When political controversies arise, people are quick to pick a side.
Are you for or against the border wall? Do you want lower taxes or more entitlements?
But before you answer questions like these, there’s a question you should ask: who gets to decide?
There’s an assumption when we start “talking politics” that any question is a government decision that should be decided one way for everyone. Depending on the question and your philosophy, “everyone” might include a town, a nation, or all of humanity.
But though people might become very informed about immigration or tax policy, they never even consider whether these are questions they – or their political representatives – get to decide.
When a libertarian objects to a border wall, it’s not necessarily because he thinks immigration is better for him. Rather, it’s because he doesn’t think governments should get to decide where individuals reside or work. He thinks that these decisions are properly made by the individuals involved, for example a potential employer or landlord of the immigrant.
When a libertarian objects to entitlements, it’s not necessarily because he doesn’t want to help others. Rather, it’s because he doesn’t think governments should get to decide how people give to charity. These decisions are properly made by the individuals who earned the money.
This is a radical departure from how most people in the world think – but it’s quite aligned with how the Founders of the United States thought. At a time when people believed that divine monarchs should get to decide most questions, the Enlightenment – which included the Founders – taught that individuals had a right to decide for themselves.
That is why America became exceptional. It was the only society on Earth in which the answer to “who gets to decide?” was “each of you.” We can point to many historical examples when even Americans were not free in this way, but we consider them failures of the ideal. Even so, more people were free to decide for themselves on more issues than ever before. And what enabled this is the theory of private property.
Utopians since Thomas More have dreamed of a peaceful world without money or possessions. Yet, every attempt to build these utopias has collapsed. They will say it’s because people are too selfish, but that’s not it. The theory itself is wrong.
Private property theory acknowledges a reality that the utopians dismiss: resources are scarce and someone is going to have to decide how they are utilized. If you don’t respect money or possessions, then all resources are subject to some individual or group with political power. Might makes right.
Of course, you’re not trying to build a commune, so you might think this lesson doesn’t apply. But what if your neighbor wants to paint a mural on the side of his house or operate a home business? You may say, “I don’t want that!” but have you stopped to consider who gets to decide? Private property theory says the neighbor can do what he likes with his house. Unfortunately, most Americans today would say you should try to use political power to control your neighbor through land-use regulations.
The result is conflict and fewer opportunities. A real estate investment firm estimated that 40% of the buildings in Manhattan would be illegal to build today. Is this the America we want?
We can start building toward liberty again by asking not “which side are you on?” but “who gets to decide?”
Author: Mike Vine