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Who Should Own Government Property?

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Jerry Story
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From "Ayn Rand Lexicon" page 57, under the heading "Capitalism":

"Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned."

The above quote is from "What is Capitalism?" CUI, 19.

Question: If all property is privately owned, who owns government property?

Possible Solutions:

1. There is no government, and therefore no need for government to own anything. But government is necessary. Scratch that.

2. Government has no need to own property and can function without owning property. Perhaps government can use private property, for a price of course.

3. Goverment counts as an individual, so government owned property is privately owned. Then what is meant by "public property" or property that is not privately owned?

4. Perhaps what government owns doesn't count as "property". But that looks like a word game.

5. Are we allowing exceptions?

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Perhaps the government exists in a vacuum and is not subject to the laws of reality and private property? Just kidding, I think your problem arises because of overly strict definitions. If you allow for the people to donate property to the government, then I think your contradiction will disappear.

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Perhaps the government exists in a vacuum and is not subject to the laws of reality and private property? Just kidding, I think your problem arises because of overly strict definitions. If you allow for the people to donate property to the government, then I think your contradiction will disappear.

If people donate property to the government, does that mean that government owns the property that was donated? If so, is the property that the goverment now owns privately owned property? Ayn Rand says that under capitalism all property would be privately owned.

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From "Ayn Rand Lexicon" page 57, under the heading "Capitalism":

"Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned."

Here are three analogies. (1) There is a building in Redmond WA ostensibly owned by Microsoft. Under capitalism, who owns that building? (2) There is (presumably) some property owned by the Ayn Rand Institute. Under capitalism, who owns that property? (3) My wife and I have a deed to our house, with both our names on it. Under capitalism, who owns our house?

The answers is (respectively) Microsoft Corporation, ARI, and me and my wife. Private ownership does not mean "single human", so in the last case two specific people own the house, and in the former case, Microsoft, a corporation, owns it. [i assume that's true for ARI as well, but that's just a guess].

3.  Goverment counts as an individual, so government owned property is privately owned.    Then what is meant by "public property" or property that is not privately owned?
. Correct. The opposite term ("public property") would refer to property that is owned by everybody.
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Why can't Congress rent the building from private owners?  Why can't the military operate on unclaimed land or rent from landowners?  I don't know why not.  So why does the government have to own property?

And to the congressmen: bring your own pens and paper, etc.

I don’t know that there is any unclaimed land left out there, but I like the rest of Unskinned's response. His idea is the only way out of the dilemma of running a government while observing Rand's ideal of having all property in private hands. This would give us a very minimalist government indeed. Tanks, submarines, jet fighters and Humvees would all be rented from companies like Hertz, Avis and Enterprise. Soldiers and police would have to be paid well enough to buy their own uniforms and even bullets. Fort Meade, Walter Reed Army Hospital, the White House, the Capitol and the Statue of Liberty would all find their way into private hands. I say, no problem. Private owners almost always take better care of their property than public squatters. I'm not sure how we take care of large, expensive disposable items like missiles, torpedos and bombs. I suppose Hertz could own those too and charge the government whenever one is consumed. Sort of like a hotel mini-bar.

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Techinically, and this may mean something given the opening question, "government" property is privately owned because all of us (meaning U.S. citizens) own the government. You should look at the government as a big corporation of which everyone is a shareholder and board member. Also remember that the FEDs holding tons of land forever was never supposed to occur, the government at first sold land gained through treaty or war to people as its main source of revenue. It could do that today as well, but the environmentalists want land frozen in time for some as yet unborn generation to see and realize we were idiots.

Now, the government differs from a corporation is other quite fundamental ways, but for the issue of land owning I think the analogy is helpful and accurate.

One more point, remember that at the beginning of the country the real federal property, that property which was essential to the running of the government and chosen to house it (Washington D.C.) was a very useless swamp which George Washington organised the purchase of for the government. I'm not totally familiar with the arrangements in New York and Philadelphia, the first two capitals, but I think the congressmen and senators did rent space from private persons for officed and even for committee work. If this applied universally or across the board I don't really know, it's not my field of research.

Caution: There is a serious and real disconnect from the way government land owning should and briefly did work and how it works today, beware not to confuse the two together.

