Stay Off Our Lawn!

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During the Vietnam War era, antiwar demonstrators almost incinerated a building on the campus of Stanford University. It was saved by a libertarian leader (not having a good memory for leaders, I’ve forgotten his name), who was then widely reviled in the radical libertarian movement for his alleged assistance to war and conscription. He replied that Stanford was a private university and he was merely saving private property. Some people bought that; some people didn’t. I was (and remain) fanatically opposed to conscription, and to the Vietnam War, but I didn’t know what to think about the private university vs. protestors problem.

Now we are engaged in another great campus war. Property is being occupied, and trashed, and so forth. I don’t mean to minimize the significance of the issues at stake for the warring groups, but they are not my subject. I want to talk about the chronic issue of property rights in public institutions. Do demonstrators, protestors, insurgents, call them what you will, violate rights when they damage or occupy “public property”? This is obviously not an issue just for libertarians, although libertarians tend to be better at separating it from the issue of who is right about the specific conflicts in question.

Stanford, Columbia, etc., would not exist as the enormous property holders they are except for their subsidization by government, especially the federal government.


Let’s start with the problem that seems easiest for some libertarians to solve — the old Stanford University problem. Stanford, Columbia, Yale, etc., are officially private institutions, owned by private corporations. They are not the University of Utah or the University of Alabama. Therefore, according to one line of argument, they can do whatever they want with their property, and if demonstrators don’t like it, then to hell with them — you may kick them out.

I’ll respond in this way. Hillsdale College is unquestionably private. It does not accept government money. But Stanford, Columbia, et cetera, would not exist as the enormous property holders they are except for their subsidization by government, especially the federal government, which not only bankrolls their students with loans and scholarships but provides most of their income by grants for research (often pseudo-research, but never mind). On this basis, the federal government asserts its right to govern a very large proportion of their activities, and does so, ordinarily without objection by the colleges in question. For me, as for any Marxist demonstrator with a sense of practical reality, this pushes said institutions over the line. They are, for all intents and purposes, public property.

But here a more important issue arises. Suppose that they are indeed public property and should be treated like, for instance, my alma mater, the University of Michigan, which finances itself in almost the same way as they do, but claims to be a state, not a private, institution. And suppose that we’re talking not just about Harvard and Michigan but about community colleges, highways, and city halls — things fully owned by the state. According to libertarian principles, does one have a right to occupy, blockade, damage, or destroy the property of public institutions in general?

My answer is no. The fact that something is “public property” gives me no right to use and dispose of it as I choose.

There is no evidence that I own the University of Michigan, any more than that I own the Golden Gate Bridge.


At this point nonlibertarians may be thinking “Why state the obvious?” But it isn’t obvious. Ask yourself, “Who actually owns public property?” If the answer is, “The people,” which people do you mean? Not everyone, surely. Most people who “own” public property have never even seen it, let alone used or disposed of it. And if any individual “property holders” walk onto the property, they will be confronted by as many rules about its use, let alone its disposal, as would have confronted them if they’d walked into a private residence. An old idea, and not just a libertarian one, is that when something is owned by everyone it is owned by no one. This how “the tragedy of the commons” starts. Radical libertarians take this idea seriously. They think that so-called “public property,” being owned by no identifiable persons, cannot rightly be defended by booting impassioned occupiers off of it. If you say, “I don’t know who really owns the University of Michigan,” they believe that all the rest of the thesis follows.

To this I reply: I do know one thing about the University of Michigan: I myself do not own it. There is no evidence that I own it, any more than that I own the Golden Gate Bridge. If I have a right to occupy the former, I have a right to occupy the latter. The difference is merely practical. In the case of the bridge, my occupation may kill people who get stuck on it with emergency medical conditions. In the case of the campus, I may merely be blocking free access to some of the twaddle dispensed in its classroom. But the difference in right does not appear.

