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How Not to Be Owned

This March marks the 75th anniversary of the Foundation of Economic Education. Because FEE has done yeoman work in defense of people’s rights and liberty for that entire time, starting when those prospects were bleak, that is also a milestone for the advancement of society. And given that Leonard Read was FEE’s founder and guiding light, it is worth reminding ourselves of his commitment to those principles.

Of course, Read produced a mountain of material on rights and liberty, so finding his best words on those topics can be like finding a needle in a haystack. My Apostle of Peace was one such effort, but I wanted to find an appropriate article I did not include there. And I have found a good candidate–“How not to be Owned,” Chapter 25 in his Having My Way (1974). Not only does its title connect our rights and liberty intimately, but that connection is worth revisiting. Here are some of the highlights from this masterful piece.

Who is to control the fruits of your labor, you or others?

Private ownership is the very heart of the free society but…Throughout the ages, the plunderers have had it by a mile…Private ownership comes out in last place.

The Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” presupposes private ownership. Why? How possibly could anything be stolen were it not first owned!

Here we have a stress on the importance of private ownership, so strong that a violation was deemed a religious offense.

Millions hold private ownership as a sacred right for themselves but fail to realize that unless this precise right is extended to everyone else, it is no right at all–a mere fiction!

When each citizen proclaims ownership of his earnings and fails to…insist upon a similar ownership on the part of everyone else, the outcome has to be all citizens against one. For the person who is not permitted to own what he has earned is in fact owned by a master!

[What] queer notions of right and wrong, each respecting his own property but not that of the other person.

But, really, what is the difference between a political collective backed by a constabulary and a man’s passion to enslave backed by a lash? There is no less compulsion in one case than in the other.

It is as simple as this: If a man has a right to his life—to “own” himself–it logically follows that he has a right to sustain his life, the sustenance of life being the fruits of one’s own labor. Thus, to the extent that one’s sustenance is taken… to that extent is one owned instead of owning himself.

Where lies the remedy? What has to happen before individuals will concede to others precisely the same right to ownership as they seek for themselves? Observe the Golden Rule? Yes, that is the answer all right, but in the same sense that “Thou shalt not steal” is the answer.

Here is a realization we must come to: The Golden Rule and the Commandment are but labels for ideal and hoped-for relationships. In a dictocratic society they are unattainable pipe dreams. In a free society they automatically exist. These ideal relationships grow toward reality only to the extent that the free society approaches reality.

Freedom and private ownership, as well as an observation of the Golden Rule, rise or fall in unison; they are inseparably linked!

Once this is understood, it becomes clear why “Thou shalt not steal” has so little practical meaning [today]…The Commandment against theft is no more than a mystical aspiration in a dictocratic situation, and cannot be otherwise.

Whenever the right to the fruits of one’s own labor is gaining acceptance and respect…understanding of the free society is likewise gaining…When state welfarism and government control is on the rampage, as in the U.S.A. today…leaders…wave aside the free society as a viable way of life…Their philosophy, though never in these realistic terms, is that you and I shall not be permitted to own; we are to be owned.

The coercive control of people’s lives–including the fruits of their labor–falls or rises precisely as the practice of freedom increases or wanes, which is to say, as authoritarianism relaxes or tightens its grip.

Freedom is the right of anyone to do anything, so long as it is peaceful. Government is freedom’s peace-keeping agency; its role is limited to codifying and prohibiting all unpeaceful or destructive activities.

Given this freedom arrangement, each citizen is free to produce anything he pleases, to exchange on mutually agreeable terms with whomever he pleases, to do as he chooses with what is his own and without trespass against others.

We have in this ideal situation only willing exchanges, whether of goods or services. Each citizen gains in his own judgment or he would not make the exchanges. Each owns; no one is owned. There is neither thievery nor enslavement; both are impossible. Each is behaving toward others as he would have them behave toward him. In a word, the Golden Rule is observed as freedom is practiced.

How to own rather than be owned? Learn the freedom philosophy and how to live by it!

Leonard Read saw how rare freedom was in human history, and recognized America as the greatest outlier produced from that long and often dismal track record until our founding.

He also saw our regression from the ideas of our founding that has long since been taking place. Both led him to defend our rights and liberty against encroachment and advance them wherever possible. He and FEE, which was founded for that purpose, deserve our gratitude.

And the most appropriate response is to understand the importance of those ideas well enough to put them into practice.

This article was originally published on FEE.org

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One Comment

  1. Thank you for this! Having recently started my own stained glass business, I’ve realized I am the owner of my labor. It is incredibly empowering!

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