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Techinically, and this may mean something given the opening question, "government" property is privately owned because all of us (meaning U.S. citizens) own the government. You should look at the government as a big corporation of which everyone is a shareholder and board member. . . Now, the government differs from a corporation is other quite fundamental ways, but for the issue of land owning I think the analogy is helpful and accurate.

Public ownership is a myth. I have been a U.S. citizen for a half century, have paid tens of thousands of dollars in taxes, yet do not own a single square inch of government property. Ownership entails the right to sell or trade one's property. If I were an actual owner (or shareholder) of government, I should be able to sell my share of the local library, the fire station, the high school, the art museum, the coliseum, the hospital and the water works. Yet no citizen is permitted to engage in trading of shares at any level of government. Therefore, the idea that “public” property belongs to all of us is just another beguiling collectivist/statist myth.

In reality, government property belongs ultimately to those who, from one election to the next, control the reins of power. And that is precisely why “public” resources are mismanaged: those who are only transitory stewards will exploit that property to benefit themselves in the short run (buying votes), rather than maximize the value of the property over the long term. Therefore, we should cheer any transfer of “public” property into the private sector, as Ayn Rand wisely suggested. Not only will such a transfer diminish the size of government, it will tend to encourage allocation of resources in a rational manner. For example, the Post Office would be far better run if, say, the postal workers themselves owned it (with the power to buy and sell shares) instead the amorphous "public," i.e. politicians.

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In a free society the only means of interaction between people is voluntary. Since there is no public land, this means that if people would like to have a government the individuals would give their own land; they would donate it. But only on strict guidelines. The land is only to be used for government processes; that which is needed to run a government effectively. These procedures would have to be ratified by Representatives of the people.

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"I'm not sure how we take care of large, expensive disposable items like missiles, torpedos and bombs. "

My bad. You're right Charlotte. You do like my answer because it implies anarchy. Which is the real statist collectivist myth as I am coming to understand it.

But the point is that the government has to own the nukes and I don't mind Marriot's reminder that public property is owned by the public. This is more true when there is a healthy separation of economy and state so that the politicians can be held accountable on a more limited and focused set of issues.

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Michelangelo,Oct 6 2004, 01:49 AM:

In a free society the only means of interaction between people is voluntary.  Since there is no public land, this means that if people would like to have a government the individuals would give their own land; they would donate it.  But only on strict guidelines.  The land is only to be used for government processes; that which is needed to run a government effectively.  These procedures would have to be ratified by Representatives of the people.

I'm afraid voluntary donations of land to the government won’t get around Rand’s stricture that all property under capitalism be privately owned. Once a deed passes into the hands of the government, voluntarily or not, the property is no longer in the private sector.

unskinned,Oct 6 2004, 02:53 AM:

But the point is that the government has to own the nukes . . .

I’m disappointed that you don’t like my suggestion of treating government consumables in the fashion of a hotel room’s mini-bar. Missiles, torpedoes and the like would remain the property of a private corporation until they are actually used. At that point the government pays the owner according to a pre-established price list.

unskinned,Oct 6 2004, 02:53 AM:

. . . and I don't mind Marriot's reminder that public property is owned by the public. 

In Post #9 I show that this is not true. What is “the public”? Ayn Rand said, “There is no such entity as 'the public,' since the public is merely a number of individuals.” Thus, anyone who claims that government property is owned by individuals in that collective known as “the public,” can put his claim to a real world test. Simply go down to your local school board and demand that you, as a bona fide constituent of the public, be given your share of the real estate owned by the board, i.e. “the public.” If they actually hand over a chunk of land to you (or its worth in dollars), then we can say that the public really does own public property. If the board ignores the demand, then it should be clear that public property is not public at all but a fiefdom of whatever politicians happen to be in power.

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For example, the Post Office would be far better run if, say, the postal workers themselves owned it (with the power to buy and sell shares) instead the amorphous "public," i.e. politicians.

Yeah, union workers are hardest working people in the world! :) Why have the workers own it? What the heck kind of solution would that be? I'd rather have the government own the PO, than a bunch of spoiled union workers.

