Saturday, September 3, 2011

Property On My Mind

I clearly remember one of my “Oh, now I get it!” moments when learning more about libertarian ideas. It was when I read Murray Rothbard’s take on controversies surrounding burning and other kinds of flag "desecration." In his essay, The Flag Flap, Rothbard put the controversy and conflict into terms of property rights. If it’s your flag, then it’s yours to do as you wish. So simple!

I can’t tell you how much this helped to simplify and clarify issues and conflicts at the time. Well yeah, I thought, if we say people can own stuff, then we can’t also tell them how they should use their stuff. I don’t want them telling me. I shouldn’t tell them.

I even referred to this essay in one of my columns back in 2006.

It’s always amazing and fun to grasp an insight like I did when I read his piece.

So when I began to read Carl’s article in Issue 25, “Beyond the First Amendment,” and realized he was framing freedom of the press in terms of property rights, rather than words on a piece of paper (constitution and bill of rights), I knew I would like his explanation.

Carl points out that even though Americans think the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, there have been many times when it has been ignored:

“In 1798, seven years after the First Amendment's ratification, the Alien and Sedition Laws mandated punishment for printed or oral publications that promoted resistance to the federal government. The idea of postal censorship originated in 1835, when Southern lawmakers attempted to forbid the mailing of abolitionist newspapers into the South. During the Civil War certain newspaper offices in Missouri, Chicago and New York City were actually seized by northern troops and issues of papers suppressed. After the United States entered World War I, another Sedition Act was passed with the result that the government more widely interfered with the press than at any other time in American history.”

As Rothbard did with the flag issue, Carl simplifies freedom of the press by putting it in terms of property rights:

“Freedom of the press is simply a subset of the right of property, of the right of the creator to "express" himself by creating the product of his or her choice. The right of the creator is the right of the manufacturer, advertiser, book author, newspaper publisher, or any other productive person. Each is expressing him or her self without violating the rights of another property owner. Each creator's and productive person's right is just as important as the next. Therefore, to single out freedom of the press for special treatment is to obfuscate the basis upon which that particular freedom is based.

Viewing freedom of the press as a total property right allows it to accommodate itself to technological advances in the expression of opinion. The endless debates as to whether and how the First Amendment applies to radio and television would become instantly clear if property rights were respected in those spectrums. If broadcast frequencies were privately owned, rather than being operated under government license, then it would be apparent that each frequency owner and station owner would have the right to express whatever opinions he or she wished. The government would not be able to censor content or demand a certain amount of public programming time.”

Carl originally wrote this for an essay contest on the First Amendment sponsored by Phillip Morris Magazine and he explains how a government ban on cigarette advertising is an example of the property right violation.

(At the time, Congress was considering the Health Protection Act of 1986, which was intended to ban all cigarette advertising. I found a link to videos of the hearings here.)

It’s interesting that cigarettes are used as an example because that’s another area (smoking bans in restaurants/bars, etc.) where I (and many others) have tried to really focus on property rights as the issue.

But it’s been difficult to get people to accept the issue as one of property rights, many people now want to frame it as a health issue, as if people have a “right” to force business owners to ban smoking so they are “free” to patronize and work wherever they “choose.”

It’s amazing to me sometimes how people can twist issues around like that. But that’s exactly what you’d expect to happen if there is no focus and clarity on the principle of basic property rights.

If we can’t get this principle foremost in people’s minds, I’m afraid we’re going to be singing a sad song of loss like Ray Charles and it will be called “Property on my Mind,”

(Image Courtesy of Wikipedia)

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