Simple Me

by Don Boudreaux on November 23, 2012

in Property Rights, Science

Democracy’s Herald doesn’t at all like my response to Jamie Newman’s comment on this Thanksgiving Day post.  In his comment on this post, Mr. Newman ridiculed me for

reducing an exceeding complex bit of history into a charming parable about the wonder of free markets, private property, and bourgeois “pursuits” (whatever they are). So simple, even a child could get it.

I pointed out to Mr. Newman that in fact the literature on the sound incentives created by a regime of private property rights is far more vast than is my (admittedly) compact blog post.  I listed some books on the topic that Mr. Newman might wish to consult.

Democracy’s Herald reacts:

Your cause is served poorly by your dismissing Newman’s critical point by simply giving him a reading list.

….

Just as we all thought, you are nothing but show and no substance.

Okay then.  Let me try my hand at offering some substance.

Mr. Newman is a jazz musician.  I presume that he’s a very good one.  But I don’t know what instrument he plays, so I’ll assume that he’s a saxophonist.

Suppose the property-rights regime for saxophones were such that anyone who builds or buys a saxophone must share that musical instrument, without compensation, with anyone else who wishes to use a saxophone.  That is, if Mr. Newman pays, say, $6,000 for a brand new lovely alto sax, I get to use that saxophone whenever I want – as does his next-door neighbor, his brother, his dental hygienist, and anyone else who fancies blowing a few notes on a saxophone.  And none of us users must compensate Mr. Newman for our use of his saxophone.

If I now conclude that, under such a regime of communal property rights in saxophones, neither Mr. Newman nor anyone else would in fact ever bother to spend resources producing, or money buying (and maintaining and repairing), saxophones, I suspect that everyone would regard my conclusion as being both correct and relevant even though the hypothetical from which it is derived is notably simple.  Likewise if I then point out that, under such a communal scheme, the world’s saxophone supply would be very scant indeed.  Likewise, too, if I also point out that those of us who enjoy listening to saxophone music would almost never experience that pleasure.

Simple and highly unrealistic my little hypothetical surely is.  But in its simplicity it is especially clear at revealing the important point that private property rights create incentives for individuals to produce, acquire, protect, and improve assets whose skillful use produces value not only for each owner of each asset but also for many non-owners of any particular asset.  (I don’t play the saxophone and I’ve never owned one, but I’m darn happy that Stan Getz did.)

Of course in reality there are different ownership options for saxophones: outright individual ownership; joint ownership by private clubs; ownership by schools that allocate use rights among their students; and rentals.  Additional types of ownership and use rights can be listed.  Also in reality one can point to instances of owners abusing their own saxophones; to instances of thieves pilfering saxophones; to instances of saxophone producers selling, both intentionally and unintentionally, saxophones whose quality disappoints their buyers; and to instances of countless other “exceedingly complex” real-world manifestations of saxophone ownership and possession that are not captured by my simple little hypothetical involving Mr. Newman.

Yet how much does this far more complex reality modify the lesson of my little hypothetical?  I reckon that someone can sincerely say “a lot!”  But I suspect that most people understand the lesson – and regard it as a valid one that applies usefully to a far more complex reality.

It is the same sort of important lesson that should be drawn from the experience of Plymouth Plantation’s switch from primitive communism to private property rights in land – a lesson that is, in fact, even more powerful than my hypothetical because it is an actual historical event.

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