Re: Abstract forms of property

Robin Hanson (
Wed, 30 Dec 1998 10:54:44 -0800

T.0. Morrow wrote:
>... complex types of property render invalid simple ones no more than
>complex molecules disprove the existence of elements.
>Hal's examples seem to fall into three types: 1) Those in which property
>rights ought not be allowed (in spectrum); 2) those in which creation of a
>property right does not contravene on existing property rights (in mineral
>rights and financial instruments, which merely subdivide existing claims, and
>in unowned outer space); 3) and those in which the quasi-property right
>reinforces traditional rights by serving as a proxy for tort claims (in
>pollution and water rights). I'll comment only on the first.
>Hal writes of spectrum:
>>People could buy and sell frequencies and use them for their desired
>>purposes. Spectrum will go to the highest bidder, making for efficient
>Both the libertarians stock solution to spectrum allocation and Coase's
>preferred approach contravene existing property rights. Suppose, for example,
>that I own a large ranch and wish to broadcast signals on my property, from my
>house to the far-flung corners of my property. Suppose furthermore 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? Why
>should I have to get a license from Coase's Broadcast Equipment Commission?
>As long as my peaceable use of spectrum does not interfere with any neighbor's
>use, I should be allowed to broadcast as I see fit.

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.

We could also say that two centuries ago each of us had an implicit right to walk anywhere we wanted on the moon, and so any auction of moon property now would violate those ancient rights. Isn't that a silly argument?

And even if someone's reasonably implicit rights were at some point in the past violated, it is not clear to me what that implies about current rights. As we all know, most land has been stolen many times over in the past.

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