One thing to remember about rights — any concept of rights that descends from the classical liberal tradition — is that they are equal. There is no such thing as a right that you possess and I do not. You may have a special privilege granted by some political power, but you do not have a right. The mayor of Irvine, California said in reference to demonstrators who seized the Physical Science Lecture Hall at UC Irvine, “Taking space on campus or in a building is not a threat to anyone.” This is the kind of point made only when the purported rights of some people are being exalted over the equal rights of all people. It is notable that people who block the Golden Gate Bridge or occupy some (almost always central) location on campus claim immunity for doing something that would land you or me in jail. If I pitched a tent in Harvard Yard, or occupied a building, or even part of a building, at UC Irvine, or defaced a statue in Central Park, how long would it take the cops to get a warrant for my arrest? No cop, DA, mayor, congressman, or president would defend me — unless I was advocating some cause they favored above all others. Yet other people do such things all the time, and are regarded as exercising their right to free speech. Clearly, this claim is false.

“Homesteading” never meant declaring that something is yours by right, or even that you have the right to use it for some period of time.


Yes, yes, but someone is controlling the use of Central Park and the Golden Gate Bridge, and defending the right to do so with claims, however questionable, about the public ownership of these things. And indeed, every piece of property that has any value is going to be controlled by someone. So, says the radical libertarian, if the property is in fact unowned, why should it not be controlled and — to employ a term that is popular among radical libertarians — homesteaded by someone who can use it? (Defenders of some recent campus occupations have said that the demonstrators merely wanted to live on a lawn that the college wasn’t using anyway.)

The word homestead becomes less alluring when one recalls that the personal appropriation of “public land” in the American West was legitimized and facilitated by the American government, on the ground that its authority was required to adjudicate competing claims for the same property. (Another purpose was to collect purchase money that went into the US Treasury, where some of it financed the expulsion of Indians who had the curious conception that this was their own public land.) “Homesteading” never meant declaring that something is yours by right, or even that you have the right to use it for some period of time (say, until a college administration gives into your list of demands). Today, squatting on “public property” (perhaps a derelict building on which the government holds a lease) or declaring a “liberated zone” in the midst of a campus is less akin to homesteading than to the declaration by some servant of a European monarch that his master owns all the land watered by the Mississippi and its tributary streams.

To observe that claims to ownership of property for which there are rival claimants must be decided by some authority not created by the claimants themselves is not to say that one loves the administration of Harvard College, the University of Michigan, or even the Golden Gate Bridge. God forbid. It just means that neither you nor I nor any assemblage of you’s or I’s has any right to take something that is clearly not ours.

Glory to you if you thus defend the cause of liberty! But don’t corrupt the cause by claiming that you are merely reclaiming the people’s property.


You may say, as some demonstrators have said, that the University of California (or whatever — the claim would not vary) was founded by “settler colonialism,” and that its authority and possessions are therefore “illegitimate.” This, stated in varying words, with application to varying landscapes, is the most common political claim in the world today. Little research is required to show that the most recent “settlers” were successors of other “settlers,” all with a belief in public property administered (in a practical sense, owned) by various people respected, justly or unjustly, in their particular societies. Does any of this mean that I have the right to occupy the Golden Gate Bridge?

Well, is there nothing that would justify such acts? Oh yes, there is. They would be justified by some great and urgent need that was itself consistent with the idea of rights.

That statement is too complicated. I’ll make it simpler. If there’s a force of fascists coming across the Golden Gate Bridge, determined to establish their regime in San Francisco, why yes, defenders of liberty may rightly take that public property, the Bridge, and hold it against them. If a public school in California is using its property to herd Japanese into concentration camps (but wait — didn’t that already happen?), yes, defenders of liberty may rightly take that property. Supposing, that is, they have reason to believe they can hinder such deeds from happening — because this is now a practical question, as distinguished from a question of right.

Glory to you if you thus defend the cause of liberty! But don’t corrupt the cause by claiming that you are merely reclaiming the people’s property, or asserting your right to freedom of speech. And for God’s sake, please don’t say that you’re “peaceful.”

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P.S.: A continuously provocative comment about all of this was made by David Hume, in his essay Of the Original Contract: “It is confessed, that private justice, or the abstinence from the properties of others, is a most cardinal virtue: Yet reason tells us, that there is no property in durable objects, such as lands or houses, when carefully examined in passing from hand to hand, but must, in some period, have been founded on fraud and injustice. The necessities of human society, neither in private nor public life, will allow of such an accurate enquiry: And there is no virtue or moral duty, but what may, with facility, be refined away, if we indulge a false philosophy, in sifting and scrutinizing it, by every captious rule of logic, in every light or position, in which it may be placed.”

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