The public institution of private property

If you go to a friend’s party, and decide to take something from his home without permission, that’s called stealing.

Let’s say you saw a laptop computer tucked away in a corner at the party, and decided to take it without saying anything to anybody.

You stole it.

Let’s break this down to understand the dynamics a little better. Why was it stealing?

One reason is that we have something that I call “the public institution of private property.”

We all understand what private property is. In that sense, our collective understanding of private property is a public institution–we all agree to the rules that establish what constitutes private property. That agreement, to live by those rules, is a public action.

We don’t get to decide for ourselves what constitutes private property. There is no “privatizing private property.” If we all got to decide for ourselves what constitutes private property, then it should be obvious that chaos would be the result. Anybody could take anything they wanted at any time.

It would be hard to accumulate goods and wealth. It would be hard to even take care of your own family. Trust would decline dramatically, being replaced by suspicion and fear.

The strong would prey upon the weak. It would become a might-makes-right culture.

Privatizing the rules for private property would not strengthen private property rights. It would eliminate them.