Carry a Big (Pile of) Stick(s)


I recently attended an Institute for Humane Studies seminar that delved into how liberty should affect society (oddly similar to our purpose here at Trying Liberty). One of the presenters laid forth an interesting idea that has helped me better understand property and the notion of rights.

The professor argued that rights, and especially property rights are akin to a pile of sticks. When one owns property, it comes with a vast array of rights; the right to farm the land, the right to pasture animals on in, the right to charge admission to it, the right to build a gazebo on its premises. This is the pile of sticks, each one representing an individual right. The owner then has the ability to parcel out individual rights as they see fit, to distribute their sticks. They might see a possibility for profit and sell to another man the right the graze sheep on the land. The buyer though does not obtain all rights to that property. They cannot hunt on it, or mine its earth, they have simply bought one stick: the ability to graze sheep.

Government intervention however gets messy. It would seem o so intrusive to pass legislation saying that only this or that land right may be used. Some of the founding fathers objected to the bill of rights because they could not see how all the rights of man could be listed; it is a rather big pile of sticks.

Consequently, government entities take away from the pile of rights (sticks) slowly and individually. Thus zoning and city ordinances are filled with regulations about how close ones house can be to the curb, how high buildings can be, and how the land can be used for profit among a gross of other stipulations. They are pulling out sticks one by one, hoping citizens will not notice their pile is getting steadily smaller.

This summer Michigan has removed another significant log from the pile. The Michigan Court of appeals ruled on 2000 Baum Family Trust v. Babel that property located on plat-dedicated public roads parallel to Michigan lake shores would not have riparian rights. In laymens’ terms, if you own property on a lake shore and a public road runs between your land and the lake, even if you are the closest property to the water, you no longer have docking rights in the lake. This goes against long held and defended rights of lakefront property owners and could have a significant impact on property values.

The government decreases wealth when it takes individual rights and gives them to the state. Hopefully the Baum case will be significant enough to get taxpayers to look through their city and state code books to see just how much larger their pile could and should be.

Adam Rule – MCPP

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