Do You Own Yourself?

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of my favorite quotations comes from Thomas Pynchon: "if they
can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry
about answers." Our world is in the mess it is in today because
most of us have internalized the fine art of asking the wrong questions.
Contrary to the thinking that would have us believe that the conflict,
violence, tyranny, and destructiveness that permeates modern society
is the result of "bad" or "hateful" people,
disparities in wealth, or lack of education, all of our social
problems are the direct consequence of a general failure
to respect the inviolability of one another's property interests!

I begin my Property classes with the question: "do you own
yourself?" Most of my students eagerly nod their heads in the
affirmative, until I warn them that, by the time we finish examining
this question at the end of the year, they will find their answer
most troubling, whatever it may be today. "If you do
own yourself, then why do you allow the state to control your life
and other property interests? And if you answer that you do not
own yourself, then what possible objection can you raise to anything
that the state may do to you?" We then proceed to an examination
of the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford.

question of whether Dred Scott was a self-owning individual, or
the property of another, is the same question at the core of the
debate on abortion. Is the fetus a self-owning person, or
an extension of the property boundaries of the mother? The same
property analysis can be used to distinguish "victimizing"
from "victimless" crimes: murder, rape, arson, burglary,
battery, theft, and the like, are victimizing crimes because someone's
property boundaries were violated. In a victimless crime, by contrast,
no trespass to a property interest occurs. If one pursues the substance
of the "issues" that make up political and legal debates
today, one always finds a property question at stake: is person
"x" entitled to make decisions over what is his, or will
the state restrain his decision-making in some way? Regulating what
people can and cannot put into their bodies, or how they are to
conduct their business or social activities, or how they are to
educate their children, are all centered around property questions.

is not simply some social invention, like Emily Post's guide to
etiquette, but a way of describing conditions that are essential
to all living things. Every living thing must occupy space
and consume energy from outside itself if it is to survive, and
it must do so to the exclusion of all other living
things on the planet. I didn't dream this up. My thinking was
not consulted before the life system developed. The world was operating
on the property principle when I arrived and, like the rest of us,
I had to work out my answers to that most fundamental, pragmatic
of all social questions: who gets to make decisions about what?
The essence of "ownership" is to be found in control:
who gets to be the ultimate decision maker about people and "things"
in the world?

Observe the rest of nature: trees, birds, fish, plants, other mammals,
bacteria, all stake out claims to space and sources of energy
in the world, and will defend such claims against intruders, particularly
members of their own species. This is not because they are mean-spirited
or uncooperative: quite the contrary, many of us have discovered
that cooperation is a great way of increasing the
availability of the energy we need to live well. We have found out
that, if we will respect the property claims of one another and
work together, each of us can enjoy more property in our lives than
if we try to function independently of one another. Such a discovery
has permitted us to create economic systems.

There is no way that I could have produced, by myself, the computer
upon which I am writing this article. Had I devoted my entire life
to the undertaking, I would have been unable even to have conceived
of its technology. Many other men and women, equally unable to have
undertaken the task by themselves, cooperated — without even knowing
one another — in its creation. Lest you think that my writing would
have to have been accomplished through the use of a pencil, think
again: I would also have been unable to produce a pencil on my own,
as Leonard Read once illustrated in a wonderful, brief essay.

Such cooperative undertakings have been possible because of a truth
— acknowledged by students of marketplace economic systems, particularly
the Austrians — about human nature: each of us acts only in anticipation
of being better off afterwards as a result of our actions. Toward
whatever ends we choose to act — and such ends are constantly rearranging
their priorities within us — their satisfaction is always expressed
in terms inextricably tied to decision making over something one
owns (or seeks to own). Whether I wish to acquire some item of wealth,
or to give it away; whether I choose to write some great novel or
paint some wondrous work of art; or whether I just wish to lie around
and look at flowers, each such act is premised on the fact that
we cannot act in the world without doing so through property interests.
It is in anticipation of being able to more fully express our sense
of what is important to us, both materially and spiritually, that
we cooperate with one another.

also provides a means for maximizing both individual liberty
and peace in society. For once we identify who the owner
of some item of property is, that person's will is inviolate as
to such property interest. He or she can do what they choose with
respect to what is theirs. If I own a barn, I can set fire to
it should I so choose. If I must first get another's permission,
such other person is the owner. Individual liberty means that my
decision making is immune from the coercion of others, and coercion
is always expressed in terms of property trespasses.

