Sunday, February 27, 2005

Column on Ownership, True and False

Ownership Society?True & False

Tibor R. Machan

President George W. Bush is about ownership like most defenders of
abortion rights are about choice, highly restrictive and selective. The
only choice these abortion rights activists prize is the choice to
terminate a pregnancy. Everything else they?I have in mind Planned
Parenthood and NOW type people?are eager for government to control,
regulate, or prohibit. So their support of choice is bogus and smacks of a
special agenda, having little to do with an individual?s right to liberty.

Mr. Bush, in turn, seems to believe in ownership of just a tiny portion of
the fruits of one?s work that everyone must hand over to the Social
Security Administration, and even there he doesn?t actually champion
ownership, plain and simple, but highly circumscribed, regulated
?ownership.? (He will not ?permit? anyone to take the money to Las Vegas,
for example. But what kind of ownership is it that the president controls
like that?)

Maybe Mr. Bush needs to have it explained just what ownership means. And I
have just the teacher for him, the famous 20th century philosopher Ludwig
Wittgenstein. Norman Malcolm, one of his students, tells the following
story about him in which ownership is spelled out very instructively:

When in very good spirits he would jest in a delightful manner. This took
the form of deliberately absurd or extravagant remarks uttered in a tone,
and with the mien, of affected seriousness. On one walk he 'gave' me each
tree that we passed, with the reservation that I was not to cut it down or
do anything to it, or prevent the previous owners from doing anything to
it: with those reservations they were henceforth mine. (Norman Malcolm,
Ludwig Wittgenstein, A Memoir [London: Van Nostrand Rinehold Co., 1070],
pp. 31-32.)

In short, when you cannot use or dispose of something as you judge fit and
as its nature allows, it isn?t yours?calling it yours is ?absurd or

George W. Bush, then, isn?t talking about ownership at all. He has in
mind the sort of possession parents make possible for their kids when they
allow them to use the car or have a party at the house: they will remain
in full charge but the kids are allowed some leeway with the thing.

That is the kind of ?ownership? subjects had in feudal monarchies.
Monarchs gave them permission to use some of what they owned, maybe to
encourage them to work harder so they can then be taxed heavier.

True ownership is when one has the right to use and dispose of the owned
items as one sees fit. This is the theory of the right to private property
that John Locke, the grandfather of the American Revolution, spelled out
in his Second Treatise of Civil Government (1764). It is well summarized,
paradoxically enough?but with a misguided emphasis?by Karl Marx: ?the
right of man to property is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose
of the same arbitrarily, without regard for other men, independently from
society, the right of selfishness.? (Karl Marx, Selected Writings, ed.
David McLellan [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977], p. 53.) Of course,
this right is not just a right of selfishness but also a right of
generosity, charity, gift giving, and free exchange or commerce.
(Aristotle was well aware, way before Marx and Locke, that to be generous,
one needs to own something to be generous with!)

True ownership only exists when one has the unalienable right to obtain,
hold, and allocate property in any way one chooses apart from violating
the equal right of others. This is just the kind of ownership that neither
Mr. Bush nor his adversaries want to acknowledge, let alone secure legal
recognition for. The parties in the current debate don?t want ownership at
all. They are only dickering about how much of the results of their work
will government allow people to control, with all the parties calmly
accepting government as having the role of being able to grant such

This, in fact, is the very idea of government that the American
revolution had been fought to overturn, one whereby it is the sovereign
and the people are its subjects. It is pretty sad that only two and a half
centuries after that vital turning point in human history, the leaders of
the country the revolution spawned completely ignore its essence, namely,
individual sovereignty and the unalienable right to govern one?s life,
labor, and its results without the permission of the king!

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