Milton Friedman vs. Private Property


This story deserves to be better known.

One of the foundations of Western liberty is the defense of private property against invaders. This principle goes back to the Mosaic law.

If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall put in his beast, and shall feed in another man’s field; of the best of his own field, and of the best of his own vineyard, shall he make restitution. (Ex. 22:5).

In 1960, an obscure economist at the University of Virginia wrote an article attacking this position. He argued that judges should ignore the question of who owns the field. Instead, they should decide, on their own authority, whether it would benefit society more if the farmer should pay the cattle owner to build a fence for his cattle, or whether the cattle owner should pay for the fence. Henceforth, there should be no automatic compensation to the victim.

If this legal theory were ever adopted by the courts, it would end private property by ending the predictability of the law. The tyranny of the judges would begin. Fortunately, the courts have generally ignored it.

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The economist submitted the article for publication in the University of Chicago’s new publication, The Journal of Law and Economics. The editor was Milton Friedman’s brother-in-law. He showed the article to Friedman.

Friedman wanted to challenge this thesis. So, he and the entire department of economics invited the economist to fly to Chicago and discuss it. He accepted the invitation. He had dinner with all 20 members. Friedman led the attack.

Two hours later, the visitor had converted every member of the department to his position. This meeting was described by George Stigler in his 1988 autobiography, who was…

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