Clifton Beach and the Folly of Public Property

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True to our ways, South Africans have again turned an unfortunate event into a race row. As everyone is no doubt aware by now, a private security company, Professional Protection Alternatives, assisted the local law enforcement department in asking beach goers on Clifton Beach near Cape Town to vacate the area, apparently as a precaution, given the police’s concerns about safety. Naturally, race was not a factor, as both white and black beach goers were asked to leave. As a result, I will not devote any more of this article to race, even though it is all but guaranteed that some commenters will focus almost exclusively on this aspect.

The security company, however, as well as the police, were obviously in the wrong here… or were they?

The notion of ‘public property’ stands in the way of us answering this question definitively.

One’s initial reaction to this event would be to blame the police and the security company for chasing South Africans off of their own property. After all, public property ‘belongs’ to the taxpayer. But one must realise that this is not necessarily the only answer, nor is this answer quite as simple as it seems.

A different answer, popular among libertarians, is that public property is essentially unowned property, because that which belongs to everybody belongs to nobody. The point of ownership and property rights is to identify a true owner and enforce that true owner’s entitlements against the desire of everyone else to interfere with their property. When ‘everyone else’ is a co-owner, the mechanisms and solutions provided by private property rights fall away. To avoid this awkward state of affairs, the only reasonably answer is to assert that public property does not exist, and everything that is not currently privately owned is ripe for the taking. With this approach in mind, one can conclude that the police had no authority to chase people off of unowned property, and that, in fact, the beach goers themselves might have become the owners because they were using the previously-unowned property.

But even if one assumes that public property does, in fact, belong to the taxpayer; how does the taxpayer go about making decisions about their property? If the answer to this is that the government is the agent appointed by the taxpayer to manage the property, then one cannot fault anything that happened at Clifton Beach, given that the local government’s law enforcement department was leading the charge.

If one accepts that government is the duly-appointed and rightful agent of the people, then one must be careful in criticising it for fulfilling its mandate. But whereas in the ordinary course of business a principal (the taxpayer) can fire their agent and replace them with a new agent, or take direct charge of whatever the agent was supposed to be doing, South Africans cannot do the same with government.

Then the question becomes whether foreigners and other potential non-taxpayers, like children, are entitled to use the public property in question? If the payment of taxes determines ownership, this is a pertinent question to ask. This has been an animating concern in the West recently, as some governments try to stall the entry of foreigners into their territories partly out of the fear of over-utilisation of public property, like welfare. Alternatively, does mere citizenship determine ownership? If so, one must ask what would become of public property if the citizen-owners stopped paying taxes altogether.

All of this is meant to illustrate the point that the notion of ‘public property’ is a confused mess that provides virtually no concrete answers to any contemporary problems, least of all the situation that unfolded at Clifton Beach. Instead, South Africans will do well to embrace a holistic regime of private property, which would have avoided conflict at Clifton.

If Clifton Beach were privately owned within a regime that respects private property rights, it would have been accepted that the owner, and only the owner, was allowed to decide when the users of their property must vacate the premises. In this case, the owner might have decided that the law enforcement department’s concerns about safety were misplaced, or they might have decided to heed the warning and proceed to ask their customers to leave. While some might still have complained about this, the locus of authority would have been clear, unlike now, where some claim South Africans should be allowed to go where they please, and others argue that the police have a clear right to prohibit movement if the situation demands it.

Clifton Beach is not the only example of where the folly of public property confuses the national debate. The notion of ‘free higher education‘, too, involves exploiting the confusion around public property. Since universities and their staff are already paid for by taxpayers, what authority do they have to levy additional fees for tuition? Surely, if the taxpayer owns the university, the taxpayer need not pay to use it! Approaching it from a different public property angle: If government is our agent and our servant, our demand for free education cannot be denied. Government works for us, after all!

The fact that universities in South Africa are publicly-owned has perverted and confused the discourse around higher education. Had they been privately-owned, one could have a discussion about State bursaries and scholarships, but whether or not one needs to pay for tuition — something that cannot be escaped, regardless of how big one’s shrine to Karl Marx is — would be entirely up to the owner of the university in question.

Simply put, private property is meant to avoid and resolve disputes between people. Prior to private property’s conceptualisation, it was common to have people and groups violently seizing property from one another. Some who disagree with private property are still calling for this today. But property rights’ chief aim is to avoid conflict by making it clear who can decide what and when.

Had Clifton Beach been privately-owned, and were South Africa’s universities privately-owned, we would have a richer discourse and a more peaceful society.

* Martin van Staden is the Editor in Chief of the Being Libertarian Group, of which the Rational Standard is a part. He is pursuing a Master of Laws degree from the University of Pretoria.

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