Do You Own Yourself?

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Fri Jan 14 06:05:32 PST 2005


The Lawful Path     

Do You Own Yourself?

by Butler Shaffer

One of my favorite quotations comes from Thomas Pynchon: "If they can get
you asking the wrong questions, they don4t 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 another4s property

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
someone4s 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 Post4s 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 didn4t 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 person4s 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
another4s 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 Pynchon4s 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

 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 another4s 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
state4s 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
Administration4s 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 ilan 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

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

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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