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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/10190/only-rights-obsessed-people-defend-property/

Only “Rights-Obsessed” People Defend Property

June 25, 2009 by

Writing at National Review, Lynne Munson argues that the state should ignore property rights when it comes to protecting “art” — in this case the notoriously ugly Third Church of Christ, Scientist building in Washington, DC. The church wants to tear its own building down. But not so fast, says Munson: It’s art that belongs to “the people”:

I’m going to use an admittedly extreme example to make a point about art ownership. Someone who owns a Van Gogh could choose to destroy it. But only the most rights-obsessed among us would defend that decision. Art objects aren’t like most commodities. Sure, they are “owned,” but that ownership is temporary since the lifetimes of great objects far outstretch our own. That is, unless the temporary owner of an object destroys it. Then it’s gone.

A great art object is a gift that an artist gives to all humanity — not just to the person or institution or state that has bought it. That is why we display them in museums for all to see (and give a tax credit to those who donate them). And that is why we spend fortunes preserving and protecting them.

The church under discussion is no Van Gogh. Or Frank Lloyd Wright. But it is a structure that possesses unique artistic value greater than most every building for blocks around it.

I should know. I work a block away from the Third Church in the kind of unremarkable D.C. office building that occupies the lion’s share of space in the district. It is a tedious structure, devoid of any aesthetic appeal or interest. The architect who designed it brought the same level of artistic curiosity to the job that a steamroller brings to the task of flattening asphalt. Inevitably, more such buildings will be built. So don’t we want to consider hanging on to the smattering of structures that intrigue our eyes and make us talk?

Munson is articulating what amounts to a reverse-IP argument. If an item of tangible property is deemed unique or aesthetically interesting, it ceases to exist as private property and becomes owned in perpetuity by “the public.” This is a good deal if you’re the government agent placed in charge of deciding what should and should not be preserved as “great objects.”

Comically — and since this is National Review we’re dealing with — Munson insists she really loves free markets, except when they conflict with her personal tastes:

I know that most readers of NRO, like myself, believe completely in creativity and democratic power of the market.

But, at the same time, I do not think that the market should be the sole determiner of what we do with our built environment. If that were the case, we would have long ago converted The Mall into parking and the Capitol and White House into loft condominiums.

A man can dream, Lynne. A man can dream…


Joshua Park June 25, 2009 at 10:18 am

If Munson loves that… work-of-art so much, why not purchase it to protect it? Or take up a collection to buy it and protect it. Make some kind of “DC Crazy Building Fund” full of private investors whose sole purpose it is to buy and maintain, uh, works-of-art like this.

On the other hand, perhaps the people that think it’s an eyesore could start a similar group, the “Stop Punching Me In The Eyeball Co-Operative”. Their purpose would be just the opposite, and whoever bids higher on the building would get to decide its fate.

Of course, maybe the owners of that building could just decide. There are plenty of options here without summoning the power of the state.

Richie June 25, 2009 at 10:25 am

So elitist snobs do not want the less culturally advanced to decided what to do with private property. I would like to say that I am shocked and amazed, but it is business as usual from the parasites.

Ron June 25, 2009 at 10:47 am

Wow…that thing is hideous. It looks like a bomb shelter, or a machine gun emplacement.

Even if it were the Sistine Chapel the owners’ property rights should still be defended. How nice to be able to conveniently shed one’s principles in the name of aesthetics.

Jesse June 25, 2009 at 10:49 am

The argument this article is making is void of any philosophical considerations. It is mere fantastic whimsy on the part of the author to suggest a painting or a building to be outside the realm of proper ownership and “That is why we display them in museums for all to see.” The whole column just seems like it was written by a 5th grader, and it’s awfully cute until you realize this is an actual adult that feels this way.

Christopher June 25, 2009 at 11:44 am

So when the church contracted the original artist and then duly compensated that person for the work which he/she/they were contracted for, that exchange is now deemed as one for the good of humanity rather than a simple exchange of goods for services in the market economy? What ****ing world am I living in?

