All Commentary
Friday, March 1, 1991

Old Letters and Old Buildings

Dr. Block is a Senior Research Fellow at The Fraser Institute, Vancouver, British Columbia.

James Joyce’s grandson Stephen burned dozens of letters written by his aunt Lucia, the daughter of the famous Irish poet and novelist.

Stephen Joyce explained as he destroyed the letters, “I didn’t want to have greedy little eyes and greedy little fingers going over [these letters]. Where do you draw the line? Do you have any right to privacy?”

Naturally, Joycean scholars were aghast. They had hoped this material would provide information on anything from Oedipal relations amongst the Joyces to Lucia Joyce’s relationship with Samuel Beckett.

But Stephen Joyce was determined that his family, at long last, should be offered a modicum of privacy; Lucia Joyce had spent time in a mental institution, and the young Mr. Joyce feared that the psycho-biographers would try to “re-psychoanalyze my poor aunt.” Burning this woman’s letters might obscure an important part of literary history, but it at least protected her reputation from further degradation.

This episode highlights the tension between the public good and private interests. Society’s “right to know” all about James Joyce is in conflict with the privacy rights of his family.

Strictly speaking, of course, there is no such thing as a generalized “right to know” that applies to members of the general public. If there were, you and I and everyone else would have a legal obligation to reply truthfully to the sometimes impertinent questions of journalists, detectives, and nosy bureaucrats about the most intimate aspects of our lives. Stephen Joyce could have been fined or jailed for destroying his own private property, on the grounds that others, or “history,” had a proprietary interest.

Similar conflicts over property rights arise in other areas. For example, consider the case of historical landmarks. Although not a direct analogy-there is no issue of privacy involved—whenever the owner of an historical edifice decides to renovate or demolish it, he places his interest against that of society at large. Old letters, and old buildings too, are replete with historical significance. If we can label some of the latter as landmarks, and refuse to allow the owner to destroy them, can we not decide that some individuals are of such historical importance that no one may destroy their papers and other artifacts?

If we did so, society in effect would be asserting that it, and not the famous person in question, is the rightful owner of the product of his labors. Evidently, not many would hold that we have the right to interfere with people’s property rights in their letters. How is it then that we regularly interfere with their right to dispose of their own physical property—so-called historical landmarks? Something to think about.

  • Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.