One of private property’s biggest virtues

by Russ Roberts on April 4, 2012

in Property Rights

In this beautiful essay, David Henderson points out how private property solves problems. He could equally have written about how it avoids problems. Here’s the opening. Read the whole thing.

Should restaurants allow smoking or not? Should schools teach evolution or intelligent design or both? Should insurance companies cover contraception? Should I be able to take off my shoes in your living room?

You might think that that last question doesn’t belong with the first three. After all, the first three questions are momentous ones about “public policy.” The last one is only about the rules you have for my behavior in your living room—a “private-policy” question. And your answer to that question will depend on how you want to use your property.

But think about what you just read: Your answer to whether I should be able to remove my shoes in your living room depends on how youwant to use your property. What is implicit here, but obvious to all, is that the choice is yours. I have no say in the matter. That doesn’t mean you won’t take account of my thoughts and feelings. You will. Let’s assume that you find it distasteful for me to take off my shoes, but that you like my company. Let’s further assume that telling me that I can’t get comfortable by taking off my shoes will mean that I won’t want to visit you. Then you will trade off your distaste at having me shoeless with the pleasure you take from my company. If one outweighs the other, in your subjective estimation, then you’ll choose accordingly.

Notice how property rights solve the problem. It’s your living room and so you get to choose. How your living room gets used is not a public-policy problem.

And here’s the kicker. If property rights are respected, none of the other three questions is a public-policy problem either. Consider each in turn.

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