Tomás June 25, 2009 at 11:44 am

I know, Jesse. I’m surrounded by such ridiculous “logic” all the time.

At my university (W. Virginia) we recently selected our first female mascot to represent the mountaineer, who has traditionally been male, and the vehemency by those defending this silliness on stilts is as breathtaking as Munson’s. A co-worker of mine, without irony, stated that if you want tradition of any kind, then you obviously support slavery because like…uh slavery is a tradition, you know.

This instance, and the one in the article, would be amusing if it weren’t so stupefyingly frustrating that these people ARE TAKEN SERIOUSLY. Uff da!

Wesley Linder June 25, 2009 at 12:00 pm

“Rights-obsessed”, huh? I can’t think of many better things to be obsessed with. If we had more “rights-obsessed” people, we’d have a lot fewer problems.

Eric Parks June 25, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Of course the author would use an extreme case to prove her, for such extremism allows the reader to feel much more comfortable with the notion of intervening with the use of force.

Ms. Munson, if you love free markets, you must not interfere. Such forceful and whimsical separation of property from its laboring owner will ensure that any future effort is not even considered, lest the fruit of said labor be confiscated as well.

David Spellman June 25, 2009 at 12:11 pm

I suppose that by Munson’s logic, we should have thrown Steve Wynn in jail after he stuck hes elbow through the Picasso…

Greg Simmons June 25, 2009 at 12:27 pm

The statements by Munson are further proof of my theory that collectivists, statists and people who deny the sanctity of property rights are actually far more materially-obsessed than are defenders of private property. Those of us who defend the moral and ethical foundations of private property do so because we understand the importance of property lies not in the object itself, but in the value the owner places in it. If the owner’s values and priorities change, principle dictates that we allow them to dispose of their property as they see fit, even if the change isn’t to our liking.

2nd Amendment June 25, 2009 at 12:44 pm


I am an atheist and I know that I have absolutely No God-given rights. However I am analytical, observing and I conclude that there is no such thing as a “right”.

Rights are a philosophical construction by man, rights are like religion, astrology, ufo stories etc.

The only thing that I saw in nature is might. If you want “rights” you will first need the might to crush and eliminate all those would would stand in your way of using your “right”.

MIGHT IS RIGHT. That is why I will defend my property with all my might, even though I know I have no “rights” because there is no such thing as a “right”.

It is up to you to do what’s best for yourself, even if it means being alone against the entire universe, so be it, let the best man win !

There is no right, there is no wrong, there is no good, there is no bad, there is no sinner and there is no saint.

There is only competing interests and contests of will and only the strongest survives.

Civilization and society has not eliminated this natural foundation of might is right and dog eats dog, it has only specialized it and engulf thugs and rogues into the division of labor called Police and Army.

bob June 25, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Let’s just declare all the rich people’s money works of art better left to serve the public.

(8?» June 25, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Lynne Munson is former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

’nuff said

S Andrews June 25, 2009 at 2:35 pm

That is one hideous building. I clicked on the link to the picture only after completely reading the blog post. I was expecting see a work of art and I didn’t find it in the picture.

Brent June 25, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Fantastic idea! Let’s completely eliminate private ownership of all “essential” art! After all… even if the owners are trying to preserve their art (which we have to assume), there is still the risk of an accident…

I hope her idea of government ownership of art works out better than it did for the Germans.

Ohhh Henry June 25, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Artistic and private property arguments aside, wouldn’t it be prudent to keep the building for use as a pillbox in case of an invasion of robots from Mars?

JP in CA June 25, 2009 at 4:43 pm

2nd Amendment,

Shouldn’t you be in politics or something? By your logic, the best position you could be in is the one that has the most might. In fact, if there is only might and no right or wrong, then you shouldn’t have a problem with stealing from others. Or, you could kill me and have my cars, Wii, PlayStation, etc.

I’m pretty much glad I don’t live next to you.

