Property Rights

Nobless ObligeA few years back, Romney explained why productivity increases, although painful, are good.

This is simple stuff. He gives a hypothetical: a country with 200 people in it. Half of them farm and half of them build houses. Someone invents the plow and suddenly, all the country’s food needs can be met with only 50 people. Now, 50 former farmers are out of work.

Romney explains that this is good because those 50 people can then produce something else that is good for the country:

To the 50 people who lose their jobs, it’s a very bad idea, and they will resist with great energy and passion the idea of allowing horses to draw plows because it will make their life far more uncertain, at best. Those of us who stand back a bit say, no no no, don’t you understand that by having these plows and releasing those 50 people that someone, one of them or someone else is going to come up with something else for them to do? Making chairs, making movies whatever that is going to make everyone better off. More productivity will make everybody wealthier and more successful.

This is true, of course. In fact, this is kind of like Economics for Preschoolers.

The problem I have with this example is that it wouldn’t work the way Romney claims. The invention would not cause half the people to be unemployed. At first, they would just grow more food than they needed. Eventually, everyone (Including the builders!) would work less. This greater leisure would lead to people building chairs, making movies, whatever.

The point is that there would be no disruption. In a truly free society, an unemployed farmer would just start working some fallow bit of land. In our society, he couldn’t because that fallow bit of land is owned by someone else. Maybe the farmer could make a deal with the owner and maybe he couldn’t. But that is our modern problem, not the problem of a true free country.

I’m not suggesting that we abolish land ownership. However, I am suggesting that for the right of private property, society should be able to demand something from land owners to ameliorate the disruptions caused to workers.

The problem I see in modern conservatism is that private property is seen as something natural. Most of these people live in a fantasy land where if there were no government the world would turn into a libertarian utopia instead of the dog-eat-dog, roving biker gang dystopia of Mel Gibson fame. The old conservative saying is, “Rights imply responsibilities.” Somehow, they just can’t see the second word in “property rights.”

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