On Property

from Clue to the Economic Labyrinth (Flürscheim)

William A. Phillips, in 
Labour, Land, and Law: a Search for the Missing Wealth of the Working Poor
gives an excellent illustration of what we call property, by beginning his book with the following tale:

“It is related that a certain Eastern potentate fell into the impecunious condition common to many of his predecessors, and set his wit to work to devise a remedy. A farmer of imposts who had often aided him, in this dilemma came to his rescue. He offered him sixty thousand tomans for all the winds that should ever blow over Cashmere. The monarch at first affected to be staggered at the proposition. He was unable to find anything in precedents to warrant it, but although a believer in the doctrine that whatever is is right, he was forced to admit that a monarch may introduce useful innovations. Of course, it was assumed that he was the supreme owner and disposer of all things in his dominions, not only for his own brief erratic span of life, but for all time; and so he came to the conclusion that, as everything in the world which could be was sold, there was no good reason why the winds, unstable though they might be, should be exempted, if a purchaser could be found. After a proper amount of preliminary haggling a sale was made, and the transaction legalised by all that signatures, seals, and parchment could do for it.

“Before the public had fairly got over laughing at the absurdity of this novel bargain, the owner of the wind issued a proclamation forbidding all persons in Cashmere from using his wind to turn their windmills, winnow their corn, propel their vessels, or employ it in any other manner, until they had first entered into agreements with him and obtained leases for the various localities, covenanting to pay certain amounts for the privilege. Then the laughing turned to lamentation. The monarch met the torrent of petitions and complaints by affecting to deplore the circumstance. He could not foresee, of course, all that had occurred; but his sacred word was involved. Rulers of that type are usually very particular about their sacred word. Driven to desperation, the inhabitants contributed the amount that had been paid for the wind, and tendered it to the sovereign, so that this unheard-of transaction could be cancelled. 

“The matter was not to be so easily arranged. The owner of the winds of Cashmere would not think of such a thing. He had acquired a vested right in them. Since it had become purchasable the wind had greatly risen—in price, at least. Wind stocks were on an upward market. The owner insisted that his title was good. He did not claim it merely by his right of discovery of the commercial value of the wind, or that he had been the first to pre-empt this privilege; but he had fairly bought it from the representative of government, and declared that his title was begirt and founded on all that was sacred in law or the theory of eminent domain and supreme authority. It would be altogether unfair to ask him to surrender this valuable privilege for anything less than what it might bring him in case he should be allowed to keep it. The proposition of the people was merely a bald scheme of robbery. It was subversive of all property rights, was socialistic, agrarian, and revolutionary, and to force him to accept of a price so inadequate would strike a fatal blow at the best interests of society, and undermine the whole fabric on which the rights of property rested. 

“This reasoning was, of course, entirely conclusive to the monarch, who was undoubtedly the confederate of the farmer of imposts; but as human endurance can only be stretched to certain limits, it was agreed between them that a fair price for the wind at that date would be ten times what was originally paid for it. This amount was finally raised by a long-suffering people, who merely exacted a promise from the commercial monarch that he would never sell the wind again, but permit it in God’s providence to blow over them free and unrestricted as of yore.”