Half Past the Month: The Silence on Private Property

May 10, 2017

“Life, liberty and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws.” — Frederic Bastiat

by Craig Ladwig

Watching last night’s meeting of our city council, the fellow in the next chair leaned over to ask, “Do you think they know about private property?”

That was not apparent even on the Republican side of the table as the majority approved a quarter million dollars a year in a non-competitive contract to a secretive group for economic-development advice. And that is a shame, for if you want a better city, one that attracts investment, but most importantly is the kind where people like you can find happiness, you will want your political representatives openly talking about private property — what it means, how it works.

Yes, you can define it as what the other fellow is greedily hoarding, or so the Democrats might have argued had the issue been raised. But greed, as Milton Friedman noted in his famed talk with Phil Donahue, is not distinguishing. It is found in every society and system of government, no matter how altruistic and pure the intention or constitution.

We will have to think a little deeper. An example helps.

In Bowling Green, Ohio, the city council had argued for a week over an incentive package that required issuance of a municipal bond to entice Ball Glass Co. to locate there. The use of property tax to secure the bond unavoidably split the community into two factions, one with property and one without (the politics of taking money from some people and giving it to other people can be time-consuming). Eventually, Frank F. Ball grew bored and left for a side trip to Muncie. There, a decision was ready and waiting. A syndicate of businessmen (independent of local government) had purchased the land surrounding a site that was perfect for a glass plant.

“Those folks in Muncie may have been public-spirited,” writes our Dr. Cecil Bohanon, “But they also had private interests. Back in Bowling Green, where public spiritedness was supposed to rule, everyone was arguing and trying to pick each other’s pockets.”

Another one: When floods threatened a Fort Wayne neighborhood, the residents did what they had done before — turned out in droves to fill sand bags. They didn’t ask for government help. They didn’t expect recognition. Nonetheless, their display of civic spirit in protecting the property of their neighbors drew the attention of Reader’s Digest where an editor dubbed Fort Wayne “the city that saved itself.”

One of the many who read the story was Roger Smith, famed CEO of General Motors. Smith had on his desk reports on cities under consideration for a new assembly plant. He pulled Fort Wayne out of the stack, choosing the city where nobody waited around for some official to file disaster-relief documents, a city where the residents protected their own property.

And another: James Cash Penney built his empire of dry goods stores by going town to town seeking out managing partners. After interviewing the prospect at his home, and if the house and grounds were well kept, he would make an offer of half the local business free and clear — no grants, no tax rebates, no regional development authority, just a simple assessment of property and character.

Finally, a friend, a professional who rose to be premier in his field, took a job here in which he would eventually invest everything he owned and four decades of his life solely on the basis of watching two elderly women on their way to church. One stopped to pick up a piece of waste paper in a yard and deposit it in a nearby trash container.

A foolish way to decide? No, he considered it the soundest decision of his life. For that is how you measure a community — by how average individual citizens go about their day, the respect they have for themselves, their neighbors, their local government, all wrapped into a sense of social justice. Our concept of private property (thank you, John Locke) encapsulates those values as well as anything. Tom Bethell, author of “The Noblest Triumph,” explains:

“The great blessing of private property is that people can benefit from their own industry and insulate themselves from the negative effects of others’ actions. It is like a set of invisible mirrors that surround individuals, households or firms, reflecting back on them the consequences of their acts.”

The trick, if you are a councilman, is to put aside your ideological vision of what the community should look like. That is so regardless of how wide your travels or intense your reading. And while you are at it, lose that dream of bringing in a better class of citizen, a more sophisticated constituency, one more worthy of your leadership.

Rather, encourage a culture of government that seeks to preserve the justice inherent in private property. That would mean a simple policy of serving constituents individually —as you find them. All will be property owners of one sort or another, even if their property is only on their back. They will hold easily understood ideas about what would make them happier and their property more secure. Many of those ideas can be realized under the law, within the city budget and without special favor.

“Good democratic governance is not about changing the occupational structure or population of a town in order to improve its rankings or to mimic amenities preferred by (more) affluent communities,” write Dr. Barry Keating and Dr. Maryann O. Keating in the upcoming Indiana Policy Review. “It would seem that it is about responding to the needs of and providing essential services to residents regardless of present circumstances.”

So, councilmen, write those needs down on an envelope if you must. Prioritize them. The investors you hope to attract, the ones who won’t threaten to leave when a tax break expires, will appreciate your straightforward, even-handed approach. They will be able to decide for themselves whether your list fits the plans they have for their own property. You won’t need a consultant.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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