Stossel's "Myths, Lies and Nasty Behavior"

And even places that may look like soulless subdivisions to him are places where many people want to live. They have playgrounds, parks and back yards. What the busybodies call sprawl, others call homes they can afford.

MYTH No. 1 Sharing Would Make the World a Better Place

We learn in childhood that sharing is a good thing. And it's true -- in families and small groups.

But would the world be better off if we shared everything? No.

Think about shared public property, like public toilets. They're often gross. Public streets tend to get trashed. Earlier I mentioned how people litter on public lands, and think about what you share at work. The refrigerator where I work is disgusting -- filled with food that's rotten. I found cottage cheese that was more than a year old. It's because it's shared property.

Russell Roberts, professor of economics at George Mason University, points out that private property rarely gets abused or degraded.

And there's an explanation for this. "When something belongs to everyone, it belongs to no one. No one owns it. There's no incentive to take care of it. It gets abused and degraded," Roberts said.

Private property sounds selfish. We think of rich people taking advantage of other people. But it works a lot better, Roberts said.

Compare dirty public toilets to privately run toilets. They're common in Europe, and cleaner, because their owners -- selfishly seeking a profit -- work at keeping them clean.

Why do we have so many catastrophic forest fires? Did you know that most of them are on government land -- land we share? The feds own only a third of the forests, but they have most of the forest fires. Private forests are less likely to burn, because the livelihood of "greedy" timber companies depends on having healthy trees. But the government, managing land we all share, is less careful.

Here's another example. I can throw my trash on the floor at a pro basketball game. The home team leases this space, and they're fine with people littering, because they clean it up. The price of the cleanup is included in the ticket price, and they clean it up well. At stadiums, they don't even call this litter, it's just part of the game.

Compare that to public parks or fields -- the litter tends to stay here. It's the same reason people overfish the sea. The ocean is public property, shared property. So for years, fishermen took all they could. They had little incentive to make sure enough fish were left to reproduce, and the supply of fish has dropped drastically.

But good things happen when this public property is privatized. For example, private fishing quotas helped restore fisheries in the United States and New Zealand. In the 1980s, New Zealand's government gave fishermen individual fishing quotas, setting a total allowable catch for different species of fish. Then it granted each fisherman the right to take a certain percentage of that. Because the fishermen own those rights, it's private property. The government can't take it away from them. The fisherman are free to buy or sell those fishing rights, just like private property. The result: Fish populations went up.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...