Simple Me

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.

Quotation of the Day…

… is from pages 1338-1339 of Robert Ellickson’s landmark 1993 Yale Law Journal article “Property in Land” (footnotes removed; Ellickson’s quotation in the third paragraph is from pages 300-301 of the 1912 Massachusetts Historical Society edition of William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation):

To finance their voyage, the Pilgrims formed a joint stock company with London investors.  At the investors’ insistence, the settlers agreed to pool output, land, capital, and profits during their first seven years abroad.  From this “common stock,” residents of the colony were to receive food and other necessities, and at the end of the seven-year period, the land and other assets were to be “equally divided betwixt” the investors and the settlers.  The colonists initially complied with the spirit of this contract.  Although they planted household gardens almost from the start, they collectivized initial field and livestock operations.  The setters had some agricultural successes, but they were unable to grow corn in their common field.  Within six months of reaching Plymouth, almost one-half of the population had perished from disease.


In 1624 the Plymouth colonists deviated from the investors’ plan and assigned each family from one to ten acres, depending on the number of family members.  This greatly increased productivity.


[Parcelization] had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise. . . .  The women now wente willingly into the field, and tooke their little-ones with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes and inabilitie; whome to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.

When I first quoted these words from Ellickson (and Bradford) here at the Cafe, on the day before Thanksgiving in 2004, I closed my post with the following (which I now slightly amend from its original version):

Today, we Americans celebrate Thanksgiving.  We would be turkeys if we fail to understand the true source of our bounty.  That source is not the land itself nor any “natural” abundance of “natural resources” – it is not dumb luck – it is not god inexplicably smiling upon Europeans who occupy the North American continent: it is consistent and widespread reliance upon private-property markets as well as our general high regard for bourgeois pursuits.

And let’s not forget that we today have far more – words-fail-us-in-attempting-to-describe more – to be thankful for than did those first brave English subjects of James I who latched themselves onto the Massachusetts wilderness.

Presentation by Randal O’Toole of CATO

No happy hour this week! See “change of plans” below:

The American Dream turned into a nightmare when the housing bubble burst, and people have been trying to figure out who to blame- Greedy bankers? Corrupt politicians? Ignorant homeowners? In American Nightmare: How Government Undermines the Dream of Homeownership, Randal O’Toole explores the forces at play in the housing market and shows how we can rebuild the American dream of homeownership by eliminating federal, state, and local policies that distort the free market for housing.

Please join the Independence Institute and Liberty on the Rocks for a presentation with Mr. O’Toole on Wednesday evening, June 20 at the Independence Institute.

When: Wednesday, June 20, 2012, 5:30-7pm
Where: Independence Institute | 727 E. 16th Ave., Denver

5:30 PM Refreshments
6:00 PM Presentation

R.s.v.p. to or 303-279-6536 X 102

Randal O’Toole is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute & Independence Institute working on urban growth, public land, and transportation issues.

Can’t make it? View the event LIVE online from 6-6:45 (MDT) tonight!