Stay Off Our Lawn! — Otra Vez

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The recent article by Stephen Cox, “Stay Off Our Lawn,” reminds me of the kind of property-rights arguments I haven’t heard in a long time. It prompts a response.

I agree with much of what it says, but I argue from a more conventional (conservative?) position. I think Stanford and other private universities should have a wider freedom of action than public universities. True, they accept government grants, and students financed with government loans and grants, and the money comes with strings that most universities (but not Hillsdale College) accept. But in my view, government money does not turn a private university into public property. That’s a kind of “one-drop rule” that I don’t think libertarians should accept. If help from the state nullifies private rights, we have to give up too much ground. Everything is polluted.

If the government helps you buy a house, might that mean the cops won’t need a warrant to search it? If the government pays for your education from kindergarten through college, has it bought the right to conscript you into the army? Or — an argument I’ve heard many times — if you are covered by medical insurance, do you lose your right to ride a bike without a helmet?

If help from the state nullifies private rights, we have to give up too much ground.


I am no anarchist. I accept that my alma mater, the University of Washington, is owned by the state. Seattle’s principal university exists for three broad purposes: education, research, and medicine. The university has long allowed protest marches and rallies. Back in the 1930s it didn’t, but in my lifetime it always has. Sometimes protesters go overboard. In 1970, when the whole country erupted over the shooting of four Vietnam War protesters at Kent State University in Ohio, student protesters in Seattle blocked the southbound lanes on Interstate 5. A radical libertarian might argue that since nobody owned the freeway, they had the same right to block the lanes as other people had to drive cars on them. In 1970, Seattle cops chased the protesters off I-5 with nightsticks, which I thought was fine. To me, the issue was not who owned the freeway but what the freeway was for, and costs were being imposed on people using it properly by people who were not.

I don’t think a public university should allow the occupation of its buildings or squatter camps on its lawns. Those things interfere with the university’s work. A rally in the UW’s Red Square is one thing; people go there, listen to some speakers, wave signs, and go home. It’s an event. To set up housekeeping on the campus lawn for weeks and vow not to leave until the university caves in to a political demand is more than a protest. It’s extortion.

Cox writes, “The fact that something is ‘public property’ gives me no right to use and dispose of it as I choose.” I agree, except that I wouldn’t use the quotation marks. Public property is the government’s property. That doesn’t mean the government can do anything it wants, because we don’t have that kind of government. And I agree with him that if you were holding the Golden Gate Bridge against a force of blackshirts aimed at imposing a fascist regime on San Francisco, you would be on the side of good.

In 1970, Seattle cops chased the protesters off I-5 with nightsticks, which I thought was fine.


Finally, I appreciate his point that the property rights of people today should not be taken away because an owner in the distant past obtained them, in David Hume’s words, through “fraud and injustice.” If you allow that mouse into the kitchen, all your food is at risk.

You can make exceptions: if the Nazis stole an oil painting from your grandfather in 1942, I see no reason why you, or one of his other descendants, should not have it back. The oil painting is a luxury good; restoring it causes no great injustice, and tracing the ownership is relatively simple. It’s recent, well within living memory. But if it’s land that was a hunting ground 300 years ago for a tribe that you claim membership in today, and has a symphony hall on it now, the property is not yours. Your connection to it is too tenuous, and other people’s connection so much greater. The Seattle Symphony introduces its concerts at the nonprofit Benaroya Hall by reciting that the hall is on land that was once owned by Indian tribes. It’s a gesture with no market value, no effect, and no moral value either. The tribes do not own Benaroya Hall.

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