Wisdom from Armen Alchian
By David Henderson
Public [government] ownership must be borne by all members of the public, and no member can divest himself of that ownership. Ownership of public property is not voluntary; it is compulsory as long as one is a member of the public. To call something “compulsory” usually is a good start toward condemning it.
This is an excerpt from a long report that Armen Alchian wrote for the RAND Corporation in 1961. It’s reprinted in The Collected Works of Armen A. Alchian, published by Liberty Fund in 2006. I’m working my way through over 1,500 pages of Armen’s work for a book review I’m writing for Liberty Fund. I remember telling Friedrich Hayek, in June 1975, after he had won the Nobel Prize the the previous year, that I thought Alchian deserved the Nobel Prize, and asking him what he thought. Hayek had his characteristic wince as he replied, “Two people who deserve the Nobel Prize, but won’t get it because they haven’t written enough, are Armen Alchian and Ronald Coase.” I had agreed that Armen hadn’t written enough. Now I don’t. Interestingly, he obviously didn’t care about where his work was published. Also, a number of pieces in it, including a number that are quite good, were previously unpublished.
The voters in my area recently voted, 55-45, to use eminent domain to have a local government agency take over privately owned Cal-Am Water. They have to do a feasibility study first, but pretty much everyone on both sides is convinced that it will be found “feasible.” I argued with various people locally about that. I should have used more of Alchian’s work, translated a little for non-economists.
Here is Alchian’s piece “Property Rights” that I commissioned for The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics, which later became The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.