Column on Society’s Rules Don’t Create Wealth

Society’s Rules Don’t Create Wealth

Tibor R. Machan

In olden days people were forced to labor for the king and his minions in return for being allowed to live within the realm. This kind of extortion finally got tossed over and people’s basic right to their lives became acknowledged–in the political philosophy of John Locke and the Declaration of Independence, for example. You don’t belong to society, to other people. Your life is yours to live as you choose, although, admittedly, you could live it bad or well but not in terms set by others who claim a portion of it.

But this realization that each individual has the right to his or her life got a bit arrested when later thinkers, like Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, argued that your property does belong to everyone else, not you. (In the case of Marx this didn’t quite fit his labor theory of value, but skip that for now.) Among some of today’s most prominently placed intellectuals, such as Professors Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School and Thomas Nagel of New York University, private property rights are taken to be nothing but a myth. (As one of Nagel’s co-authored book, The Myth of Ownership, announces, wealth is a collective phenomenon, never mind that some produce hardly any while others make gobs of it!)

Since one’s life is intimately dependent upon property–no way to live without some stuff, to be plain about it–if all property is owned by the public at large, collectively, that pretty much means one’s life is too. So the liberation from serfdom, one of the greatest achievements of classical liberal thinking, is to be undermined, reversed, by the idea that it is after all society that owns our resources, not we individually or corporately (in each others voluntary company). Taxes, then, amount not to a coercive taking but a rightful claim by the government that’s standing in for society as a whole (or so statists love to pretend). Taking private property for public use need not be very carefully justified as the fifth amendment to the U. S. Constitution insists, no. Such taking is really just government’s way of affirming its ownership of everything while generously leaving bits of it for the people to use.

But this is all nonsense and a ruse, to boot. For there is no society as such apart from the people who comprise it. Like my classes at the colleges where I teach–they do not exists as some kind of separate entity, only as a group of individual students with a common purpose. So then when it is argued that in fact society owns all the resources, the cash value of this is that some people who have laid claim to speaking for the rest of us own it all or at least get to use it as they see fit.

One retort to this is that without society’s rules and laws property could not exist. So society must, after all, own the stuff. But this is like claiming that because without the rules of tennis or football or any other game there could not be points scored or touchdowns run, it really isn’t the players who score the points or achieve the touchdowns but the referees! This is complete bunk. The referees, like governments, have a job, namely, to make sure the rules are observed as the people or players go about their tasks. They aren’t’ the ones who carry out those tasks and may not lay a claim to the results, either.

There have always been those who were insistent on lording it over other people, including their lives and property. In ancient times they rationalized this by reference to some alleged special status among us–natural aristocracy, superior race or class, God’s assignments, etc. But then it was discovered and finally driven home in many places that no one has any claim to lording over others, not without their consent (as when members of an orchestra consent to the conductor’s role). But this doesn’t sit too well with those who wish to rule us all. So they are now inventing different reasons, such as their supposed role of speaking for society, which is used by them justify their rule. Let us not fall for this, please.

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