Home > Philosophy, Politics > You Don’t Own That

You Don’t Own That

Last week President Obama uttered the now infamous words “you didn’t build that” and sparked a seemingly endless cable news debate over what he meant by “that.”  But we seem to be missing the forest here.  It doesn’t matter whether he meant bridges or businesses (actually I think he meant the bridges).  But what we should be asking ourselves is “why is he talking about this in the first place?”

This is part of an argument which is designed to lead to a certain moral and ethical philosophy.  But have you ever noticed how progressives never come out and say: “Here is my moral and ethical philosophy.  Now let me tell you why I believe this.”  They just start making arguments.  The moral foundation of those arguments is unmentionable because if they said it, it would scare the hell out of everyone. 

So let me tell you my moral and ethical foundation.  People should be free so long as they don’t initiate force against other people and they should own whatever they produce and/or whatever other people give to them willingly and nothing more.  This moral philosophy clearly defines what people own in a moral sense.  The institution of free markets is the legal counterpart to this moral philosophy and defines what people own in a legal sense.  Now let’s look at an example of how this system works.

Tom graduates from high school and his parents give him $1000 and kick him out of the house.  He owns the $1000 because his parents gave it to him willingly.  He takes the $1000 and buys some tools and some lumber which he turns into a table.  Then he sells the table for $2000.  He now owns this $2000 because the buyer gave it to him willingly in exchange for something which he owned (the table).  He owned the table because all of the inputs were given to him willingly.  The tools and the lumber were given to him in exchange for money, and the labor was his in the first place.  Tom does this several times until he has enough money to buy a shop in which to build tables, and a house, and a car etc.  All of this stuff he owns both legally and morally because it was all acquired through his own labor and mutually beneficial trade. If Jerry comes along and steals Tom’s car, then Jerry does not own the car because Tom didn’t give it to him freely.  Instead, Jerry initiated force against Tom to acquire the car against Tom’s will.

In this situation, Tom can take pride in the knowledge that everything he owns he created except for the first $1000 which was given to him freely by his parents.  Tom didn’t make the hammer or the saw which he used to make his table and he didn’t cut down the trees and cut them into boards, but he paid the people who did do these things an amount which they were willing to accept in return for performing these tasks.  This leaves the profit ($1000) as an appropriate representation of the value of Tom’s contribution to the process of producing the table. Tom doesn’t owe anybody anything and nobody has a legal claim on his life.  But what if Tom’s parents come upon hard times?  Chances are Tom will be grateful for the initial $1000 which got him started (and maybe some other things prior to that).  In this case Tom will feel a moral obligation to help them which he may do freely.

Note also that a loan is a legal analogue to the relationship between Tom and his parents in which there is a legal obligation to repay a certain amount after a certain time.  In this case, the moral claim is replaced by a legal claim but this still defines exactly what Tom owns, namely everything he produces over and above the amount required to repay the loan.

Now enter the government.  You may recall from previous posts the whole point of the government is to force people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.  This is the only thing that governments do.  It is not always a bad thing, the government may prevent Jerry from stealing Tom’s car when he would prefer to steal it, or it may force him to go to prison if he does steal it even though he would prefer to not go to prison.  If this power is properly synched with the moral and legal foundation laid out above, there is no problem, because essentially the only thing the government is doing is preventing you from initiating force against someone else if you would otherwise be so inclined.

But the problem creeps in when the government starts using this power to do other things.  For example–and this is admittedly one of the most reasonable things the government does–building roads and bridges.  When the government does this, it transfers property from some people to others against their will.  It takes money from people and says “we are using this to build roads and bridges, it’s for your own good.”  And maybe it is.  But if you don’t think it is, that doesn’t matter, they are taking it anyway.  If Tom went to the lumber yard and thought the price was too high, or the quality too low so that it was not worth it to buy the lumber, he could have chosen not to buy it.   But this is not the case with the government.   This makes the whole moral foundation of ownership break down!

If schools were private, then when you went to school, you would pay (or your parents would pay) a price which made it worth it for the school to provide your education.  Then when you graduate, you can be content that you have concluded a mutually voluntary relationship where neither side has any claim on the other.  But what happens when the government takes money from a stranger to pay for your school and then gives it to you for free and then you go on to become a great inventor?  Can you still claim that everything you have is yours and not stolen?  I mean sure, you invented the widgetometer but you couldn’t have done that if it hadn’t been for the great teachers you had in school, and who was responsible for that?

Who was responsible for that!?  Was it you?  You didn’t pay for it.  Was it the teachers?  But they were just doing their job and they got paid, even though you didn’t pay them.  Was it the strangers who paid for it against their will?  After all, they didn’t even want to help you in the first place.  Let’s see, who else is there…..?

So let’s give the President the benefit of the doubt and say that when he said “you didn’t build that,” he didn’t mean your business, he meant the roads and bridges that your business uses.  But why is he pointing this out?  The answer of course, is that he is implying that you don’t have an unadulturated moral claim on everything you think you own.  When he says you didn’t build the roads and bridges that your business uses, he is implying that you don’t really own your business.  Now he is having a public relations problem because people mistakenly thought that he said what he actually means.  For a progressive, this is a catastrophe.

But he’s not proposing any alternative system of determining what people own.  He is essentially making the argument that it’s impossible to tell what anyone owns.  Nature abhors a vacuum.  Progressives, having figured this out, do not go about getting power by simply asking for power, they go about it by creating a vacuum in our lives and putting themselves in a position to rush in and fill it.  They need to lead us into this sort of swirling, amorphous moral quagmire where there is no real right and wrong.  Everything is relative. Who’s to say what’s true anyway?  Who is John Galt?

This is why the left hates religion, and it is also why they hate free markets.  Both of these things occupy a role in our lives that they want to occupy themselves.  Religion tells us what is right and wrong.  They want to tell us what is right and wrong.  Markets tell us what we own and what things are worth.  They want to tell us what we own and what things are worth.  If they can undermine the notion that in a free market, where exchange is mutually voluntary, we own everything we have, then we will require some other method of determining what we own and they will be right there to decide for us.

But notice that this process begins with them offering to give us stuff for free (at the expense of someone else).  They never say “schooling is a right that a civilized people must provide for everyone and once we provide it we will have destroyed the moral foundations of ownership on which a free market economy is based and provide justification for us confiscating whatever we want from anyone for basically whatever purpose we desire.”  They just say the first part and we are like “yeah that sounds reasonable, free school for everyone, yay progress!”  Then once we already have an economy based largely on unvoluntary transfers of property, they come in and say nothing is fair.  And they’re right, but the reason is that we traded a system in which people pay what they owe, know what they own and know that they got it fairly and honestly, for one in which much of what we get came from someone else but we didn’t pay for it and they didn’t agree to give it.  This is what happens when we don’t pay our own way.

Categories: Philosophy, Politics
  1. Free Radical
    July 26, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    When I first clicked “publish” on this, I got a screen with nothing but the words:

    “Are you sure you want to do this?”

    And a link below that said “please try again.” Clicking this link led me to a blank new post page. I recovered the draft but I’m a little creeped out…..

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