Of Sparklers and Property Rights: A Libertarian Reflection

2550178805_5afb1b72c0_oBy Val Muller

My favorite Independence Day memory involves me running around the backyard, catching fireflies, and waiting until it was dark enough to light sparklers. While waiting, we ate through courses of burgers, ‘dogs, and s’mores. I didn’t have to wear shoes, I didn’t have to worry about bedtime for school or how many burgers I could eat or how sticky my hands got from the melted and flaming marshmallows.

It was kid freedom.

When I reflect about what went into making my favorite memory, I realize at the core of sticky marshmallows and burgers was a more durable principle: property rights. It’s one of the pillars that makes this an exceptional country.

Property rights gave us all a sense of pride. Even though our yard was small, it was ours; and we took care of it. The small but well-loved garden in the corner always bloomed in the spring and yielded bountifully in the summer, fed by the compost pile that we willingly made in the opposite corner of the yard from grass clippings and food rinds.

Even in a simple Independence Day celebration, this right was mirrored in my childhood experience. One year, I was given my own property: a box of sparklers. My sister was given the same. We were allowed to use our sparklers “whenever” we wanted—just not in the house. I don’t remember which of us it was, but we were so excited that one of us lit a sparkler before it was even dark out. Though it was sparkly and awesome, we saw what a waste it was to light them in the daylight. We learned this at the cost of our own sparkler, and it made us treasure the remaining sparklers all the more.

I treated each sparkler like gold, using it only when I had planned out the exact way I wanted to consume it. One, I decided, I would stick in the sandbox and just watch as it burned down. Another, I would race back and forth across the yard with, seeing how many times I could make it before the sparkler burned out. For another, my sister and I coordinated, deciding to write words in the air with the glowing sparklers.

Though a silly childhood story, the larger point is this: people take care of the things they own. But if everybody (and thus nobody) owns something, the experience would have been different. Our sparklers were special because they were ours and there was a limited supply. How would we have acted differently if we could bully our neighbors into giving us their sparklers after we lit off a bunch of them during the day? The sense of ownership and pride naturally led my sister and me to take care of our things, a lesson learned that went far beyond sparklers and summer kid fun.

And what is true at an individual level is repeated hundreds of millions of times over for a nation. Property rights are a pillar of what made America exceptional. Glossed over in school history books – if discussed at all – is the story of New World settlers to America. Both Jamestown and Plymouth colonies flirted with collective property, seeing that each person received what he needed from “the common stock.”

The experiment failed in Plymouth, as Governor Bradford noted people faking illness and not working the “common” farm plots. Communal property was abandoned in favor of individual property rights.

The Jamestown colony was a more vivid and cautionary tale: the colonists also tried communal property and farming and nearly starved themselves to death. Of a colony of nearly 500 in the winter of 1609-1610 only 60 survived, the rest (nearly 90 percent!) perished from starvation. Some resorted to cannibalism or digging up graves to consume the corpses of their fellow colonists in order to survive.

Modern examples exist, too.

Private ownership saved the American buffalo population. When individuals were given ownership (and therefore incentives) to raise buffalo, they did. Now, 90% of the 500,000 buffalo in this nation exist under private ownership, whereas collectively “owned,” they neared extinction.

In Europe, the Landmark Trust rescues historic buildings that would otherwise be lost. Under private ownership, the Trust rents out the properties, using profits for maintenance.

When things are owned by the government or the public at large, “everybody” owns it. So if the US population is 319 million, then you have an ownership stake of 0.00000000313%. And how much do you care about maintaining 0.00000000313% of anything? Everybody owns it and so nobody truly does. And that means nobody takes care of it quite like it would be if it had been owned by an individual.

Consider the federal budget and the fact that the government’s chief auditing agency (GAO) published a report estimating that the number of “improper payments” in FY 2014 was $124.7 billion. These are by the government’s definition simply put, “any payments that should not have been made.” (Examples include Social Security or other benefit payments made to dead people; most improper payments are connected to abuse of an entitlement program.)

To put that into perspective, if “Improper Payments, Inc” were a US corporation, it would be the 15th largest on the list of wealthiest US companies. If it were a country, its annual GDP would be larger than 131 other countries on a ranking of economic output.

But who “owns” the US Treasury? It’s a public federal agency. We all do. So nobody takes the care needed to avoid wasting over $100 billion in tax revenue on an annual basis. What privately-owned company could operate in this manner? Perhaps more depressing to think about, is what other things could have been done with the money wasted on improper payments? Cancer research? Fixing the crumbling infrastructure? Or better yet, returning the money to private hands.

Now grown, I own property myself, and I hope to teach my daughter the same sense of pride and ownership, that good things come when we understand our resources (and their scarcity) and make plans based upon careful study (essentially, the opposite of what our government does!). So as I listen to the fireworks for another Independence Day, I remain thankful for my freedoms, and most of all for my property rights.

PHOTO CREDIT: 

“Sparkler” by Stuart Heath, via Creative Commons License

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