The Virtue of Selfishness

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You can observe it in the dogs. If Hercule, our senior pup, picks a toy from the dog’s toy-box to play with, Nero, his youthful companion, must have that toy, at once. On the rare occasion when you can get the younger pup to play with a different toy, Hercule will drop the one he has, and try to get Nero’s.

Children exhibit the same characteristic. If "mama" or "papa" is the child’s first word, his second, surely, is "MINE," usually uttered at top volume, pertaining to whatever plaything he happens to have in his fist at the moment.

Adults find this possessiveness distressing, and try to teach their children to share. Sharing, of course, is not only good, it is a moral imperative if we’re talking about sharing food with the starving, or clothing with the naked, or shelter with the homeless. But toys? When my own children were little, I once or twice suggested that they not share; there were plenty of other toys for their siblings and playmates to enjoy. The glares of disapproval I received convinced me I had better keep my thoughts about sharing to myself.

Could this counter-instinctive "share" mentality which we instill in our children make them more susceptible to the depredations of the plunderers who loot them under color of law? Do we make them feel guilty about possessing?

It seems to me that we could use more high-decibel "MINE" shouting! Indeed, what question could be more relevant? What does it mean if something is yours? It means, obviously, that it is not mine! How, then, can I have any claim upon it? I cannot, unless I get myself elected to some public office, by virtue of which what is yours presumably becomes mine, as well. It’s a mysterious process, never explained. Questions are not welcomed.

You can resist this legalized thievery by challenging it in court, but in so doing you are conceding something important: that you will abide by the wishes of the plunderers themselves, which they call "law," and which, by your appeal to the court which they own and operate, you agree to accept. But the concept of "mine" antecedes any legal system. It is so basic that, as I’ve mentioned, we can observe it in animals.

The fundamental question, therefore, is "Whose is this, anyway?" Whose body, labor, possessions, even children, are these? It is the sort of question the state abhors, because it is such a simple question, and the answer so obvious. "Why, these children are yours! This house (automobile, paycheck, etc.) is yours!" Even the state cannot deny it! Ah, but if that is the case, how can they be anyone else’s? The state claims all of these things. They claim my body to fight their wars. (They claim my children, if I am too old to fight.) They claim the fruits of my labor, leaving me with whatever they decide is "proper" for me to have. They claim my house or my automobile, if I do not pay them yearly tribute according to their schedule. They tell me how to run "my" business, and how tall the grass can be in "my" yard.

How can they do this? Because it is the "law," although they, of course, make the laws, and administer them, enforce them, and adjudicate them. This is a truly remarkable process: after solemn discussion, voting, and recording the results in a statute book, with established rite and ritual, what was undeniably mine becomes somehow theirs. No other group can do this; and if they tried, they would be sought by the state’s police and charged as criminals when apprehended. Private, non-licensed, unauthorized plunder is not permitted. Indeed, it is vigorously punished. One cannot help but wonder if the apprehension of private thieves reflects a respect for my (?) property, or a realization by the state that THEIR property has been stolen, and might disappear from the tax rolls.

It isn’t just property, it’s rights as well. For instance, I wrote a recent column for this site suggesting the greater use of the First Amendment by people being questioned by the police, in view of the courts’ chipping away at Miranda, and the Fifth Amendment right not to be compelled to testify against oneself. A knowledgeable and thoughtful reader e-mailed me to point out that the First Amendment has never been held (by the courts) to secure the right not to be compelled to speak, either in civil or criminal matters. I am sure he is right — but it’s wrong! Whose right is it, anyway? If I have the right to freedom of — and from — speech, how can some judge, for instance, take it away from me? The relevant part of the First Amendment is utterly simple: "Congress shall make no law —abridging freedom of speech." What Congress cannot abridge, a judge or policeman certainly cannot abridge. The Amendment says nothing whatever about qualifications. It doesn’t say that my freedom of speech can be modified, adjusted, or eliminated, to facilitate the operation of the police department. How could it? It’s MY right. If you can force me to disregard it, then it’s no right at all.

If I were a parent of a toddler, I think I would not be too quick to recommend sharing! Selfishness, in truth, is not an attractive trait, but it is no worse than cupidity, and certainly less than aggressive cupidity. And aggressive cupidity, coupled with the hypocrisy of "law," is the least attractive of all!

Dr. Hein [send him mail] is a semi-retired ophthalmologist in St. Louis, and the author of All Work & No Pay.

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