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The Ownership Society

Mises Daily: Friday, September 03, 2004 by

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Are you already fed up with hearing about the "Ownership Society" that Mr. Bush wants to create?

Without television and the web, it took years for the phrase "New Deal" to become tiresome. But at some point, even FDR stopped using it. The "Great Society" had an even shorter shelf life and became a phrase of derision, uttered with a snarl rather than pride.

"Ownership Society" was already vapid and insufferable halfway through the GOP convention, where it had been pounded flat by pundits, politicians, and media stars even before Bush himself invoked it. It is nonetheless interesting as a piece of political propaganda, and deserves a closer look.

Like the term "Great" and "New," it can mean whatever you want it to mean: everything, nothing, or something in between. George Melloan implausibly claims that it suggests a commitment to "protecting the sanctity of private property." Uh huh. Stephen Bainbridge says it means we need a national consumption tax—so that the government can own a bit of all you buy, I suppose. Bruce Bartlett is correct that the phrase is "all retail politics, no vision. They said, 'Geez, we've got this hodgepodge of things, we've got to sell them.'"

And while no one expects intellectual rigor to go along with presidential campaigns, some are trying to latch onto the phrase—assuring us that it is all about liberty and prosperity—to make sure that they are aboard the ownership gravy train once it begins to chug through the public sector. This is the GOP's version of the Democrat's "Reinventing Government" slogan: something to inspire the base while promising nothing of any substance.

To be sure, no one is against ownership. You might favor private ownership. You might favor public ownership. You can have individual or collective ownership. Ask a Marxist if he is against ownership, and he'll tell you, no, he is for social ownership. Ask a  US imperialist about ownership and he'll list all the countries that the US should own. Ask a criminal whether he believes in ownership and he'll tell you, why yes, he steals in order to own.

A libertarian believes that a person owns himself but a collectivist believes that we all should own each other. An advocate of slavery, national service, or the military draft believes that people can be owned by other people in uniform or the government. So, you see, the merit of ownership is not in dispute. The sense of possession is built into the structure of our minds.

None of this deals with the key questions: what is the nature of ownership, what form should it take, how is it established, what are the limits, and who is to determine how it is exercised? How these questions are answered dictate the conditions under which what you own can be taken from you and given to someone else to own.

In other words, the Ownership Society is a massive effort at question begging. It says nothing about the main debate over private property. It does not limit the government’s control over what you own, or even suggest there ought to be limits.

Nor does it establish a principle concerning the justice of ownership, as is clear from the first application cited by Bush administration spokesmen: housing. The idea is that everyone should own a home. And if a person can't buy it? The government will take money from others and give it to him. Thus is one person's ownership secured only by robbing other people.

Consider the words from a White House Fact Sheet on the topic from June 17, 2002, as discovered by James Bovard. "The single biggest barrier to homeownership," it reads, "is accumulating funds for a down payment."

And thus does the Bush administration support every manner of housing subsidy and free-credit scheme to guarantee that all people can own right now the most expensive good that they will ever purchase. Might this be one reason we face a mortgage bubble, rampant delinquencies, and a housing financial crisis?

Or consider another Bush-promoted piece of "ownership": your retirement funds. No, he is not planning to give you back the money the government has already taken, except through a continuing promise to put you on the dole at the age of 65. Instead, he wants to give you "ownership" over non-existent funds by permitting the government to channel Social Security money into stocks (while incurring trillions in new debt). It's a financially unviable scheme to avoid the only real solution to the Social Security crisis: cut the liabilities and end the program.

No one seems willing to dispute Bush's core claim: "If you own something, you have a vital stake in the future." But even this is wrong. We have a vital stake in the future of many things we do not technically own. Most workers do not own their equipment, and yet they have a vital stake in its functioning. In fact, most laborers are not owners of the companies for which they work but they still have every reason to support their profitability. People do not own the stores in which they shop, the churches they attend, or the services they contract for day in and day out, but they still have a vital stake in their future.

The plumber doesn't own my pipes, but he still fixes them. The doctor doesn't own my body but he can still assist in curing me. The cashier at the grocery doesn't own the groceries he is selling but he does a fine job in any case. What makes all these people different from the postal clerk, the judge, the airport bureaucrat, or the politician? It is the difference between private and public ownership. That is what is at stake.

In any case, whether the users are the actual owners of a good or service is not something that government should determine. This is left to the private markets and individuals contracts. You might want to rent or you might want to buy. You might want to purchase shares in your company or you might not. The crucial question does not concern the fact of ownership but rather its form. What we need is a society of private-property ownership to displace the terrible rise of public ownership.

It is especially remarkable that the slogan "Ownership Society" should come from an administration that has tried to end many ownership rights we once took for granted. We once held possession over our homes, financial records, travel plans, and political associations. But now, under the Patriot Act and assorted presidential edicts, all of these can be taken by the government at any time. Even our persons are no longer safe. A militarized society is one intolerant of self-ownership. Or perhaps Bush means to suggest that in an Ownership Society, government will decide who owns what and under what conditions. Only in this case would the phrase be consistent with his governance.

Under a certain kind of government structure--let's just call it fascism for short--ownership can be in private hands only in the most formal sense, but its control and use is subject to central command. Private property must serve the needs of the state or else it is taken. In this fascist state, we find the real separation of ownership and control: individuals own but only the state controls. What uses of property are not mandated are often prohibited. This is an Ownership Society that does not threaten the interests of the state, but neither does it have anything to do with liberty.

This isn't really an argument over semantics. If the Bush regime were dismantling government, cutting spending, bringing troops home, enhancing rights and privacy, decentralizing decision making, permitting global trade to take place in a liberal environment of no tariffs or duties, if all of this were taking place, who would care what Bush called it? He could call it the Communist Society for all I care. So long as we get liberty, the name doesn't matter.

But it does matter that the Bush campaign would take unto itself a term like ownership in an attempt to dupe people into believing that its policies are consistent with private property and free markets. For all we can tell, this administration intends to own the world. The liberal tradition too knows something about ownership: beware when the ruler claims that he has a better sense of what it means than you do.

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president of the Mises Institute and editor of  LewRockwell.comRockwell@mises.org.  Comment on this article on the blog.