(Before you get bored, read the last two paragraphs first)
One thing that's so challenging everytime we start talking about public economics (i.e. economics that involves you, me, them, and the government simultaneously -- ahem, looks like everything is public economics, no?) is the issue of property rights. Sadly, it is almost always taken as a cursory note. It might even be just a cameo in econ classes. Despite the fact that the issue of property rights is a key pillar in economics.
Here's an example.
Imagine you buy a gold in whatever form. You keep it at home as a "store of value". Due to high uncertainty in other form of investment (money, stocks, bonds, etc), you decide to keep it and sell it when "price is damn good". Question: are you committing a crime? Of course not (I know you're raising your eyebrow).
But now, try this thought experiment. Change the word "gold" into "rice". Does our conclusion still hold?
Apparently, not to one of my students. She said that when you stored rice and waited until the price was high before you sold it, you're "immoral". I asked her what's the difference with gold. She quickly responded: "You don't eat gold, you eat rice". So the nature of property depends on whether or not you "eat" it, eh?
That's a total neglect of the concept of "property right". And it's not unique to the student above. The same way of thinking is pervasive even in the House of Representatives and in the government. I heard, some lawmakers start thinking of punishing "rice speculators" -- those who buy rice in bulk, keep it, and sell when the price is high.
Property right, in plain words, is the right to do anything the beholder wants with regards to the property. When I bought this laptop, what I actually paid was the right to do anything I want to it. As per the transaction, the right was transferred from the IBM store to me. Next thing I knew, I could use this laptop to blog, to write, to calculate, you name it. But don't forget, I could also use it for other purposes I want. For example, when I got threatened by some jerk on the street, I could throw this laptop on his face, as a defense. I could even ... burn it, if I want. And IBM store has no right to complain. Neither does the parliament member, nor the government.
So, if you want to punish "rice speculators", you've got to be fair. Punish gold "speculators", laptop "speculators", car "speculators", et cetera.
Note however, two caveats:
One, when the government acts as "rice speculators", the above qualification might not hold. Why? Because it speculates using our money, not their own. When Bulog buys rice, some of the money they use come from our tax. Meaning, the people own part of the property right. The government cq Bulog is therefore subject to the people's consent.
Two, be very clear on the difference between the rice "speculation" story above and the practice of illegal mixing of fuel and kerosene ("oplosan"). When I buy lots of fuel, I own the property right of it. When I buy lots of kerosene, same story applies as well. I have all the right to do anything on those two "properties", including mixing them up. But, when I sell the mixed substance to the public as if it is fuel (not mixed with kerosene) at the fuel price (be it market or administered), I am committing a crime. I have to be punished for that. Because I lie to buyers -- if you know that my fuel contains kerosene, yet I sell it at the same price with un-kerosene-d fuel, there's no reason for you to buy it from me. (The story will be more complicated when I sell the mixed thing at a price lower than fuel's price but higher than kerosene's price, then I transact with you voluntarily and with perfect information; but let's save this for other posting; for now, let's think before calling it a crime).
Having said all that, let me go back to your favourite issue: Playboy magazine. I deliberately offered the "anti" camp an economic solution, namely: buy the magazine, and burn it. Now you see what I meant. When you buy the magazine, you have all the right to do anything on it. So it's perfectly legal for you to ... burn it. But you can't burn somebody else's magazine -- he (or she) has the right to keep it; he pays for it. (Note: the argument here does not hold for the case of, for example, bibles. What constitutes "property" in the case of bible is not the book in its physical form. It's the ideas that have become publicly owned. It's the religion. And the owner of a religion is of course the believer of the religion. The only private part of the bible is the production process of printing it, and the right to keep it at home. The content, on the other hand, is a public good. Burning a bible, therefore, means an offense to the "property owners": the believers).
(Quizz: Ape and Dewa (see comments in the foregoing posting) suggest to the anti camp not to buy Playboy magazine. I suggest otherwise. Why?)