- En Torno a La Funcion Del Capital, Joaquín Reig
- Reflections On the Keynesian Episode, W. H. Hutt
- Ludwig Von Mises and the Market Process, L. M. Lachmann
- Values, Prices and Statistics, Bettina Bien
- The Tax System and a Free Society, Oswald Brownlee
- How “should” Common-access Facilities Be Financed?, James M. Buchanan
- Pitfalls In Planning: Veterans' Housing After World War Ii, Marshall R. Colberg
- Presents For the Poor, R. L. Cunningham
- Restrictions On International Trade: Why Do They Persist? W. Marshall Curtiss
- “human Action”, E. W. Dykes
- The Genius of Mises' Insights, Lawrence Fertig
- On Behalf of Profits, Percy L. Greaves, Jr.
- Tax Reform: Two Ways to Progress, C. Lowell Harriss
- The Future of Capitalism, Henry Hazlitt
- Prices and Property Rights In the Command Economy, Arthur Kemp
- The Inevitable Bankruptcy of the Socialist State, Howard E. Kershner
- Entrepreneurship and the Market Approach to Development, Israel M. Kirzner
- The New Science of Freedom, George Koether
- Financing, Correcting, and Adjustment: Three Ways to Deal With an Imbalance of Payments, Fritz Machlup
- On Protecting One's Self From One's Friends, Don Paarlberg
- Recollections Re a Kindred Spirit, William A. Paton
- Ludwig Von Mises, William H. Peterson
- The Economic-power Syndrome, Sylvester Petro
- Ownership As a Social Function, Paul L. Poirot
- To Abdicate Or Not, Leonard E. Read
- The Book In the Market Place, Henry Regnery
- Lange, Mises and Praxeology: the Retreat From Marxism, Murray N. Rothbard
- The Production and Exchange of Used Body Parts, Simon Rottenberg
- The Education of Lord Acton, Robert L. Schuettinger
- Chicago Monetary Tradition In the Light of Austrian Theory, Hans F. Sennholz
- Hubris and Environmental Variance, Joseph J. Spengler
- An Application of Economics In Biology, Gordon Tullock
- What Mises Did For Me, John V. Van Sickle
- Economics In a Changing World, G. C. Wiegand
- Can a Liberal Be an Equalitarian? Leland B. Yeager
- The Political Economy of Nostalgia, Ramon Diaz
Ownership as a Social Function
Paul L. Poirot
In the market society the proprietors of capital and land can enjoy their property only by employing it for the satisfaction of other people's wants. They must serve the consumers in order to have any advantage from what is their own. The very fact that they own means of production forces them to submit to the wishes of the public. Ownership is an asset only for those who know how to employ it in the best possible way for the benefit of the consumers. It is a social function.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
If one were obliged to list a single cause of our age of revolution, it might be this: the irresponsible use of private property.
Serious enough is the problem of stewardship and responsibility for disposition of one's own property. Infinitely greater are the problems created in the so-called charitable disposition of other people's property, when one votes to tax others for funds to be distributed to the “worthy” poor.
By this process, whole classes of “beneficiaries” may be deprived of their human dignity and of the opportunity to live as responsible, mature individuals:
—the young, publicly schooled to “sit in” and picket for favors;
—the aged, socially secured against productive use of their talents;
—hypochondriacs, medicared into terminal illness;
—the indolent, paid not to work;
—unwed mothers, seduced by subsidy to fuel the population explosion;
—farmers, paid to grow surplus crops, or not to farm at all;
—businessmen, sheltered by tariffs and embargoes and protectionism generally;
—craftsmen and other professionals, guarded against competition through a union or association or licensing arrangement of one kind or another;
—an endless list of personal failures, financed at the expense of everyone else.
Even so, to speak of the irresponsible use of private property immediately calls to mind the widely publicized charges of misbehavior leveled against “merchant princes” and “robber barons” of an earlier century. And it well may be true that some individuals in those days made some mistakes.
In his definitive history of property rights (In Defense of Property, Regnery, 1963), Professor Gottfried Dietze points out that: “In the nineteenth century, private property enjoyed greater protection than ever before ... property rights received far-reaching protection through legislation, adjudication and juridical science.” In other words, the full force of law and order and government protection had been mustered in support of the absolute right of the owner to do with his property as he pleased. That was the juristic attitude toward property rights, nor should it be altogether surprising to find such property-protecting governments occasionally granting to various owners or groups a bit of special privilege and political power. In any event, it is clear that individualism generally was favored over collectivism in America and much of Europe during the nineteenth century—and that the tide now runs strongly in the other direction.
The point at issue here is whether or not the owner's right to his property carries with it any corresponding duty or responsibility toward others. And the tendency of the law in the nineteenth century was to say no; let the owner do with his property as he pleases so long as he doesn't interfere with the property rights of others.
While such a view toward property may be economically and morally sound, it probably reflects poor political strategy. There is every logical reason, in a market-oriented economy, why decisions concerning the use of property are best left to the owner. But the owner may properly be accused of negligence if he relies heavily upon the government to defend his title and does not try to explain to others the general blessings of private ownership and open competition. Without that explanation, and understanding by the people, the same governmental force used to protect property can be perverted into a weapon for plundering, a perversion well advanced in the twentieth century. Owners who would protect private property are now obliged to explain to plunderers why property rights should not thus be violated.
