Ownership a source of religious violence

Tibor Machan: Syndicated columnist

Many now realize that when public property is used by all, the resources it contains will soon be depleted. Only private property serves as a promising means for conserving and cultivating such resources. Individuals who own something are more likely to take good care of it than if they use something owned in common.
This has been known for a very long time. For instance, Thucydides, in his 431 B.C. book, “The History of the Peloponnesian War,” wrote about people owning things collectively:
“(T)hey devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile, each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays.”
Yet this isn’t the only serious problem with collective ownership. Another is what I call “the Jerusalem Syndrome.” It has to do with public realms that members of different religious orders wish to designate as sacred without having managed to acquire them fair and square. Instead, the desire of such varied groups to dominate these realms pits them against one another, often in deadly conflict.
It is a most beneficial aspect of the tradition of private-property rights in the United States to have quelled most religious hostilities by making it possible for each religious group to own and operate its own realm. Churches are private property — and there are dozens of them, attended and used by different faithful, with no war among them. Nowhere else has the problem of religious diversity been managed in such a civilized fashion — co-existence, without the phoniness of full acceptance.
If I go to one church and take part in the worship, I testify to my loyalty. I do not pretend to accept the teachings of another religion, the faithful of which are over there, in another spot of the city in which we all live. Yet neither do I need to take arms against those who worship differently since they have their own realms.
Now comes the intrusion of public lands. Having made large segments of the country into collectively owned areas, the government has begun to undermine this remarkable and peaceful area of our lives.
Case in point: Consider how the Washo Indians near Lake Tahoe, California and Nevada, have induced the U.S. Forest Service to begin a ban on the use of Cave Rock, a highly preferred rock-climbing facility the Indians claim is being desecrated.
This is not new. Previously, in Wyoming, Devil’s Tower was also slated for a ban, but it was rescinded on grounds that it would have favored some religion by the federal government (which is supposed to remain neutral on the issue of which religion is the best or the right one).
When public spheres contain objects alleged to have religious significance, this can easily give rise to a conflict that simply cannot be resolved without serious and lasting acrimony.
In the current conflict, Access Fund, a group representing the rock climbers, is pitted against the Washo Indians, who claim not only religious interest in Cave Rock but now insist, to quote their chair Mark Wallace, “The degree of our well-being is very much focused on our ability to access our traditional homelands.”
In essence, both the rock climbers and the Washo Indians claim private-property rights in something the federal government has declared, instead, to be public. That’s the “tragedy of the commons” — it treats land as if it were possible to own it collectively, independent of the voluntary agreements of prior private owners.
There are, of course, various communal-ownership arrangements in a free country — corporations, clubs, partnerships and the like. But they are all founded on the primacy of private-property rights. People who own their chunks of land or whatever can choose to pool them. Yet they always have what the economists so quaintly call “the exit option” — they can secede.
This is totally missing from collectivized property such as the public lands over which Access Fund and the Washo tribe are conducting their battle.
It should be a lesson: Avoid the myth of public ownership. It is the road to conflict and hostility, not to communal panacea that socialists and communists have told us.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at