as private property: witness the all-too-common vandalism of public spaces, while there appears to be a taboo about doing the same thing to someone’s house. So what this means is that while there are clear reasons to prefer private ownership because of the owner’s sense of guarding over the property, there are also some real and potentially significant benefits to strong property rights because other people will respect those rights. This idea contains a faint echo of the words of Hernando de Soto:

"If you take a walk through the countryside, from Indonesia to Peru, and you walk by field after field--in each field a different dog is going to bark at you. Even dogs know what private property is all about. The only one who does not know it is the government."

The lesson to would-be manipulators of behavior is this: you’ll get a lot further by bestowing property rights to individuals rather than creating rules guiding appropriate use of public land.


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