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Ownership Must Be Tempered by Sharing
by Lawrence W. Reed
Progressives have a problem with ownership, especially when it's
yours. The very notion seems to conjure up in their minds an
anti-social acquisitiveness, selfishness and greed. Far more
quickly, they come to the defense of "sharing" because it suggests
sacrificing ownership for the sake of others. Indeed, the most
regressive Progressive is drawn to the idea of common
ownership, in which no one owns anything because somehow we all
will own and share it equally.
The Progressives' hostility to ownership is neither well-founded
nor consistent. While they have a visceral distaste for private
ownership (and busy themselves taxing, regulating, seizing and
redistributing it), they have few problems with state ownership.
It's as if men are devilish with what's theirs but angelic when
it's everybody else's. This is not a concept that explains life on
any planet I am personally aware of.
The fact is, "ownership" as a general concept
is never really at issue in any society. It is neither possible nor
desirable to construct a society in which people or the material
things they create are not "owned." Either you will "own" yourself
or someone else will own you. As far as material things are
concerned, somebody must own them too. Those "somebodies" will
either be those who created them, received them as a gift, or
traded freely for them, or they will be those who take them by
force. There is no middle ground, no "third way" in which ownership
is somehow avoided.
Indeed, ownership is both a virtue and a necessity. What is
yours, you tend to husband. If it belongs to someone else, you have
little incentive to care for it. If it belongs to "everyone"-the
nebulous, collectivist approach-then you have every incentive to
use and abuse it. That's why over thousands of years of history
experience continually reinforces this essential axiom: the more
the government owns and thereby controls, the less free and
productive the people are.
Ownership is nothing less than the right to shape, use, and
dispose. Even if you have legal title to something, you wouldn't
think you really owned it if the government told you what you could
do with it, how, and when; in that instance, the government would
be the de facto owner. In a real sense, ownership is control and
the actual owner of anything is the controller.
For thoroughly trashing the resources of any society, no more
surefire prescription exists than to take them from those to whom
they belong (the rightful owners) and give them to those who are
convinced in the fantasyland of their own minds that they have a
better idea of what to do with them. Think "Soviet." Socialist
regimes, which take from some and give to others at the point of a
gun, have their cockamamie schemes for how to squander the loot,
but they display an infantile ignorance of how to create wealth in
the first place.
Much has been made in the past about alleged differences between
fascism and communism. Sure, the Nazis invaded Stalinist Russia
(after the two had made a deal to squash and divide Poland), but
that was a dispute between thieves that proved the old adage that
there's no honor among them. On the question of ownership, the
difference was a cosmetic one that ultimately mattered little to
the ordinary citizen.
Communists didn't let you own a factory, and if you did own one
when they came to power you were shot. Fascists often refrained
from nationalizing a factory, but if you as the alleged owner
didn't do as you were told, you were shot. Under either system,
real ownership was in the hands of the omnipotent State, regardless
of what any scrap of legal title paper said.
The myth of "common ownership" only muddies the issue. Public
parks are thought of as held in common ("the people's property"),
but that really means that the government owns them, the taxpayers
pay the bill, and the public gets to use them according to the
rules established and enforced by the government. Some have argued
that the post office is another example of common ownership. That
would mean that theoretically, each American owns about
one-three-hundred-millionth of it, but show up at the counter and
try to redeem your share and you might be surprised how fast the
response can be.
From the remote but fascinating country of Mongolia comes an
ownership story told to me by the country's current president (as
of 2014), Elbegdorj Tsakhia (known by his friends as "EB."). He
earlier served as Prime Minister twice, and visited me in Michigan
between those terms. I asked him during that visit what he was most
proud of having accomplished as PM. He said, "I privatized
Mongolia's 25 million yaks."
Yaks are large, furry cattle that wear their hair in bangs. For
decades under communist rule, the poor creatures were owned by the
government, which claimed they were "the people's property." Their
total population hardly budged from the 1920s to the 1990s. E.B.
decided that yaks were not a core function of government so he
worked up a formula whereby all of them would be sold to the
individual herdsmen. Three years later he was Prime Minister the
second time. I visited him in his office in the capital of Ulan
Bator and asked him, "What's the latest on the yaks?" Excitedly, he
replied, "Remember when I told you we had 25 million for seven
decades? Well, now we have 32 million!"
When it's YOUR yak, not "everybody's" yak, wonderful things
happen. You have a personal interest in the investment, in the
capital value of the asset. You take care of the yak and make more
yaks, which you then "share" with more and more people in an
endless stream of peaceful, mutually beneficial trades of yak
Progressives yak a lot about sharing but you can't share it if
you don't produce it and take care of it in the first place.
Private, personal ownership of material things we create and trade
for is unsurpassed as a source of the wealth that Progressives want
Moreover, we should ask ourselves, "Is it really 'sharing' if I
have to do it at gunpoint?" I was always taught that sharing was an
act of free will. When you give half your sandwich to a friend who
forgot to pack his lunch, you've shared it. If he threatens to beat
you up if you don't give it to him, "sharing" is no longer the
So when it comes to this thing we call "ownership," it's either
you or somebody else. Who should own your retirement savings-you or
the government? Who should own your health-care dollars-you, the
government, or some third-party payer you'd prefer to avoid? Who
should decide where your child goes to school-you the parent or a
handful of other parents different from you only by
virtue of the fact that they work for the government? Who should
decide what charitable activities you support-you or some
congressman or bureaucrat who prefers the social welfare department
over the Red Cross or your local church?
Those questions should not be answered solely on utilitarian
grounds. In a free society, Person A might choose a better school
or make a better investment than Person B-a fact that can't be
known for certain in advance. But in any event, that does not
mystically grant Person B the right to make Person A's choices for
him. If freedom means anything, it means
the right to make your own choices even if you
make what others regard as mistakes. When someone argues that we
cannot allow people more choices over their retirement, health
care, or schools, we should demand they tell us by what right do
they make these decisions for us?
Make no mistake about it: the more someone else controls you or
the important decisions that govern your life or the material
things that sustain it, the more they own you. We used to
call that slavery and no gauzy, self-righteous calls to "share it"
made it any less inhumane.
If you're a principled and articulate defender of private
ownership of property, be ready for some Progressive social
engineer to lay a guilt trip on you if he thinks you're not
"sharing" enough. I suspect that the preponderance of Progressives
will not be satisfied until their coercion-based policies
effectively own the rest of us lock, stock, and barrel.
Own or be owned. Take your pick.
Lawrence W. Reed
Foundation for Economic Education
(Editor's Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared in
the July/August 2005 issue of "The Freeman" under the title, "To
Own or Be Owned: That is the Question.")
"The Economics of Caring and Sharing" by Dwight R. Lee:
"Experiments in Collectivism" by Melvin D. Barger:
"Little Lessons in Larceny" by Russell Madden:
"The Puritan Experiment in Common Ownership" by Gary North:
Plus previous Clichés, #6 and #9:http://fee.org/publications/page/cliches-of-progressivism