Whose Property Is It Anyway?

About a month ago I wrote a column explaining that the problem of high gasoline prices could only be understood and properly addressed by those with an appreciation of the role of private property.

The idea of private property, however, has numerous applications outside the realm of market exchange. In fact, when it comes to public debate, one would be hard pressed to come up with a topic that does not in some way involve issues of property rights, although one would have no trouble at all finding people on both sides of an issue who will bicker over surface details while completely ignoring the elephant in the room labeled "Private Property." For example, the Left argues that the government needs to help the poor by transferring money to them from the rich, while the Right argues merely about whether this really helps the poor and about how much wealth transfer is too much. It is left to us libertarians, as so often is the case, to point out that neither of these positions gets to the nub of the issue, which is that welfare programs amount to legalized theft, a blatant violation of property rights.

Two noteworthy events here in the Keystone State have property rights implications, but neither is discussed that way in the news media.

The first is Monday’s motorcycle accident in which the Pittsburgh Steelers’ star quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was seriously injured. While Roethlisberger consistently wears a helmet for the considerably less dangerous activity of playing professional football, he has chosen (at least until now) to endanger himself by going helmetless on his hog, the result being that the accident did some major damage to his head.

The incident has, predictably, revived the debate over whether the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should permit motorcyclists to go without helmets, since the legislature, with the acquiescence of the governor, repealed the mandatory helmet law three years ago. John Cigna, a former KDKA radio personality and well-known Harley-Davidson enthusiast, called one of the station’s talk shows Monday afternoon to voice his opinion that the fault lies not with Roethlisberger but with Governor Ed Rendell, who had the temerity to sign a law giving Pennsylvanians back a tiny bit of their freedom. The host of that talk show, Fred Honsberger, an ostensible conservative, agreed that the legislature needs to force people to wear helmets, adding later that it was just "stupid" of them to have repealed the helmet law in the first place. (Mr. Honsberger no doubt would object if the state tried to force people to exercise or to stop eating French fries, even though both of these laws would be "for their own good" — at least until those things become law, at which point he’d probably defend them against those seeking to repeal them, as so many conservatives are wont to do.)

This entire debate comes down to one simple question: Who owns the body of any given motorcycle rider? In other words, whose property is, e.g., Ben Roethlisberger’s body? The obvious answer is: Ben Roethlisberger. Therefore, the only person who has the right to determine whether Roethlisberger wears a helmet while cycling is Roethlisberger (thank goodness for cut-and-paste!) himself. Those who agree with Cigna and Honsberger, however, obviously believe that Roethlisberger’s body is actually the property of the state of Pennsylvania, for only if one believes that the state owns Roethlisberger’s body can one conclude that the state has the right to dictate to him what risks he may or may not take with his person. It’s simply a matter of private property. Either Big Ben’s body belongs to him, in which case he can do what he wants with it, or it belongs to the state, in which case the legislature can dictate to him all kinds of things he may or may not do with it. There’s no middle ground.

(There will be those who object that the risks a motorcyclist takes with his body are indeed the concern of the state because, if that cyclist is injured and cannot pay for his health care, the cost will fall on the rest of us via state medical assistance. As Walter Williams is fond of saying, this is a problem of too much socialism — itself a violation of property rights — not of too much freedom.)

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the commonwealth, private property is under attack for a very different reason, namely, that some people don’t happen to like the opinions of others and wish to squelch those opinions under the guise of "diversity," which, as usual, means "adherence to the currently-in-vogue left-wing agenda."

It seems that Geno’s Steaks, one of the most popular cheesesteak restaurants in South Philadelphia, has posted signs that read "This is AMERICA . . . WHEN ORDERING SPEAK ENGLISH."

This, of course, did not sit well with the diversity crowd, and so the city’s Commission on Human Relations — as if we need government to manage relationships between individuals — has filed a discrimination complaint against Geno’s, on the grounds that the signs violate "two sections of the city’s antidiscrimination laws: denying service to someone because of his or her national origin, and having printed material making certain groups of people feel their patronage is unwelcome," as the Philadelphia Inquirer reports it.

Now raise your hand if you ever thought you’d see the day when, in the supposed land of the free, it would be illegal for someone to be made to feel unwelcome.

Even the American Civil Liberties Union, which will defend to the death the rights of such upstanding citizens as Larry Flynt, won’t come to the defense of Geno’s owner Joey Vento, saying that while he has a right to express his opinion, this particular instance "might cross the line" because Vento is daring to treat his restaurant as private property rather than as a "public accommodation" open to all comers.

And that, my friends, is the problem in a nutshell. Geno’s is clearly and unquestionably the private property of Joey Vento. Not one of these holier-than-thou members of the Commission on Human Relations has a single dime invested in the place. Therefore, they have absolutely no business telling Vento what signs he may or may not post on his property. The choice of patrons to serve or not to serve ought to be entirely at his discretion, as should the choice of whether to make certain patrons feel unwelcome. Whether one agrees with the sentiments expressed in the signs at Geno’s is irrelevant; the fact remains that the restaurant is private property, and the disposition of that property ought to be solely the province of its owner.

Both the Roethlisberger and Geno’s cases illustrate the simple yet highly significant choice we face every day. Either we accept private property as inviolable or we don’t. Those advocating the violation of bikers’ rights to their own bodies and those advocating the violation of restaurateurs’ rights to their own bistros are cut from precisely the same cloth. One group thinks the government ought to prevent people from hurting themselves; the other thinks it ought to prevent people from hurting other people’s feelings. Neither respects private property. Both believe in maintaining the fiction that property is privately held, but then they turn around and assert that the government ought to maintain effective control over that property. Economically speaking, there is only one term for this: fascism.

Il Duce would be proud.