Saturday, August 27, 2005

Column on Who Owns Society

Are Societies Owned?

Tibor R. Machan

Say you wish to sell antiques, so you rent space in a building owned by
someone and agree that whenever you make a sale, some of what you fetch
goes to the owner. Professor Craig Duncan, my co-author of Libertarianism,
For and Against (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), claims this is analogous to
the nature of taxation. The country is like the building. ?The building?s
owner ? charges vendors a percentage of their sales intake?say, 20
percent?as payment for the opportunity to sell from one of the building?s
stalls?. The owner is not stealing [the vendor?s] money when he demands
this sum from [the vendor].?

According to Professor Duncan this is how we ought to
understand taxation,
not, as I argue, as extortion by some members of society (the government)
of the rest who live and work there.

But the analogy is a bad one. No one owns a free society. No one who
lives in a free society is provided with the opportunity to strike up a
deal with some owner of that society or to choose from among different
owners of societies in which he or she might live and work.

Instead, people would be born into a free society
where others, including
their parents, relatives, or guardians, own homes, places of work and so
on. Other people?the government?would not have the authority to coerce
them into paying them ?taxes? and to put them in jail if they refuse to
pay up, with no chance of bargaining about the percentage, of whether to
pay a flat fee (whether they win or lose in their various commercial
endeavors), a percentage of some possible take and so forth.

All of these latter options are, however, possible when
an antique seller
rents a stall from someone who owns a building where customers may seek
out vendors. But free societies, unlike the place where an antique vendor
may or may not rent a stall, are not anyone?s property.

Professor Duncan does, however, correctly describe societies that are not
free. In a feudal system, for example, the king or tsar or other monarch
owns the society. In a dictatorship the dictator is the owner. In fascist
societies the leader in effect owns the society. And in democracies that
aren?t governed by a constitution that protects individual rights the
majority owns the society. These owners then charge a rent from those they
permit to live and work on their property.

That kind of system is, indeed, the natural home of
the institution of
taxation. Such societies are also the natural home of serfdom, where
others than those who own it live and work only when permitted to do so.
They have no rights other than those granted at the discretion of the
owners. Both serfdom and taxation arise naturally in societies that are
owned by someone.

In free societies, however, no one owns the society.
Individual citizens
may or may not own all kinds of things in such free societies?land,
apartments, family homes, farms, factories, and innumerable other items
that may be found before human beings have expropriated them from the
wilds or what has been produced by or traded back and forth among the free

Of course, in complex, developed free societies the citizenry will most
likely have instituted a legal order or government, based on the
principles of freedom?individual rights to life, liberty and property, for
example. And they will probably have instituted some means by which those
administering such a system will be paid for their work?user fees, shares
of wealth owned, a flat sum, or something more novel and unheard of (e.g.,
contract fees). Citizens can come together, roughly along lines of how the
original American colonists came together, and establish a legal order or
government that will be empowered, without violating anyone?s rights, to
provide for a clear definition, elaboration, and defense of everyone?s
rights. Then, once such a group of citizens has come together and
instituted a government with just powers?powers that do not violate but
protect individual rights?the proper funding of the work of such a
government can be spelled out.

What is crucial here is that such funding must occur voluntarily, namely,
as the kind of funding that does not violate anyone?s rights. Unlike the
case Professor Duncan gives us, where someone has prior ownership over the
various items in society that can be owned, in a free society ownership is
achieved through various types of free action. This includes coming upon
something unowned and appropriating it?land, trees, lakes, whatever?or
being given in trade various things by others or, again, being born into
the world with various assets or attributes that may well be used to
create wealth through production, use or exchange.

A truly free society, then, does not belong to anyone but is a region
or sphere wherein individuals are free to come to own things. It is one
within which
those who live there are free to embark on actions that involve, among
other things, the acquisition of property. That is part of being free, not
being coerced by others to give up what one has peacefully acquired, not
be prohibited by others from embarking on various actions, including
peaceful acquisition (including production and trade).

In short, a free society is based on principles of
individual rights, not
on having gained permission from prior owners of the society on analogy
with how a renter of a stall in an antique mall comes into possession of
that stall. In free societies ownership is a right everyone has by his or
her nature as a human being and it isn?t granted as a privilege by a prior

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