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Lawrence Reed Columnist

Published Thursday, May 17, 2012

To own or be owned

Communists are famously in favor of abolishing private property because they don’t believe individuals should “own” things. Thinking people know that this is nuts.

The fact is, 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.

Ownership is both a virtue and a necessity. What is yours, you tend to take care of. If it belongs to someone else, you have little incentive to care for it. If it belongs to “everyone,” then you have every incentive to use and abuse it and little reason to conserve 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.

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. 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. On the question of ownership, the difference was a cosmetic one that ultimately mattered little to the ordinary citizen. Under either system, real ownership was in the hands of the state, regardless of what any scrap of legal title paper said.

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?

Own or be owned. Take your pick.

(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, N.Y., and Atlanta.)

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