At the same time, the property principle limits the scope
of my decision making by confining it to that which is mine to control.
This is why problems such as industrial "pollution" are
usually misconceived, reflecting the truth of Pynchon's earlier
quote. A factory owner who fails to confine the unwanted byproducts
of his activities to his own land, is not behaving as a property
owner, but as a trespasser. Economists have an apt
phrase for this: socializing the costs. He is behaving like
any other collectivist, choosing to extend his decision making over
the property of others!

But not all of us choose to pursue our self-interests through cooperation
with others. Cooperation can exist only when our relationships with
others are on a voluntary basis which, in turn, requires
a mutual respect for the inviolability of one another's property
boundaries. Those who seek to advance their interests in non-cooperative
ways, create another system: politics. If you can manage
to drag your mind away from the drivel placed there by your high
school civics class teacher, and look at political systems in terms
of what they in fact do, you will discover this: every such system
is founded upon a disrespect for privately owned property! All
political systems are collectivist in nature, for each presumes
a rightful authority to violate the will — including confiscation
— of property owners. One can no more conceive of "politics"
without "theft" than of "war" without "violence."

Every political system is defined in terms of how property
is to be controlled in a given society. In communist systems,
the state confiscates all the means of production. In less-ambitious
socialist systems, the state confiscates the more important
means of production (e.g., railroads, communications, steel mills,
etc.). Under fascism, "title" to property remains
in private hands, but "control" over such property is
exercised by the state. Thus, fascism has given us state regulatory
systems, in which property owners — be they farmers, homeowners,
or businesses — have the illusion of owning what they believe
to be "theirs," while the state increasingly exercises
the real ownership authority (i.e., control). In welfare state
systems, the state confiscates part of the income of individuals
and redistributes it to others.

As stated earlier, property is an existential fact. Whatever
the society in which we live, someone will make determinations
as to who will live where, what resources can be consumed by whom
(and when), and how such property will be controlled. Such decisions
can either be made by individual property owners — over what
is theirs to control — or by the state presuming the authority
to control the lives of each of us. When such decisions are made
by the state, it is claiming ownership over our lives.

It is at this point that I let the students in on the secret the
political establishment would prefer not to have revealed: the 13th
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not end slavery, but
only nationalized it! That most Americans acquiesce in such
political arrangements, and take great offense should anyone dare
to explain their implications, has led me to the conclusion that
America may be the last of the collectivist societies to wither
away. Most Americans, sad to say, seem unprepared to deny the state's
authority to direct their lives and property as political officials
see fit. The reason for this, as my first-day question to students
is designed to elicit, is that most of us refuse to insist upon

We may, of course, choose to accept our role as state-owned chattels,
particularly if we are well-treated by our masters. We may be so
conditioned in our obeisance that, like cattle entering the slaughterhouse,
we may pause to lick the hand of the butcher out of gratitude for
having been well cared for. On the other hand, we may decide to
reclaim our self-ownership by taking back the control over our lives
that we have long since abandoned.

Perhaps the insanity of our social destructiveness — including the
Bush Administration's deranged declaration of a permanent war against
the rest of the world — will bring about an examination of alternative
ways of living together in conditions of peace and liberty. Our
political systems cannot bring about such harmonious and life-sustaining
ways because they are premised on a rejection of the principle of
self-ownership. In a society of self-owning individuals, there would
be no place for politicians, bureaucrats, and other state functionaries.
Like the rest of us, they would have to confine their lives to minding
their own business, and deriving whatever benefit they could from
persons who chose to cooperate with them.

There is one person who can restore you to a state of self-ownership,
however, and that person is you. To do so, you need only
assert your claim, not as some empty gesture, but in full understanding
of the existential meaning of such a claim, including the willingness
to take full control of and responsibility for your life. While
your claim will likely evoke cries of contempt from many, you may
also find yourself energized by a life force that permeates all
of nature; an élan vital that reminds us that life
manifests itself only through individuals, and not as collective
monstrosities; that life belongs to the living, not to the
state or any other abstraction.

25, 2002

Shaffer [send
him e-mail
] teaches at the Southwestern University School
of Law.

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