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Yeah, union workers are hardest working people in the world!  :) Why have the workers own it? What the heck kind of solution would that be? I'd rather have the government own the PO, than a bunch of spoiled union workers.

Actually, I think the Post Office should be sold off to the highest bidder with the proceeds rebated to the taxpayers. But even giving away the USPS to the workers would be better than the postal socialism we have now. The best way I can illustrate this is to point to Roadway Express (now a part of FedEx). Unlike UPS, Roadway Express drivers owned the trucks they drove. The result was that since the vehicle was their own property, they took much better care of it. The same thing happens when one becomes a home owner rather than a renter.

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Actually, I think the Post Office should be sold off to the highest bidder with the proceeds rebated to the taxpayers.  But even giving away the USPS to the workers would be better than the postal socialism we have now. The best way I can illustrate this is to point to Roadway Express (now a part of FedEx).  Unlike UPS, Roadway Express drivers owned the trucks they drove.  The result was that since the vehicle was their own property, they took much better care of it.  The same thing happens when one becomes a home owner rather than a renter.

Sold off to highest bidder sounds fine by me. And I want that refund too.

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Don't drop the context. "All property is privately owned" means that all property for personal and economic use is owned by individuals (or groups of private individuals acting as private individuals) as opposed to use by the permission of or under the control of government coercion -- as in fascism, communism, etc. It does not mean that government cannot "own" and control property specifically for its own proper, required purposes. But as such it owns it in a much different sense. Individuals act by right and are restricted in what they cannot do in accordance with objective law; government is restricted in its actions to the functions it must do in accordance with objective law for both its purpose and means -- and has no "rights" at all and no freedom to do anything, including a "right" to own property (the right of use and disposal). It can (i.e., should) only "own" property in accordance with strict guidelines delimiting both the purpose and the means of acquisition and disposal in a much different sense than the private property ownership rights, purposes and procedures of individuals.

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Also, Charlotte, how do you rent bullets? I think you will concede that the government needs to own bullets. As long as they're owning bullets, I think it's right that they alone should own weapons of mass destruction as well. With separation of state and economy and voluntary taxation (and compromises on the road to it) the issue of government land ownership becomes more a question of policy.

But I am still warm to the idea of a privatized capitol building as a matter of good fiscal policy.

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...the issue of government land ownership becomes more a question of policy.
The government should not permanently own undeveloped land, and historically in this country there is no Constitutional grounds for it: It is not part of the functions assigned to government, nor does it properly have anything to do with the nature of government as an institution with a monopoly on the use of force for the purpose of defending the rights of the individual. The Federal government was supposed to have held land only for the purpose of transferring it in an orderly fashion to permanent private ownership, for example as was done under the Homestead Act referred to earlier. As more states entered the union, the power grab began, and "agreements" were made for the Federal government to own vast tracts of land. Today the Federal government owns over 30% of the land in the country, mostly in the west, and threatens private owners and the private economy all the time as it expands its control and acquisitions.
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ewv: Good answers, and welcome to the forum.

It would be impossible to have a government that did not own anything. Even if it rented everything, it would have to own money first, which is still a form of property.

I do think there is a serious unresolved issue about how government would be financed in a free society. I know Ayn Rand wrote about this explicitly, but I did not think any of her suggestions were very practical, especially if the government were to need significant resources to fight a major war.

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Don't drop the context.  "All property is privately owned" means that all property for personal and economic use is owned by individuals (or groups of private individuals acting as private individuals) as opposed to use by the permission of or under the control of government coercion -- as in fascism, communism, etc.

There is no valid reason to interpret Rand’s phrase “all property” to mean “some property.” Readng Rand’s statement in this way renders it into a useless tautology: under capitalism, all private property will be privately owned, and all government property will be owned by the government. As for “dropping context,” nothing in the rest of the essays says anything about government properly having ownership of certain property in a society.

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Also, Charlotte, how do you rent bullets?  I think you will concede that the government needs to own bullets.  As long as they're owning bullets, I think it's right that they alone should own weapons of mass destruction as well.  With separation of state and economy and voluntary taxation (and compromises on the road to it) the issue of government land ownership becomes more a question of policy.

But I am still warm to the idea of a privatized capitol building as a matter of good fiscal policy.

