The Outstater

November 3, 2020

“The system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not.” – Friedrich A. Hayek, 1944

THE BOARDED-UP storefronts on election day in downtown Indianapolis are a picture of what happens when private property is denigrated; for it is not just that the wealthy suffer a loss but that the rest of us are reduced as well.

Some Hoosiers will recognize that statement as a version of Bastiat’s “broken window fallacy.” Let me offer a contemporary translation of that great 19th century French economist’s parable:

An Antifa or BLM enthusiast, whether motivated by revolutionary spirit or misguided juvenile energy, decides to break windows as a political statement. The mainstream media looking on decide that the activist has actually done the community a service by initiating justified “change.” In any event, a carpenter or glazier will be paid to repair the damage and that money will be spent on something else, jump-starting the local economy (“property can be replaced”). The onlookers come to believe that breaking windows stimulates the economy and helps build a new, more just city (“build it back better”).

The fallacy is this: That by forcing others to pay for a boarded up or broken window (or self-defined political change), the activist has done nothing more than reduce (rob) others of the money that the store owner would have spent on other goods or services — in fact, reduce the real value of the city.

That is why successful economies include protection of private property in their foundations. It is what the British author Tom Bethell called “the noblest triumph.” It is at the core of Common Law, the basis of Western Civilization. For the protection of property is not something that can be taken for granted; it is not included in the default setting of humankind. Rather, it requires heroic public understanding and civic will — exceptional leadership, in other words.

Sadly, the current civic rule in Indianapolis lacks any of that. Mayor Joe Hogsett — or Gov. Eric Holcomb, for that matter —  has shown neither the will nor the understanding of what is at stake in protecting a city’s property, its value. His statements are mumbo-jumbo, politically calculated appeals for an ever-shifting social justice mixed with an illogical tolerance of criminal acts.

Rhetoric won’t work — good or bad. You don’t have to go too far into the predominately white suburbs, where roughly two-thirds of middle-class wealth is in home ownership, to find the concern palpable. For you don’t have to be a supremacist to extrapolate mobs throwing bricks to a reduction in the value of the property on which the bricks fall.

And the black community?  Whether it voted Democrat or Republican today, it would be wise to heed the advice of Charles Blain and Joel Kotkin writing in this week’s issue of the City Journal:

“’One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results,’ economist Milton Friedman said. Whatever their professed concerns for low-income and ethnic minorities, progressive cities and their mayors fail to deliver progress. Initiatives like defunding the police, affirmative action and implementing guaranteed basic income have largely failed and in some cases have made things worse. In contrast, more conservative areas have produced more opportunity and general well-being for the minority population.” 

The simple truth, without spending months in agonizing reappraisal and generational navel-gazing, is that the value of Indianapolis, for both whites and blacks, has been reduced. Without a change in government philosophy, it will not be recovered.

What would that philosophy look like?

It is described by Tom Bethell again, touching on what followers of all the major religions since Egypt’s Middle Kingdom would recognize as the Golden Rule:

“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 industrious will reap the benefits of their industry; the frugal the consequences of their frugality; the improvident and the profligate likewise. They receive their due, which is to say they experience justice as a matter of routine.”

The election-day photographs of a boarded-up Indianapolis tell us how far we have strayed from that. The question is whether we will get back. — tcl


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