The Hard Land
Ownership, in the common understanding of the word, means more than mere possession. It is a special and desirable claim upon that which is held. Its roots go deep, both in the here and now, as well as in the histories of families. There exists within many a vague understanding that ownership is an ancient idea. Surely, a government that wants to foster a society based upon something ancient, desirable, and clear is offending no one in so doing.
Perhaps it would serve a discussion of the high good flowing from ownership if the term were first rigorously explained. Such an opus would certainly do no harm, and it might clarify just what qualities and character an "ownership society" would have.
A survey of law and real estate textbooks reveals that just about any definition of ownership includes two important parts. The first part has to do with the rights and interests that inhere to ownership. These include the right of use, the right of enjoyment, the right of exploitation, and finally, the right of disposal. The second part, which lashes itself to each component of the first part, is the exclusivity of rights. In other words, ownership means possession without compulsion to share.
It is that second part of what defines ownershipthe exclusivity of rights and intereststhat animates strongly individualistic yearnings. What a person owns is his, and he can do with it as he pleases: he can use it, he can derive enjoyment from it, he can develop it, and he can lease it, sell it, or otherwise convey interests in it. Through this special relationship of the owner to the owned, the possession might be brought to no good end; but it might also be used as an instrument for prosperity of the owner and betterment of the society.
Adam Smith, the putative "father of economics," described enlightened self-interest as the greed within the economic person that compels him to profit from his labor and the capital at his disposal in such a way that he improves not just himself, but all of those who come to him instead of his competitors. If he is free to use that which he possesses as he sees fit, then in his most rational actions, he will mitigate the wasting of his possessions, he will minimize his costs through the most efficient means of production, and he will pose to sell his output at a price that will break the backs of those who would compete against him.
Ownership, then, is a linchpin that holds the spinning wheel of a person's aspirations for self betterment to the wagon of the greater economy that craves efficiency, modest prices, and quality of goods; and so, as a hand fits to the glove made for it, the other benefit is that an owner will be far less prone to the destruction of the things in his possession, for they are the means by which he will continue to labor for personal reward rather than another's detached gain.
Henry David Thoreau epitomized the American spirit of independence, particularly as he pressed his claims of ownership over his possessions, both those material and those within himself. He took the full measure of his ownership by using the land he claimed, by deriving the pleasure of isolation it offered, by exploiting it, and by choosing not to dispose of it. He even went so far as to fairly brag that he drank from the pond in which he had urinated. Such is the right of exploitation, whatever form it may take. For one man, it might be to lay waste to the property in search of minerals; to another, it might be to foul the water with his own urine. What binds two such very different exploitations of a piece of property is that the owners have no competing interest for their rights to do as each, in his respective way, sees fit with what is his and no one else's.
Before the time of Thoreau, and in another country, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau had already set forth the foundations of criticism of private property that would later blossom into the fierce words and theory of Karl Marx and others. Rousseau said that private propertyhaving a set of rights that, by their very nature, excluded otherswas harmful to a society, for it separated individuals from one another, giving them a stake in their own interests to the exclusion and detriment of the larger society in which they lived and in which their lives took on collective meaning.
To Rousseau, the idea of an "ownership society" would border on the oxymoronic: ownership is defined by the exclusion of others; but society is the coming together of individuals in common interests, not exclusive ones. How could a collective of individuals be a group if each was fenced offwalled offfrom all the others?
And to what end would each individual go in such a world? Some of the students of the Austrian scholar Georg Hegel saw the end as a corrupting disease called alienation. Separation sub-divides within the afflicted: first, the society is set aside from the person, for the society is out there; then the friends and neighbors are set aside, for they are on the other side of the fence; then the family is set aside, for the boundaries of self have become evident in possessions, not in people; then, and finally, the owner is set aside from himself, for there is nothing of him that is not defined by what he owns (even as it is being expropriated for subsistence wages) rather than by what he is.
The Young Hegelian, Karl Feuerbach, brought into this analysis the Christian god who, by His perfection and the unspeakable sacrifice of His son, had placed the mortal man as nothing in comparison. Religion could give expression to, and solace in, the misery of life; but it simply could not offer respite from the perfect Hell of being alone among the pale shadows of those who, at the end of the day, must be excluded, for what begins as a right will inevitably and inexorably become an imperative.
An ownership society is no society at all. It is the progressively lonely land that breathes fire into the individual as it lays corrosive waste to any sense that greed is wrong. The mythical outcome is, of course, that out of this hungering cacaphony of the many crying "I" will come the magnificent symphony of the one shouting "We": alone within the walls of that which is owned, and having the right to exclude all who would seek accommodation, a modern world can somehow be built.
And the lost soul of a nation can somehow now be saved.
The Dark Wraith has spoken.