The Egg and I
Who Has the Right to Claim Public Property?
APRIL 01, 1994 by WILLIAM E. PIKE
When nine-year-old Jamie Andrich tried to sell a 2,000-year-old fossilized egg he and two cousins had found while on vacation, the government of the vastly underpopulated state that is Western Australia said he couldn’t do it. The three children had found the ancient natural relic on state-owned land, and the government therefore claimed it was “public property,” and could not be privately sold. Jamie, undaunted, reburied the egg, for which a collector had offered $102,000, and refused to disclose its location until he and his cousins were justly paid.
One has to wonder how the Western Australian government would have dealt with such a situation if the individual in question had not been a nine-year-old with the attention of the world media, but in this case the government gave in. Though unable to pay the steep price being demanded, the government promised to set up a fund to raise up to $109,000 through state museum donations to help pay for the education of the three cousins. So in the end the government got its egg, and the children got their money—more or less.
But this quaint and humorous story brings up a far more serious question. Did the government of Western Australia have the right to claim the fossilized egg as its own? And for that matter, does any government have the right to claim ownership of a piece of “public property” for itself? I set the term “public property” apart because it is itself highly ambiguous. It is perhaps the central phrase around which this argument turns. A government may claim that it is protecting the interests of the masses by holding land or property in trust for the welfare of all citizens, but at what point does such action turn from being beneficial to the masses to being beneficial to the government itself?. If Jamie Andrich and his cousins had found and tried to sell a common but pretty pebble for 10 cents, would the government of Western Australia, a state three times the size of Texas but with Nebraska’s population, have used legal action to prevent the sale? Probably not.
Who or what is the “public” in “public property”? The question is applicable to Australia, to the United States, or to any nation. If I visit a state or federal park, I may fish in “public” waterways (with a license, of course—a meaningless receipt for a tax); I may picnic under the shade of “public” trees, using a “public” barbecue pit; I may set up a tent on the “public” ground; I may hike through a “public” forest. In other words, I may expend my energies and labors in an area I help support (through a variety of taxes and fees) in common with many other citizens. Of course, wanting to be a good citizen, and not disrupt the social order, I would not set fire to a “public” forest, or cut down a “public” tree, but could I not take home an autumn leaf A piece of driftwood? A beetle for an insect collection? A fossilized egg?
John Locke answers the question thusly:
Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.
Locke then goes on to remind us, as I Timothy says, that “God has given us all things richly,” and therefore, if a person gathers “acorns, or other fruits of the earth” not in gross abundance, but according to individual need, then it is by nature his right—his property.
But the growing state is always hungry to increase its powers, and keep the fruits of citizenship for itself. “Public lands” are owned by the people, not by the government. When the state begins to act as the center of a nation or region, higher than the good of the public, the time has come for a re-evaluation of its design. Abuse of land rights is often a definite sign of such overgrown government.
Consider the words of Albert Jay Nock:
After conquest and confiscation have been effected, and the State set up, its first concern is with the land. The State assumes the right of eminent domain over its territorial basis, whereby every landholder becomes in theory a tenant of the state. In its capacity as ultimate landlord, the State distributes the land among its beneficiaries on its own terms.
In such a scenario the state is obviously not working for the people, but for itself.
Whether it be abusing the power of eminent domain, or whether it be refusing a young boy a tiny bit of his own nation’s incalculable wealth, no such government should be allowed to claim ownership of a nation’s resources for itself alone, unchecked. Though he may not know it, Jamie Andrich has done his countrymen a service by not letting the state run roughshod over him. The duty of vigilance is a highly important one. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to each other.