Someone’s Gonna Use It

January 8, 2011

There’s a Tom Chapin song I remember listening to when I was a kid/older kid/adult called “Someone’s Gonna Use It.” Unfortunately, Tom Chapin seems to be about the only artist you can’t find on youtube. [UPDATE: Now you can, but possibly not for long.  ]

But the song goes like this:

Did you ever think as you use the sink
About the water going down the drain?
How it used to be in the deep blue sea
And before that it was rain?

[..]

Someone’s gonna use it after you
Someone needs that water when you’re through!
‘Cause the water land and air
These are things we’ve got to share
Someone’s gonna use it after you!

Reflecting on the song this morning, it occurred to me that the message is similar to the one made by Harold Demsetz in his amazing article, “Toward a Theory of Property Rights.” Basically, what Demsetz argues is that the reason property rights develop is because we want people to take others into consideration when they are deciding how to use resources.

When I’m trying to decide whether to use water to drink, to brush my teeth, or to clean the porch, I shouldn’t just be thinking about how much I like doing those things, I should also be thinking about other people and what they want. If I just want a clean porch, but there’s another guy who is really thirsty and would use the same water to quench his thirst, it would be selfish of me to ignore his thirst and clean my porch.

Having a system of private property in which property rights can be traded is one way to avoid this selfishness. If I decide to use gallons of water for cleaning, I feel the cost of this wasteful usage, whether I like it or not. How? Because by deciding to use the water for something, I necessarily am giving up the opportunity to use it for something else, which means I am giving up the payment I could have gotten from someone else for allowing them to use a resource I own.

You might think the idea of trading water is unrealistic, so fine, how about oil? Some people use gas to take pleasure cruises around town in their Hummers. Some use it to get to work in the morning. Still others use it to make plastic bottles for delivering water to people. The guy who drives around town for kicks is a selfish jerk, sure, but the fact that gasoline is constantly being bought and sold means that he is paying a cost for his behavior, whether he likes it or not.

So it’s true what the song says, “Someone’s gonna use it after you.” And if you own “it,” the private property system means that the way you use it and the state you leave it in affects the value of your property. If you take care of your property well and leave it in good condition, you will benefit by receiving a higher price in resale. If you destroy everything you own, you will suffer the consequences by not receiving anything for your used goods, and in fact possibly having to pay someone to dispose of them.

You’ll have to tell me if I’m being overly cutesy in this post, but the bottom line is, consideration for others is what the private property system is all about.

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