The term “private property” often is narrowly used to signify only the material possessions of the wealthier members of society. But in a broader and more constructive sense, “property rights” are synonymous with “freedom,” and include the individual's right of self-control, self-respect, self-responsibility, and personal choice as to how he'll use his own life. A man without property rights—without the right to the product of his own labor and without respect for the equal right of every other person—is not a free man.
How, then, does one explain to would-be plunderers that their own and the public interest are best served by private ownership rather than public ownership of scarce resources? Perhaps the most likely point of agreement would be this: one does not use a club to explain a good idea to a reasonable person. The point is of great importance: the general welfare is served by reducing violence and fighting to a minimum. Once men agree to stop plundering one another, they are in a position to consider and to act in other ways to satisfy their wants.
When reasonable persons give thought to the ever-lengthening list of unsatisfied human wants, the impressive fact comes clear that resources are scarce. It is of utmost importance that resources be used efficiently, rather than wasted, if the satisfaction of wants is to be maximized. The reasonable person also must realize that the maximum satisfaction of human wants involves thought for the morrow as well as provision for immediate consumption. This means that some resources must be saved today and used as the tools and raw materials of further production for the optimum ultimate service of consumers. The important question, then, among reasonable men, concerns who should own the scarce resources of the world in order to assure the best possible service of the needs of the sovereign consumer, each the judge of his own needs. And the most reasonable answer, in the light of experience to date, is that an unhampered competitive market economy most effectively and efficiently places the ownership of scarce resources in those hands that best serve consumers.
A word about ownership may be appropriate here. Is the owner a producer or a consumer; are we speaking of production goods or consumption goods? As far as the goods are concerned, it doesn't matter. What matters is the owner's purpose, the reason why he wants possession. And the inevitable answer is that he is trying to satisfy his wants. The person who trades or participates in the market economy is both producer and consumer, nor is there any way he can be more one than the other in an open competitive society. A king or dictator or slave master might pretend to be all consumer, leaving the production to others, but that situation does not spell freedom.
Instead of dividing the ownership of all land and tools and other factors of production equally among all men, the general welfare depends upon directing such ownership and control into the hands of the most efficient producers of the goods and services wanted by consumers. Day in and day out, in the market place, consumers are expressing their latest preferences, handsomely rewarding some producers and letting others know they have failed. In the market economy, every owner is continuously obliged to justify, through service, his right to retain control of the resources he claims. Otherwise, consumers peacefully transfer the ownership and control into more capable, more productive, more serviceable hands. How is such transfer effected? Through the market system of recording supply and demand conditions in terms of prices that may be relied upon for the economic calculation of profit or loss. Consumers thereby direct the production of what best serves their needs, placing the ownership of property in the most capable hands.
Not all consumers, of course, are aware of the economic power they can effectively wield in their own interest through the open market. Some of them, forgetful or unaware of the inevitable scarcity of resources and the terrible cost of waste, are forever looking toward a political redistribution of property in the expectation of having more for themselves for immediate consumption. They fail to see that any such political redistribution thwarts the production they had ordered by way of prices bid in the market. Nor is this displacement of economic or market power by political power a simple quid pro quo—a foot gained for a foot lost. The tools of production are like a lever or a pry pole. It is possible to cut off a stove length from the lever for immediate use as firewood, but at a tremendous loss of leverage. It is rarely, if ever, in the consumer's best interest to destroy the tools of production.
As previously mentioned, governments of the nineteenth century may have been somewhat overzealous in the protection of property, trying to maintain the prevailing pattern of ownership even if the market indicated the desirability of change. Producers, once they have served the market demand and acquired title to a considerable block of resources, are not necessarily pleased to see a competitor come forth with a better idea to serve consumers. Established owners sometimes seek governmental protection, to exclude would-be competitors from the market. Such protectionism also curbs production and distorts or weakens the signals consumers send to market. A conservatism on the part of property owners that would use governmental force to frustrate consumer demand in the market is a socialistic form of conservatism, not in the general welfare.
In other words, the market affords no permanent security to the owner. Rather, it obliges him to prove himself over and over and over—endlessly. Consumers entrust property to his use, reward him handsomely if he serves them well, ruthlessly abandon him and reallocate the property the moment he fails to serve them. The market simply will not countenance the idea of property as an exclusive privilege of the owner. The market insists that property rights belong to those who best use the property to serve consumers.
The point for which we are striving here is that the present owners of property are not necessarily the ones one might expect to uphold and defend the competitive open economy—the market system. They are only human, and might well prefer the sort of protectionism nineteenth-century government gave property owners. So, it behooves the least of the property owners to protect his own interest in the market economy—his interest as a consumer. The man who brings his goods or services to market, in trade for property he would consume, is interested in the mobility of property for easy conversion to his purposes, not protectionism and stagnation in formerly profitable uses—and not a political diversion of property to uses no one is willing to pay for.
The market has been severely, and unjustly, condemned of late for allowing or even encouraging the waste of natural resources and the serious pollution of air, water, morals, and other requisites for clean living. But closer inspection will reveal that the properties thus polluted are those not clearly subject to private ownership and control: the atmosphere, rivers, lakes, oceans, parks, streets, schools, Appalachia, the body politic. They have been treated as public property, the responsibility of government, nobody's business in particular. Hopefully, it may be realized in time that such things as air and water and human virtue are scarce and valuable resources, that they should be subject to private ownership and control, and that government's sole responsibility is to protect the owner against robbers and vandals and at the same time hold him responsible if he uses his property in ways injurious to others. Private ownership is a social function.
Dr. Mises is cited as the text for this paper. The elaboration here is intended to be in strict accord with his teachings.