On the Other Hand...

by Jim Davies 

The World's Biggest Oxymoron


Oxymorons pop up all over the place, rather like the little green men of Irish folklore, or the Trolls to be found in every Swedish forest. They are there, you know they are there, but unless you look real hard, you never see them in the light of day.

Let's pause to define the word. An oxymoron is a phrase with an internal contradiction, like "square circle", or "dry water", or "Social Security" or "good government." Some hold that "military intelligence" is one, though that may be too harsh. "Peacekeeping Force", though, may come close.

I tell you what I think is the world's biggest. It's huge because it's a phrase that slips naturally in to all sorts of articles and sentences, learned and less learned, that pollute our newspapers and TV screens and radios. It permeates our society... alas. It's "public property".

What, one may ask, is oxymoronic about that? Come on, Davies, isn't that a public-property road going past your house? - and what about the air you breathe, and fly through on occasion, isn't that public property? - and what about that super-expensive school system in town, isn't that publicly owned?

Public Assets

Okay, okay, I have some explaining to do. Please, be patient. I just wanted to start by making the point that what is commonly called "public property" is humongous. We often hear tell of the Federal Deficit, but seldom of the Federal Assets; yet about 80% of the land West of the Mississippi is "owned" by the Feds - it's "public property". So is every Army camp, every Air Force plane, every Navy ship, every "public building" in town or Capitol. Its market value must be almost uncountable, though a "Wall $treet Week" panellist did recently make a tentative guess at $67 trillion.

Fourteen times our itsy-bitsy $4 trillion deficit.

So, why is all this an oxymoron? - because "property" is a term 100% connected with "ownership". By definition of the word, if property exists, its owner must exist. The owner could be a person or a corporation, but a corporation is itself a piece of property, owned by real people who hold shares in it.

So, where is the owner of "public property"? - and where is the "deed", to prove it?

Well, say the collectivists, the public is the owner, so we all own it. Sure. Rather like that bumper sticker: "As a Matter of Fact, I DO Own the Road."

Try spraying a notice on the wall of an IRS office - public property, mind - to describe the parentage of those who work there. You'll soon find out if you, as a property-owning member of "the public", can decorate your "own" property.


Or just try hanging on to your house, without paying the annual serf's tribute to the Lords of the Manor in Town Hall. Even your "own" property isn't really your own any more. When the chips are down, it too is "public."

Because everybody is said to "own" "public property", NOBODY owns it. Nobody enjoys control of its use, nobody is responsible or liable for its mis-use. "Public" property has no owner, so either it's not property, or else it's not public. It's a vague and wishy-washy idea; totally self-contradictory, it's the World's Biggest Oxymoron.

"Public Property" is not merely an offense to the laws of grammar, it tends to violate the laws of economics. And that means MONEY, folks; yours and mine.

Take land, for instance; complete with its ecosystems and forests and Spotted Owls and phantom Alabama Sturgeons. If it's "public", and very much of it is, the use of that land is controlled not by owners but by politicians - and so, by whoever contributes most, this year, to their re-election funds. Come now; do you really want our glorious natural heritage controlled by those who air-tested the H-bomb, stockpiled poison gas and operate the Post Office?


Owners, in contrast, have a direct and powerful incentive to use the land to its best economic advantage. They may blunder - anyone can - but the MOTIVATION is right; whereas the motives of politicians change like the wind.

Is there a demand for the enjoyment of natural beauty? - the owner will make a profit by selling access - or possibly, carve a place in history by bequeathing it to a private Trust to preserve it for free public use. Is there oil to be pumped out? - he will pump it, if he thinks he can make more money that way. Does someone object? - let him place money alongside mouth and purchase it. Is timber profitable? - the owner will operate the forest as a tree farm, replanting trees he cuts down in his own, selfish, greedy, long-term interest. There's no such thing as a perfect system, one that equally satisfies everyone. The brutal choice is between private owners (forgive the redundancy) on the one hand, and politicians on the other. I know which I prefer!

Since "Public Property" is an oxymoron, what shall we call it? We could adapt a phrase from WW-II Europe, and name it "Government-Occupied America."

High time it was liberated, so say I; and one useful byproduct of that liberation would be to eliminate the entire Federal deficit in a single stroke.

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