Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Misconceptions of Ownership

The English language is pretty horrible with regard to defining ownership. I often find myself referring to the apartment I am renting as "my apartment" or "my home." But it isn't mine, it is owned by someone else and I am merely paying them to stay there. Whether it is a cultural use of the language or the mere fact that the English language doesn't have a useful pronoun to properly define the concept of "shelter I am renting" in a manner that doesn't have me claim false ownership of it, I don't know, but it seems to permeate American society as a whole in many different ways.

I often see people on television or in the news demanding that they have a right to the services and time of another individual or another individual's property for whatever reason. A great many people, for example, refer to the job they do as "my job" when in actuality they work for someone and therefore the job is owned by their employer and not by them. Yet the government seems to be confused over this simple fact and often enforces strict regulations on labor, which inevitably limit the supply of labor and stifle progress, as well as cause other societal shifts. I am convinced that if the Federal government eliminated the minimum wage, many illegal immigrants would be out of job, since many of them are here because of their ability to work for below minimum wage.

A fundamental law of ownership that cannot be ignored is that any scarce resource is owned by someone or something. Except for the air we breath and the ocean waters, due to the complexity of taking control of such substances, everything material or immaterial is owned by individuals or collective groups of individuals.

When private individuals don't own a scarce resource, then the government definitely will. This is another fundamental law of ownership that people lose sight of in our society. We tend to regard "public" property as publicly owned, even though we reap no benefit from "public" property such as dividends from the use of said property or wealth created from the sale of said property. A great example of property that is currently owned by the government is the "public" airwaves. The government in the United States owns the radio and television airwaves as the FCC licenses them out to companies for the purposes of entertainment or information.

So, whenever the government steps in and limits the so-called freedom of speech of the airwaves, keep in mind that they own the airwaves and can regulate them however they see fit. This is contingent on the will of the people, of course, but it takes a lot of hell-raising to change a politician's mind and even then there is no guarantee, as demonstrated by the recent oppositions to the bailouts and "stimulus" bills.

As the bank executives are beginning to find out as well, there is no such thing as "public-private" ownership. All that really means is that the government owns it, but allows the critical decisions to be made (along with the responsibility) by private individuals. At any point, the government can step in (and they often do) and determine new rules for the use of this company's property.

The final fundamental law of ownership is that any scarce resource acquired through loans, that is other people's money, is not ownership. So when someone refers to his or her car as "my car" when they make 300-400 dollars a month on car payments, they don't own it. If they claim they do, then ask them if you could see the title (or proof of ownership) of the car. If you have a house on a mortgage, then you don't own it, you're just living in it until you can pay off the bank. I know you have deed, but if you don't pay your mortgage, you will lose your home and the bank will auction it off. If you have more mortgage than the house is worth, then you will not be able to sell the house very easily either. If you truly owned it, then an outside party couldn't influence the decisions you made concerning your property.

So the three fundamental laws of ownership, as I see them, that are often not understood or ignored by American culture are:
  1. Every scarce resource is owned by someone or something, save for the air you breath and the oceans, but only due to the complexity of owning such massive scarce resources.
  2. Any scarce resource that is not owned by private individuals or companies is owned by the government.
  3. Any scarce resource acquired with the use of loaned currency is not owned by the individual who took out the loan in order to acquire it.
Americans need to understand these fundamental and inescapable laws if we are ever going to have a government whose economic policy is free-market capitalism. This has never been the official economic policy of any government since the dawn of government and it won't be as long as 51% of the people don't understand what true ownership really is.