My hotel room mini-bar analogy applies here. Before you take a Budweiser out of the refrigerator in Room 102, the hotel owns the beer. As soon as you pop the top, the can goes on your bill. I see no reason why bullets could not be owned by Smith & Wesson, which would have the responsibily of stocking police and military armories.

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and what happens when they put the bullets in the gun? they... own them?

also evw, under separation of economy and state and with low taxes, government real estate is unconstitutional and impossible. But the government owning military bases and courthouses and bullets still exists.

Lastly, I think we can imagine a world where taxes have a positive stigma attatched to them, sort of the opposite of the way it is now. In a world where taxes almost only go towards the right actions people would not be so cynical about them. There is always freeridership but magine living in a free society with tremendous wealth and getting a red, white, and blue envelope on the fourth of July or something. Would you really not make a contribution? How would the Mellons of the world (ironically the author of Taxation: the Peoples Business) pay for giant marble art temples and pittsburgh universities but not for their own positive civil government?

Also, maybe the government would have a policy of a steadily growing surplus (property!) in case of war.

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and what happens when they put the bullets in the gun?  they... own them?

There is no reason why Smith & Wesson could not own both the gun and the bullets. The government pays rent for the gun it has borrowed, and pays replacement costs for the bullets that have been fired.

Edited by Capitalism Forever
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Charlotte Corday (Oct. 7, 2004 10:51PM EDT): There is no valid reason to interpret Rand’s phrase 'all property' to mean 'some property.'
The phrase in her definition does not mean "some property" and it would be incorrect for the definition to say "some property" or "almost no property" or anything like that referring to an amount or fraction. In referring to "property" here, we are not just talking about physical objects or some quantity of them. The government does not "own" property or have "property rights" in the normal meaning of those concepts (under Objectivism) -- governments do not have rights. The degree of government "ownership" -- i.e. control, under strict limits on purpose and procedures, over certain specific kinds of physical property it needs for its own mandatory functions (and only that) -- is 1) very small but 2) more importantly is of a radically different kind of control over property than ownership in accordance with private property rights. This kind of "government ownership" is not what is meant by property and property rights in definitions, discussions and comparisons of different kinds of social systems. (Defenders of fascism don't worry about who owns the bureaucrats' pencils either.) Understanding it requires understanding the proper nature of government according to Objectivism.

Do you object to Ayn Rand's wording or to the explanation? The purpose of a definition is to state the essence of a concept in the form of what explains the most about it, not to describe its full meaning or enumerate all its characteristics. Understanding a definition, especially for advanced abstractions, requires much more than its statement by itself, taken out of the context of what else you know. It is true that Ayn Rand did not explicitly address the topic of "government ownership" as it was first raised and worded in this discussion, but the entire essay "What is Capitalism", along with other essays such as "The Nature of Government", which it referred to, describe the context and what you need in order to arrive at the concept of capitalism, including the limitations on government action (as required for a specific purpose, not undertaken by right), the full nature and role of private property and ownership rights, and the relation of government to them.

The theory of what kind of control under what kinds of rules a government should have over the small amount of "property" required for the means of its own proper functions is secondary to the proper role of private property in a capitalist society, let alone to the rest of the major characteristics of a proper government. It does not belong in the definition of "capitalism". Such a specific political and legal theory is so narrow and specialized that it is not even a part of Objectivist philosophy.

It would have been helpful if Ayn Rand had addressed some issues more explicitly than she did, particularly with regard to subsequent recurring questions, but she couldn't anticipate or treat every possible difficulty posed by every possible wording of every question, even if some of them in retrospect might now seem obvious. I think that part of the difficulty in this case is that the Objectivist concepts of a proper government and of property ownership and rights are so radically different than what we are accustomed to hearing that it is easy to get off track when analyzing some of her statements out of the context of her meaning. So don't drop that context.

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There is no reason why Smith & Wesson could not own both the gun and the bullets.  The government pays rent for the gun it has borrowed, and pays replacement costs for the bullets that have been fired.

What's the difference between "paying replacement costs" and buying[i/] new ones?

I think people are taking what Ayn Rand said too literally and not looking at the whole context. (something I am sometimes guilt of myself)

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