Property Rehab

Too many people in the US are property addicts. They see “property” as the natural state of a free society, where things must be owned if they are going to be economically viable. Houses, cars, TVs, pots and pans, etc… All of these must clearly be owned by someone. This also extends to music, movies, and other intangible things: they are merely “intellectual” property.

Maybe it’s because that horrible Communist John Lennon sang “imagine no possessions” that all of these people associate property with “the American way,” or because they think that you’re either with property or against it, and clearly no one wants the government taking their house, and allowing for some things not to be owned is just a hop and a skip away from the government assigning you a designated house and car.

These people are property addicts: they believe everything must be regulated by property rights, otherwise our whole system of freedom and capitalism will collapse. These people need property rehab. Of course, many things should be regulated by property rights: my house is my house, and there is no way that it can be owned by anyone except me. But not everything needs to work this way. In fact, if you believe in capitalism and open competition, you really don’t want everything to work this way.

Lessig is the pre-eminent property rehabilitationist. Here’s a fantastic detox course he just posted on why we should de-regulate spectrum to enable better innovation (i.e. do you like wi-fi?). He begins with a thought: what if air were regulated as property? And then he leads you to realize something of paramount important: property is just one method of regulation among others. Freedom, innovation, competition, and capitalism are not always enhanced by property rights. Sometimes, we should consider alternate methods of regulation. In the case of spectrum, Microsoft, Dell, HP, and other horrible communists support a different kind of regulation that isn’t property-based.

Think about it. Property is just one among other methods of priming a vibrant economy. And it’s not necessarily the best method in every field.

A Talk by Larry Lessig