BioTube June 25, 2009 at 5:10 pm

We acknowledge the rights of others to make ourselves safer. That said, 2nd Amendment’s post is something I’d expect from the more extreme evangelicals.

Jesse June 25, 2009 at 6:36 pm

2nd Amendment,

it would do you some good to read the new book by Butler Shaffer, Boundaries of Order.

Boundary, claim, control.

David Kraus June 25, 2009 at 7:32 pm

If you don,t want it destroyed buy it.

Reductio Ad Absurdum June 25, 2009 at 7:46 pm

Let’s follow Munson’s theory to its logical conclusion:

1. Owners of art can’t destroy art
2. An artist can’t destroy their own art
3. An artist doesn’t really own the art they produce (Artists don’t own the product of their labor)
4. Artists are slaves to all “humanity”

Furthermore, the definition of art is subjective. An object can become art as soon as someone decides that object is art. Every object is potentially art, so Munson’s theory banishes all private ownership of all objects (including our bodies). We don’t live on air and love alone; we need other goods to survive. At best, Munson’s theory results in all people being slaves to “humanity”. At worst, it means the destruction of the human race.

Ben O'Neill June 25, 2009 at 7:57 pm

2nd Amendment: You say, “There is no right, there is no wrong, there is no good, there is no bad…”.

You are essentially claiming that there is no objective basis for ethics, which implies that there is no basis for normative judgements. If this were true, it would imply that one could not make objective normative or evaluative statements of any kind, and yet you purport to do this in the very same post. How can any of the people in the police or army be “thugs” or “rogues” if there is no right or wrong, no good or bad?

A fellow atheist once observed that such a contention is an example of “the stolen concept fallacy,” where one purports to deny the legitimacy of a concept, while implicitly relying on it in the formulation of their argument. She also explained how objective ethical principles and concommitant political rights both have a rational basis, based on the nature of man.

Ben June 25, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Hmmm, but who would decide what constitutes art under such a system?

Well, let’s see. They would have to be a body of experts, that’s for sure. But who would have this kind of experti…

WAIT, I KNOW! Why we could entrust these decisions to the National Endowment for the Humanities! And we could invest its officials (including of course, its deputy chairman) with enormous powers to override the decisions of property owners!

Crisis averted Ms Munson. And gee, wouldn’t you know it, but the solution is to give coercive powers to people just like you. Amazing!

Russ June 25, 2009 at 8:12 pm

The solution to this problem is simple. The church simply needs to engrave some large crosses on every visible surface of the building. Then the NEH/NEA people will want it torn down also!

RWW June 25, 2009 at 10:28 pm

JP in CA,
In fact, if there is only might and no right or wrong, then you shouldn’t have a problem with stealing from others. Or, you could kill me and have my cars, Wii, PlayStation, etc.

I’m pretty much glad I don’t live next to you.

What a narrowminded thing to say. You don’t need to believe in the actual existence of rights in order to understand that it would be unwise to steal and kill. Beyond that, your “argument” assumes that 2nd Amendment holds no values beyond his own immediate pleasure.

RWW June 25, 2009 at 10:29 pm

“I’m pretty much glad I don’t live next to you.” should also be italicized, since it was part of JP in CA‘s comment.

Max Drax June 25, 2009 at 11:42 pm

I’m almost stupefied by the stupidity of Ms. Munson’s statements. But here are two thoughts:

1. It’s not as if the only works of art that exist are located in museums and galleries for all to see. People create (and destroy) art every day. Ms. Munson’s idea would presumably require some designated state employee, charged with deciding which particular works of art must be “protected,” and therefore stripped of private ownership.

This is neither desirable nor realistic nor resourceful.

2. The idea that artists “give works of art to the world” is pure nonsense. Most great works of art were created because some king or noble paid the artist to create them. Professionally-created art only exists because someone is willing to pay for it. The art is being created for the person who buys it.

3. As stated above: there are private solutions to the problem of “essential art” being destroyed. Put together a group that will purchase the property and preserve it.

