Salvation Through Private Property Alone


by Brad Edmonds


[Posted on Thursday, April 20, 2006]
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We've experienced several grand conflicts in recent weeks, months, and years — the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, the demonstrations and debates over immigration policy, the war on Iraq, and so on. While it is the natural tendency of news outlets to cover big problems (i.e., it's not news when we all go to work and get back home safely every day), it remains that recent months have seen more than their fair share of disasters. What all these conflicts have in common, however, has not been covered by the mass media: In a free society with all property being privately owned, the problems would have been reduced or entirely prevented.

I'll begin with Katrina: No one can stop a hurricane, nor affect its strength. Remember, though, that the hurricane did ordinary catastrophic damage to Louisiana and Mississippi. It was the existence of "public property" that resulted in subsequent flooding and bungled relief efforts that harmed the greatest number of people the most. If property were private, there wouldn't have been government levees to fail. Either that section of New Orleans wouldn't have been settled, or private levees would have been in place and been maintained far better than the government ones.

A likely scenario for private ownership of the levees would have seen their ownership in the hands of investors, and their upkeep paid for by insurers. Insurers would then charge homeowners in the levee-protected areas enough to cover the cost of maintenance. As it was, since government money paid for maintenance, it was possible for that money to be diverted — as it was, in this case, by the Bush administration, toward the war on Iraq. Then, in the aftermath, government employees turned away private trucks loaded with relief aid. The State continues to squander money earmarked for relief efforts, such as with the non-flood-zone approved house trailers rotting in the mud in Texas and Arkansas. Private insurance companies, who have to compete with each other to retain customers, do better than this.

Compounding the problems with "public" ownership of property — in this case, money — are the welfare funds paid out to victims, in the form of prepaid debit cards. And the larger the centralized government relief effort, the spottier the oversight. As one example, the New York Times was embarrassed recently when it was revealed that a self-described hurricane Katrina victim highlighted in a Times story was in fact a fraud. The person has since been arrested; never lived in the area affected by Katrina; and received thousands of dollars in federal relief funds, though the focus of the newspaper story was that she was frustrated by her lack of success in getting our dollars for hurricane relief.

Doubtless there are many such people. And as tragic as natural disasters are, the moral good of relief efforts still should not be accomplished through a moral bad — the confiscation of money from people who were not victims of the same hurricane, but doubtless have pressing needs of their own.

Immigration policy, as it should be formed in our given context of a forcible central government, is still a matter of debate among libertarians. What is not debatable is that there is no immigration policy in a society where all property is private. While merchants and road owners always have incentive to allow as many people on their property as possible, they still have incentive to chase away those with the wrong intentions. Recently, for example, a college student attempted to spend his entire week of spring break at a Wal-Mart in the Midwest. He dined at fast-food stores within the building, and took naps overnight in the garden center. After only 41 hours, the trespasser became uncomfortably aware that he had been discovered, and left of his own accord.

Likewise, property in a free society would be owned by businesses, individuals, and a few other organizations (charities, churches) that might have incentive to allow strangers on their property, but would keep their eyes open for the wrong kinds of behavior. What this means is that a person wouldn't be able to enter a free society without arranging in advance for a place to go — to reside and, barring independent wealth, to work. The effective immigration policies would be those of each individual and entity, each with regard to his own property only.

As to the war on Iraq, private property would have averted the war in any of several possible ways. If all property in Iraq were private, the United States would not have had a target in the first place — no government to attack. Attacking a private oil field, by contrast, would be unthinkable: No private petroleum concern, nor indeed any private concern of any kind, has an incentive to possess weapons of mass destruction; nor could one be accused of politically destabilizing a region. In modern times, no nation has ever made war on a corporation, nor has a corporation made war on any other entity.

The Only Way: $28

If all property in the United States were private, the question would be simpler — there would be no "public" military to send to war. Only private militaries would exist, employed primarily by insurers; and in anything approaching a free market, no insurer could ever have an incentive to destroy property, whether its own or anyone else's — private corporations are held responsible by the market (most directly by other insurers who are equally powerful) for "collateral damage."

Natural disasters, the desire to relocate to improve one's life, jealousy of power and resources — such things are inevitable in human affairs. They will never stop. It is the State that worsens these problems, often making them unsolvable. The institution of private property always provides the readiest solutions, by allowing the development of worthier infrastructures; by preventing uncontrolled trespassing while allowing freedom of movement; by preempting the development of jealousies and greed into war. Understanding the importance of private property ownership is the real first step in dealing with these problems. Alas, the mass media seem unlikely to come to this realization any time soon.


Brad Edmonds, author of There's a Government in Your Soup, writes from Alabama. See his Mises.org archive. Send him mail. Comment on the blog.