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Only "Rights-Obsessed" People Defend Property

June 25, 2009

Writing at National Review, Lynne Munson argues that the state should ignore property rights when it comes to protecting “art” — in this case the notoriously ugly Third Church of Christ, Scientist building in Washington, DC. The church wants to tear its own building down. But not so fast, says Munson: It’s art that belongs to “the people”:

I’m going to use an admittedly extreme example to make a point about art ownership. Someone who owns a Van Gogh could choose to destroy it. But only the most rights-obsessed among us would defend that decision. Art objects aren’t like most commodities. Sure, they are “owned,” but that ownership is temporary since the lifetimes of great objects far outstretch our own. That is, unless the temporary owner of an object destroys it. Then it’s gone.

A great art object is a gift that an artist gives to all humanity — not just to the person or institution or state that has bought it. That is why we display them in museums for all to see (and give a tax credit to those who donate them). And that is why we spend fortunes preserving and protecting them.

The church under discussion is no Van Gogh. Or Frank Lloyd Wright. But it is a structure that possesses unique artistic value greater than most every building for blocks around it.

I should know. I work a block away from the Third Church in the kind of unremarkable D.C. office building that occupies the lion’s share of space in the district. It is a tedious structure, devoid of any aesthetic appeal or interest. The architect who designed it brought the same level of artistic curiosity to the job that a steamroller brings to the task of flattening asphalt. Inevitably, more such buildings will be built. So don’t we want to consider hanging on to the smattering of structures that intrigue our eyes and make us talk?

Munson is articulating what amounts to a reverse-IP argument. If an item of tangible property is deemed unique or aesthetically interesting, it ceases to exist as private property and becomes owned in perpetuity by “the public.” This is a good deal if you’re the government agent placed in charge of deciding what should and should not be preserved as “great objects.”

Comically — and since this is National Review we’re dealing with — Munson insists she really loves free markets, except when they conflict with her personal tastes:

I know that most readers of NRO, like myself, believe completely in creativity and democratic power of the market.

But, at the same time, I do not think that the market should be the sole determiner of what we do with our built environment. If that were the case, we would have long ago converted The Mall into parking and the Capitol and White House into loft condominiums.

A man can dream, Lynne. A man can dream…

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