If you can’t successfully put together the group, this means that there’s no demand for the preservation of the building. In other words, the public doesn’t want it. And if the public doesn’t want it, it’s immoral to force them to buy it for the benefit of one narrow group that does.

Emil Suric June 25, 2009 at 11:55 pm

“I know that most readers of NRO, like myself, believe completely in creativity and democratic power of the market.”

What the hell does this even mean?

Gil June 26, 2009 at 12:32 am

What this analogy does is to disprove Coasian property rights. “Privatise the commons so it’ll all be protected.” Or so they say, the reality is the property owner doesn’t have to protect what they’re supposedly would (from a Libertarian viewpoint). Proof of this is the way Libertarians came to the defence of Michael Vicks. Even Conservatives can show a shred of morality against the idea that “property rights should be sacrosanct”.

Chuck June 26, 2009 at 12:50 am

Might makes right is the barbarian’s creed. Civilized people have come to realize that cooperation is a superior way of getting what you want.

Gil June 26, 2009 at 5:59 am

I get where 2nd A. is coming from – after all how are you expected to defend your rights if you don’t have might to back it up? Or, you like owning guns and shooting tin cans but don’t have the guts to pull the trigger against a tax collector? To disassociate might from right is to take the path of the pacifist and pacifism is an idiot’s creed.

LightBringer June 26, 2009 at 6:44 am

‘Might is Right’ is a morally relative doctrine. Statism in all its forms is based on such nihilistic, parasitic ways of thinking. Take any act, be it a rape, a murder, or theft, and the socialist will ask ‘Was it is the interests of the People?’, the conservative will ask ‘Does it preserve traditions and shared values?’ and the Hobbesian will ask, ‘Was it the state doing it?’. True lovers and defenders of liberty must say that these acts are manifestly, objectively and self-evidently wrong, in any given circumstance, because they violate the inviolable rights of all humans to life, liberty and property. The only way in which a libertarian may use force is in self-defence (that is, defence of life and property, or the defence of another who has voluntarily elected you to do so from illegitimate force) which again, stems from our objective rights. To deny this is to embrace the nihilism that infects the creeds of all states and other collectivist organisations and ideologies.

mushindo June 26, 2009 at 8:10 am

2nd Amendment..

I regard the welter of synthetic ‘rights’ as endorsed by the UN, as illegitimate, much as you appear to do. But in dismissing all rights as illegitimate, you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

you declare that you will defend your property with all your MIGHT. Quite. And your person too. THAT is your (only) right, and it is a natural right too. Other animals enjoy it just as much as you do, as anyone who has pulled a cat’s tail will attest. Even an otherwise gentle quadrupedal herbivore will kick or bite to avoid harm.

You are silent on your intention as regards using your might to take another person’s property, or even his life, but the rest of your commentary leads me to infer that you regard it this as no less legitimate than just defending your own property. Are you saying then that if someone overcomes your defence of your property because he has bigger guns and overcomes your defence, its OK?

The right to defence of person and property is fundamental to the social nature of the human animal, as each stands to gain benefit from co-operative trade and shared effort to mutual goals. A completely solitary human being completely estranged from other human interaction might as well be dead. The indiscriminate use of force to take from others cannot be sustained without alienating the aggressor and making him ever-more vulnerable to organised counter-attack, or at least exclusion from the benefits of shared co-operative effort and voluntary trade. This co-operation requires that each recognises the limitation in the use of might in defence of property and person, and not in aggression, to harm another or take his property.

Most self-described atheists of my acquaintance (with some notable exceptions in history) tend to have a deeply-considered understanding of the ethical basis of human interaction (I suspect because because they have come to their non-belief through careful consideration, deep thought , rather than the blindfolded avoidance of intractable philosophical questions). As contrasted with many non-atheists, who regard any questioning of doctrine off-limits, and (again, with some notable exceptions, not least in this Institute), will seldom hesitate to impose their view of morality on other people by means of law and/or violent enforcement if they get the chance.

