Private Property Rights and Human Decency

Two recent stories bring to the forefront of my mind the importance of private property rights.  Both cases involve an offense against human decency, and both cases are said to be legal morasses.  I’m not sure they’re as difficult to solve as some think.

The first situation is local to my area but has hit national news.  A family on the Main Line has alleged that the Lower Merion School District was using remote control of laptop cameras to spy on students while in the privacy of their homes.  It’s hard to know exactly what did happen, and it’s difficult to keep the various versions of the story straight.  In any case, this situation seems to be framed in terms of the “right to privacy” vs. the school’s right (and perhaps in the view of some, responsibility) to keep the students in line.

The second case involves the Westboro Baptist Church and its deplorable behavior at the funerals of American soldiers killed in warfare.  Visiting the various websites of this church makes for such absurd reading that one is lead to wonder if it isn’t all a big joke.  No one with any kind of intellect could believe even half the rhetoric they spew.  In any case, this church’s members regularly protest at soldiers’ funerals, well within sight and earshot of the grieving families, claiming all sorts of outrageous things which would understandably be hurtful to the families.  Without saying anything about the rightness of war, we must recognize the profound distaste of such actions.  This case is getting ready to be heard by yet another court, and in a news article I read it was set up as a battle of “right to privacy” vs. “freedom of speech,” creating the appearance of a conundrum.

I wonder whether these cases couldn’t be simplified by returning to an ethic based upon private property rights.  In the case with the school, the laptops they issued could themselves be inspected, since they are owned by the school, but not the student in the privacy of his home, since he does not belong to the school.  This doesn’t seem difficult.

In the situation with the Westboro Baptist Church, private property rights could again be invoked.  Churches, funeral homes, and cemeteries can expel these miscreants from their land, in addition to other local owners of land where the protesters might be standing.  Those property owners who refuse to turn these people away could be boycotted by grieving families by going to a different church, etc.  If they’re on public property, such as a street, of course, that makes things more complicated, and if you ask me it only highlights the problems with public “ownership” of things, and it begs for a fully privatized society.

Will a consistent application of private property rights create heaven on earth? Hardly, and no system can be perfect.  But it does mark off territory and authority and makes seemingly difficult situations easier to solve.  Moreover, it allows us to associate with others who treat us well and eschew those who do not, and unlike theories such as Marxism it takes human nature into account, rather than hoping that human nature will somehow change for the better.  It is a voluntary society in which people will have the incentive to be decent to each other, thanks to the freedom of dis/association.  There will be no court in which jackasses can take refuge behind the freedom of speech in order to harass people.

Of course, in such a society, public schools wouldn’t exist, and neither would standing armies.


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