Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Nanny State Strikes Again

A Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute has analogized the import restrictions at issue in the ACCG case to other recent examples of bureaucratic over reach, such as clampdowns on lemonade stands and the saving of baby woodpeckers by well meaning children. See http://washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/op-eds/2011/08/another-hobby-legally-hazardous-pursue

He then goes on to state,

Much of this new body of law rests on the dubious premise that cultural artifacts of great antiquity, even those that have been in the hands of Western museums or collectors for hundreds of years, should by right be subject to the dictates of whichever national government or sovereign entity happens to lay claim to the territory where the objects were originally crafted.

Such national governments, however, are often culturally quite distinct from the civilizations that inhabited those places over millennia, and often lack either the will or the means to conserve fragile artifacts as well as collectors would. The fate of more than a few "returned" artifacts has been to be stolen or crumble in the hands of inexpert new custodians.

Is some sort of property right at issue? Well, one might conceivably argue that certain artifacts, such as funerary urns and temple friezes, must by their nature be regarded as stolen property since at some point they must have been looted from sites originally contemplated as permanent.

(Presumably -- but not necessarily -- temples may choose to sell their friezes, dynasties go out of business with no receiver in bankruptcy, and so forth.)

But coins are just the opposite: They were meant to circulate, and, if of good value, they might soon be found in intended and legitimate use far from their country of origin.

Much of the success of coins as an institution in economic history (as with precious metals more generally) arose from their very anonymity, the fact that when they changed hands they left no paper trail for a jealous sovereign to trace.

Yet modern antiquities law falls over itself to cater to the wishes of the jealous sovereign, at a cost to both fairness and the interests of conservation. Why?

Good question.

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