Picnics and Property Rights

December 20, 2010

For release noon Dec. 21 and thereafter (446 words)

When I was 12 years old, the Youth of First Christian Church had a picnic at Honor Heights Park in Muskogee, Oklahoma. The good ladies of the church brought loads of potato salad, baked beans and coleslaw but every child knew the real action was in the sack lunch mom had packed with their favorite delight. Our mom had fried some chicken.

That was a real treat for us as she opposed fried food on general principle long before such health concerns were fashionable. I had the breast pieces, my younger brother, Robert, got the drumsticks and sister Susan got the thigh pieces.

Just before the prayer was to be given, the Reverend Wilbanks made an admonition that went something like this: You young folks should not be greedily holding on to your own sack lunches, rather you should empty your sacks and contribute the contents to the common table — after all, sharing was the Christian way.

I was horrified. Nonetheless, along with all the other children I pliantly obeyed the minister and surrendered my lunch. We then all bowed our heads in prayer and I did something I had never done — I impiously opened my eyes and slowly edged toward the picnic table. I noted that most of the other boys in my age group were doing the same thing. And after the closing “amen” it was a free-for-all.

I managed to recover at least one of my chicken breasts and I think I got Nancy Mayes’ Twinkie. As I escaped the table I noticed that the George brothers were gleefully munching on my brother’s chicken drumsticks, much to his dismay.

It was not my mother’s habit to criticize other authority figures in my life in front of me — but she made clear she thought the reverend was boneheaded on this one, as did most of the other moms. “Kids want what their mama packed.”

Some 45 years later I fondly recall Reverend Wilbanks as a great teacher, leader and pastor. He is a hero of my youth. But the moms’ of First Christian Church were right: Forced sharing breeds disappointment and resentment and is not the best way to promote the habits of Christian charity. Quite the opposite; it encourages bad behavior, as everyone breaks the rules to jockey for the best cut from the common pool.

We economists constantly remind the public and policymakers that private-property rights are essential in generating incentives for production of goods and services. But an additional point is warranted: The absence of private-property rights inevitably discourages good manners and deportment in the distribution of goods and services. Social behavior reduces to the lowest common denominator of 12-year-old boys.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, attends church picnics and teaches economics in Muncie.


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