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The Enlightenment Case against Public Property

There are several problems with public property:

  1. The government forcibly finances public property through taxes.

    The government violently collects taxes to finance public property. Victims don’t get to opt out.

  2. Public property inflates the need for prisons.

    Criminals are often put in prison to keep them ‘off the streets’. If roads, sidewalks, parks etc were privately owned, there’d be less of a need for prisons. The owners of roads, say, could simply enforce a rule that criminals are not welcome on their property, and evict them if they try to enter. Landlords already do this routinely – just picture the same for roads, parks, and so on. The general populace still wouldn’t have to worry about sharing a space with criminals, yet criminals wouldn’t need to be put in metal cages for other people’s safety.1

  3. Public property exacerbates environmental problems.

    As Logan Chipkin taught me, private property is much better when it comes to preserving and improving the environment. Whoever privately owns a forest, say, has more of an incentive to prevent and combat forest fires than the government does in the case of publicly ‘owned’ forests. If private people owned the oceans and charged boats to pass through their property, the owners would have an incentive to keep the oceans clean. Ironically, environmentalists are typically lefties who want more government control and more public property.

  4. Public property diffuses responsibility.

    If everyone owns something, nobody does, so then nobody feels accountable. When nobody feels accountable, quality and upkeep suffer accordingly.

  5. Public property results in a misallocation of funds.

    Since people are not free not to pay for public property, money is not allocated where it would normally go, leading to distortions and reduced error correction in the economy.

Some of these problems are symptoms of a more fundamental issue with public property. Public property means people are forced to share: in public spaces, people can’t avoid each other freely. In other words, on public property, people don’t have freedom of association. Since the government owns ~all the roads and sidewalks and can prevent you from building your own, you cannot avoid using public property. That means you also cannot avoid sharing it with everyone else who likewise has to use it, including dirty and/or dangerous people.

You have freedom of association only when you are able to decline a given association; when you get to decide who you surround yourself with. It means you get to refuse any association with anyone for any reason or no reason at all.

Freedom of association is a core enlightenment value. Without it, you logically can’t have the enlightenment.

The full implementation of the enlightenment requires abolishing public property and replacing it wholly with private property.

Conversely, advocates of public property and enemies of private property, including the government, are unenlightened.

Note that the second problem in the list above – the inflated need for prisons – is a direct consequence of the violation of people’s right to freedom of association. By building prisons to keep criminals ‘off the streets’, the government implicitly admits that public property is a systematic, institutionalized violation of everyone’s right to freedom of association. (If it weren’t, people would be free to avoid criminals and there’d be no need to keep criminals ‘off the streets’.) The government’s ‘solution’ is to double down and force criminals to associate in prison.

Another problem is that public property turns people against each other. Since most people uncritically accept the mistaken notion that public property is a necessity, yet are unhappy with the state of public property, the only way for them to improve this state, they think, is to control others. For example, people are forced to share the sidewalk with bums who defecate in public and leave dirty needles on the ground. People don’t want their kids to be exposed to this stuff on their way to (public) school, so they will support policies criminalizing drug use. They reliably fail to see that the real evil in this scenario is public property (and schools) – and, more fundamentally, the violation of the right to freedom of association. If children were free to avoid those bums, then bums could continue to use drugs without endangering children, and there’d be no need for policies criminalizing drug use. This connects, again, with a reduced need for prisons, because then drug users wouldn’t end up in prison (at least not for using drugs).

That public property still exists is symptomatic of the wider problem that our society has not yet fully implemented the enlightenment. This goes to show that philosophy is not some pointless and esoteric field for people in armchairs, but has a major impact on people’s lives. Imagine how many problems could be avoided if the government didn’t force people to associate.

  1. I’m not saying there’s no legitimate place for prisons at all. I’m saying the need for prisons could presumably be greatly reduced if there were no public property. That means reduced taxes while still not having to share a space with criminals. Yet, just like environmentalists, advocates of criminal-justice reforms are typically lefties who, ironically, would never want to get rid of public property. 

What people are saying

I think calling it a violation of freedom of association is going too far. Being in the same space as others is not being forced to associate with them.

#648 · Ante Skugor (people may not be who they say they are) ·

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