The Theology of Ownership
There’s the wry observation, attributed to the eighteenth century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, that humanity’s problems began when someone standing on a piece of ground said, “This is mine,” and the fellow standing next to him was fool enough to believe it.
Rousseau would be amazed at the extent of personal ownership today, which in the United States at least has achieved the status of theology: the divine process by which humans, pursuing their own self-interest, acquire the fruits of their labors (or inheritance, if they are born into the lucky gene club) and, in so doing, develop a sense of responsibility, strength of character and love of freedom that can arise only in the reciprocity of unfettered markets and democratic societies.
On the basis of the historical record, there is much to praise in the concept of the “ownership society.” To the degree that we are able to exercise informed choice and take some measure of responsibility and control for our lives, we are all the better for it.
The question is, with plans to extend personal ownership through such approaches as personal social security accounts, health savings accounts and tax credits, what are the ramifications for those who, either as a result of their own actions or through circumstances beyond their control, come to rely on the health safety net and the “kindness of strangers?”
Imagine you were in a condition similar to the heroine in the movie, Million Dollar Baby, except that the Boxing Commission wasn’t picking up the tab for your medical bills, you didn’t have any financial assets, and you lived in a state that recently cut Medicaid long term care benefits as the result of declining federal and state support.
You don’t “own” anything, not even the freedom to choose to end your life with some measure of meaning and dignity as you define it. Someone has to feed and bathe you, attend to your every need – and someone has to pay for it. But who, and to what degree? More to the point, why?
Fear not, say proponents of privatizing social security and health care. We are not talking about eliminating the safety net but instead are focused on ways to reduce its bloated bureaucracy and costs through market efficiencies accrued by individuals exercising freedom of choice and control – and then taking personal responsibility for the choices they make. Exactly how much “freedom” they will be allowed to have in making these choices, and how much relevant information they will have to inform their decisions, is left undefined, as is any responsibility for the unintended consequences of bad choices or just plain bad luck.
These questions are left undefined for good reason. No one knows the answers. The ownership society is like any other system of fixed belief. It’s when you have to provide the details that the ground gets a little shaky.
It’s ironic that the priests of privatization preach the relevance of the gospel of ownership to the demands of the 21st century, because it is derived from a nineteenth century conception of the autonomous self and “rugged individualism” that still occupies the upper rungs of American myth and entertainment but is out of tune with the realities of an interdependent world. It’s like people in high places have been reading too many bad Ayn Rand novels.
The fact of the matter is that the self is social. The individual is defined, grounded and circumscribed by an interdependent web of social relationships. No one makes choices in a vacuum, and freedom depends not only on opportunities to exercise choice but also on freedom from constraints on those choices, such as poor health, lack of education and insufficient resources. To live in freedom, we are obligated to nurture the social conditions that make it possible. That’s what the theology of ownership, narrowly conceived in personal terms, misses.
To float your boat, you first have to fill the ocean. No one can do that alone. Once we accept that, the moral and practical imperative to help others becomes crystal clear.
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.