It surprises me that you, as an atheist, take no account of the social nature of humanity, which is deeply wired into our DNA, and which demands the mutual exchange of forbearance as the foundation of civilisation: each agreeing not to impinge on the other’s will, the quid pro quo required for exch to claim the right to remain similarly unmolested. Or, as PJ O’Rourke put it ( More or less, quoted from memory):

1. Do what you please, but
2. Mind your own business, and
3. Keep your hands to yourself.

And of course, while you are busying yourself pursuing 1, if anybody tramps on your toes in pursuit of his 1 without regard for the limitations of 2 and 3, you are free to stop him by whatever means at your disposal.

That is freedom, and it IS a fundamental right. The problem is that the political invention of synthetic, legislatively dispensed rights (often naievely inspired by religious notions of charity and virtue), inevitably overrides this one, and thats the root of the bulk of modern humanity’s problems.

2nd Amendment June 26, 2009 at 8:35 am

JP in CA,

I am a Libertarian and I respect your private property and life.

Just because nature is a scumbag and gives all to the biggest asshole doesn’t mean I have to be the biggest asshole myself.

Yes in nature might is right, there is no wrong and civilization didn’t change that.

This doesn’t mean I have to copy nature and become a scumbag myself.

My previous post was more of a complaint against all of this.

However, I know that we live in REALITY and therefore I have no “rights”. I know that I cannot rely on the constitution or the law to protect my private property and my life.

For this, I need might. That’s what I meant by might is right.

If you want to protect your private property and your life, you will need to pack lots of heat.

Don’t assume you have rights, you only have mights.

2nd Amendment June 26, 2009 at 8:41 am

JP in CA,

What I find strange is that the vast majority of people think that civilization and society would not be possible without the government.

However, giving that the government is a monstruous killing and looting enterprise, I don’t see how the government contributes to civilization.

The government is a barbarous construct which hinders civilization.

I find it strange that the vast majority of people would want murderers and looters as the leaders of civilization.

Being forced to pay high taxes and being constantly threatened by deadly force if you don’t pay your taxes and don’t comply with the millions of complicated laws and regulations, I don’t see how this contributes to civilization.

It’s tearing my reason and my heart appart. On one hand you are not allow to loot your neighbor because it’s against civilization.

On the other hand, you are not allowed to keep the fruits of your labor, because the government says it is against civilization.

How can one form of robbery be justified but not another ? In my mind robbery is robbery no matter what the form or intent.

I just hate all those double standards, it’s a crazy making experience. I can no longer swallow all this hypocrisy.

2nd Amendment June 26, 2009 at 8:49 am


1. Do what you please, but
2. Mind your own business, and
3. Keep your hands to yourself.

I totally agree with you !!! :-)

Civilization only needs the common law which is basically the 3 points you resumed.

We don’t need the government with it’s millions of laws, regulations and taxes.

2nd Amendment June 26, 2009 at 8:58 am


“But in dismissing all rights as illegitimate, you are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

I never said that they were illegitimate, I only said that they were fantasy.

Rights exist in the dreamworld. If the guy in front of you is 10 times stronger than you and threatens to beat you up if you don’t obey his commands, how can you claim you have a “right” ?

If you want to be free from this guys tyranny, you will need to pack heat in order to let this guy know you will not be his slave.

Just like a car needs fuel to advance, rights need might to exist.

In theory, society has organized might in the form of police and military to protect those rights. But in practice those some police and military are used to trample on your rights, loot your earnings and threaten your life.

So if individuals want rights, they must first seek might.

By giving a central authority the power to enforce rights, you also give it the power to take away your rights.

I’d rather have a disorganized and spread bunch of thugs fearing my heat than having an organized tyranny deciding for my rights.

The government is infinitely efficient at killing and looting, this it does perfectly and much better than private enterprises.

