Re: Abstract forms of property

Robin Hanson (
Fri, 08 Jan 1999 12:24:12 -0800

T.O. Morrow wrote:
>contravene existing property rights. ... Suppose, for example, that I own a
>large ranch and wish to broadcast signals on my property, ... that my
>private broadcasts will not reach off my land. Why should I have to seek
>permission from someone who allegedly "owns" the spectrum on my land? ...

I replied:
>When exactly did these "existing property rights" exist? If you bought your
>US property in the last half century you surely realized that it came with
>FCC specified limits on local spectrum use. If you bought it two centuries
>ago it seems hard to say what spectrum rights it came with, as people weren't
>knowingly using the spectrum then.

T.O.Morrow replied:
>At any rate, people *have* been knowingly using the electromagnetic spectrum
>for over two centuries. Recall, after all, that visible and infrared light,
>inter alia, constitute part of that spectrum. It makes little sense to say
>that the FCC has no claim over *one* frequency of radiation that I use solely
>on my property (say, the light and heat cast by my fireplace) while it does
>over another frequency (say, the frequency I use for my garage door opener).

It seems to me a bit of an abstract stretch to say that if one induced any form of radiation on one's property, one therefore had implicit absolute perpetual rights to to use all forms of radiation, including say neutrinos, gravitons, Higgs particles, etc.

>Whether or not it "came with FCC specified limits" resolves nothing on the
>validity of the FCC's claim. I might purchase property knowing that some
>local thug *claims* the right to come and steal from my garden, but that has
>no bearing on my right to complain that his theft violates my property rights.
>Similar reasoning applies to the FCC's highly suspect claims--though the FCC
>will often enforce its claims with even less efficacy than a local thief!
>The relation between the honest owner, the rascal who sells and resells, and
>the honest purchaser for value, has been called "the eternal triangle" of the
>law. Suffice it to say that it entails some complications. But, in brief, I
>offer the traditional approach to this problem under common law: Possession
>is good title against all the world but the party who suffered the theft. The
>rule makes sense for both instrumentalist reasons and (for those who care
>about such things) basic notions of justice.

Then by your preferred approach, unless you are one of the original people you claim the FCC stole these spectrum rights from, you seem to have no standing to complain. We all seem to accept that the FCC seems to be in "possession" of these spectrum rights. You just accuse them of having stole them from someone else.

Furthermore, even if you did represent one of these initial supposed losers of spectrum rights, you'd need to show that these people didn't implicitly accept the juristiction of the government that empowered the FCC. That is, if these people accepted that their property was not absolute, but instead subject to constituionally-valid government choices, then it is not clear what their complaint is. Were they not adequately compensated for the "taking"?

Robin Hanson   
RWJF Health Policy Scholar             FAX: 510-643-8614 
140 Warren Hall, UC Berkeley, CA 94720-7360 510-643-1884