Do You Own Yourself?

One 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.

The 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.

"Property" 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.

"Property" 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 self-ownership.

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.

February 25, 2002