My point is stop depending on society to subsidize your rights and defend your rights by yourselves and at your own risks. Be proud, be free, be independent, be strong, be mighty and therefore be within your rights.

mushindo June 26, 2009 at 9:51 am

2nd Amendment

you make much of the ‘dog eat dog’ nature of nature. I think this overstates the case somewhat.

Have you ever considered how rare it is to see members of any particular species killing one another? Its not unknown, granted, but it is not very common. Even the testosterone-fuelled violent aggression between males competing for dominance (or access to females in heat) is invariably settled non-lethally, and such contests are usually very ritualistic, even if a little bit of blood is sometimes spilt before the social signals of submission on the part of the loser are transmitted. Then its over, the genetic fitness of th evictor to breed with said females having been proven.

By far most of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ violence in Nature is the ordinary business of some sorts of organism eating other sorts of organism. But that level of violence is no more relevant than hamburger-eating is to the question of human rights.

I tend to agree that there are no universal, absolute standards of right, wrong, good, or evil. Nature is indifferent, and these concepts have no meaning outside the human social context. (We do not know if any other kinds of organism have analogous mental constructs, but it is I suppose possible for at least a handful of other kinds of social animal, but I digress)

But it does not follow that there is no good and evil. These ARE valid i- they emn so far as they emerge from human interaction with one another.

The right to the maximum freedom of choice, to do whatever one likes withut impediment or molestation, to the maximum extent consistent with the same right for others, is the only standard of right and wrong that can possibly exist ‘universally’. Given the inherent subjectivity of value, and given the social nature of man, no other formulation of right and wrong is possible without inconsistencies, hence coercion, arising.

Might is not right.

Light Bringer June 26, 2009 at 11:20 am

What sets us apart from the animals? The ability to reason. This ability allows us to abandon the short term survival instinct of the animal and instead act in our rational self-interest – we cooperate instead of fighting. Although this reason and rationality only takes place in our heads, not in the indifferent ‘real world’, it allows us to divide our labour and succeed as a species, as well as individuals. Animals are superior to us in many other regards, but none have acquired the ability to reason – thus, a difference in our minds gives us a huge advantage in the material world.

Values, morals and ethics, as mushindo correctly identified, only exist in relation to the interaction of rational human beings – no morals apply to the vacuum of space or to the trees and rocks. Thus, to dismiss rights as ‘merely’ a construct of the mind, is missing the point – by definition the entire sphere of morality and ethics can only exist in this manner. Mises, Rothbard and many others have demonstrated that there are certain laws of human action which are objectively true in the same manner as the laws of physics (although the laws of science must be established empirically, and laws of human action can only be demonstrated through a priori reasoning). Therefore, it is not unreasonable to claim, as Locke did, that there are objective Laws of Nature – a strict moral code based entirely on property rights. Ergo, if the guy who has 10 times the strength that you do orders you around, you do have rights – he is objectively wrong, no matter the circumstances.

Therefore, we must organise ourselves into a society which respects these Laws of Nature, and lets us enjoy the benefits of cooperation without having to surrender the fruits of our labour involuntarily. This is laissez-faire capitalism, the only system which respects our true Rights without inventing false ones or forcing unwanted duties upon us.

Brutus June 26, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Surprisingly Ms. Munson’s colleague, Jonah Goldberg, is not convinced by her argument. His solution is to buy the building. She

Mark June 26, 2009 at 2:12 pm

I guess it never crossed her mind to buy it and preserve it herself. If the public loves it so much, I’m sure they would pitch in.

Vanmind June 26, 2009 at 7:47 pm

Reductio Ad Absurdum said:

“Every object is potentially art…”

That is incorrect. No object is art, because art is a process.

If I strive for and achieve nice six-pack abs, I don’t say “I am now the owner of working out.” What I might say is “I am now the owner of the end result of my workout process.”

No painting, sculpture, or anything of the sort is art. The art occurred only during the period when the artist was being creative, and the object at the end is just that: an object. Some objects are born of art, but no object is potentially art (unless an artist decides to use the object during some subsequent artistic process — the end result of which would be another object or set of objects).

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