Per Bylund – February 20, 2022
“You do not have the right to parade through the public streets or to obstruct public thoroughfares. You have the right of assembly, yes, on your own property, and on the property of your adherents or your friends. But nobody has the ‘right’ to clog the streets.” –Ayn Rand
I encountered this quote recently on one of the social media sites. To me, the statement includes an obvious logical error and also an obvious reason for this error, so I responded simply: “No one individual is what clogs a street.”
The idea was to point out that the obvious—but dishonest—shift in the level of analysis that Rand is guilty of. She is obviously talking about individual rights yet says that individuals (plural) do not have the right to assemble in such a way as to clog the street. The problem here is that each individual indeed has the right to be in the street because it is a public throughfare. A single individual, I assume, would not amount to “clogging.” Would two? Or three? Four?
Even so, the individuals qua individuals would have equal right to be in the street but their assembly (group) would not. That’s the issue.
Let’s say it takes a dozen people to properly “clog” the street and that this is, per Rand, not allowed. This means eleven individuals have the right to be in the street, but the twelfth individual does not have that right—not because it is not their individual right, but because there are now sufficiently many individuals to clog the street. The first eleven have a right that the twelfth (and up) does not by virtue of the eleven already being there.
The same thing applies in the opposite case. Suppose there are twelve individuals already in the street. They properly “clog” the street, which is disallowed. In other words, [none] of them has the right to be there—and nobody else has the right to enter the street. But if one leaves, then they all magically gain the right to be there.
Consequently, Rand’s objectivist view, as expressed in the quote above, is one of individual rights that are contingent on how many others exercise their equal right. You have a right as an individual to be in the street, but this right only exists for as long as other individuals exercising the same right are not too many (that is, they cannot be so many that they “clog” the street).
This raises questions about what responsibility individuals have in this situation. If there are eleven individuals enjoying their time in the street, as is their right, does the entry of a twelfth person, which makes their being there unlawful, violate the eleven’s rights? They did nothing differently. Their rights changed because of another person. Or is it the other way around, that the eleven by exercising their right violate the twelfth individual because they no longer [have] the right to be in the street?
The quote raises many questions such as these, but these issues—seemingly arbitrary rights and apparent contradictions—arise for a specific reason: we are talking about public property. Had the street been private, then there would have been no problem. Rand says so herself: you have the right of assembly (whether or not “clogging” occurs) “on your own property.” Indeed, private property solves problems.
The arbitrariness of the situation is the assumption that the street is public. That arbitrariness is obvious from Miss Rand’s reliance on the vague, if at all defined, word “clog” as determinant of when otherwise rightful action suddenly becomes unlawful.
To take this one step further, this arbitrariness is the source of the state’s power and people’s desperate interest in wielding it. This interest is partly in self-defense because if the wrong people get to set the rules, then this may impose a cost on me (I either cannot be in the street or I cannot use the street because it is clogged).
Considering the substantial risk of a “wrong” person making up the wrong arbitrary rules for a piece of public property that they care about, many will realize that they are better off trying to nip the problem in the bud. Better yet, they can step ahead of it and impose rules of their own. So they engage in politics to get the “right” people in office.
It is public property that causes the problems of politics and the power that it has. The solution should be obvious: remove the cause.
Originally published at Mises.org.