In coming months, and probably years, President Bush’s "Ownership Society" proposals — in particular, his plans for personal accounts within Social Security, health savings accounts and more school choice — will stimulate national discussion in directions politicians have feared to tread for decades. This development should be seen as an opportunity to remind the American public of some critically important truths.
"Ownership" as a general concept is never at issue in any society. 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 took them by force. There is no middle ground, no "third way" in which ownership is somehow avoided.
Indeed, ownership is both a virtue and a necessity. What is yours, you tend to husband. If it belongs to someone else, you have little incentive to care for it. If it belongs to "everyone" — the nebulous, collectivist approach — then you have every incentive to use and abuse 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, how and when you could do anything with it; in that instance, the government would be the de facto owner. Ownership is control and the actual owner of anything is the controller.
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 simply think they have a better idea of what to do with them. Think "Soviet."
The myth of "common ownership" only muddies the issue. Public parks are thought of as "the people’s property," but that really means that the government owns them; the taxpayers pay the bill; and the public gets to use them according to the rules established and enforced by the government. Some have argued that the post office is another example of "common ownership," and theoretically, each American "owns" about one-three-hundred-millionth of it — but show up at the counter and try to redeem your share, and you might be surprised how fast the response can be.
The debate over the president’s Ownership Society proposals should be framed in these stark terms: 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?
In this light, President Bush’s initiatives actually appear downright modest. Even if these proposals are passed, the government will still "own" a large majority share of each American’s compulsory Social Security dollars. Government and third-party payers will still dominate the health care market, and most parents who want to send their children to nongovernment schools won’t get much of a break.
But the ferocity and the shallowness with which these ideas have been greeted by the ideological opposition in Congress speak volumes about the opponents’ core values. To many people, it’s more important that the government be in control and that you be dependent upon it than that your retirement savings be secure, your health be sound or your children be educated well. These enthusiasts for government ownership freely pile on new duties for government to perform, even as it breaks its previous promises and racks up trillions in debt.
We are supposed to believe the utter fancy that life will be less risky if we trust to the government’s handiwork, rather than to ourselves. I suspect that some people will not be satisfied until they own the rest of us lock, stock and barrel.
Own or be owned. Take your pick.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.