Column on Making versus Owning

Making versus Owning

Tibor R. Machan

Now it is obvious to most of us that one need not make something so as to own it, fair and square. No one made one’s eyes, kidneys, and other organs and limbs yet they belong rightfully to the person who has them, no one else.

Beyond this of course one way to come to own something is by creating it, like a table or musical composition. So often making something makes it one’s own. But that’s not the only way one can come to own something. One can receive something as a gift! It then belong to one, no one else. One can find something that’s been abandoned or that’s just out there in the wilds. Unless someone else has come upon it and laid claim to it, one can come to own it this way, as well. Certainly if I find a gold nugget on an unowned desert or mountain, I can come to own this and no one may thereafter take it from me with impunity.

While all this would seem to be plain common sense, it needs often to be reiterated because the failure to keep it in mind provides would be confiscators of private property the warped idea that they may get stuff from us if only we didn’t make it. This notion of the public ownership of unearned or unmade holdings has tyrannical consequences.

Those who spread the ruse that we cannot own what we haven’t produced hope to persuade us that they, on the other hand, can. This is, of course, fallacious thinking, the fallacy of the non sequitor–it doesn’t follow! But because ownership and production or creation are so closely associated in our minds, it sounds like there may be something to the idea. There isn’t! And it is vital to remember it because otherwise the notion can unleash tyranny, Draconian and petty, all over the place. The promoters of the notion that you must have made it so as to own it would like nothing more than have you hand over to them whatever you didn’t come by via earning or making it. But it is clear, once considered carefully, that nothing like that follows. They have no right to any of it, you do.

There is, of course, no reasonable doubt that when one makes something one is very likely its owner, although there are quite a few exceptions. If I hire you to be my scout for valuable resources and you come up with such, it is very like that these will belong to me, not to you. What belongs to you is the salary I promised you for your scouting services. But what you discovered will rightfully be mine. (I might also have lost all my investment in you had you come up empty handed!) Also, if you came across some valuable item in my backyard while attending one of my festivities, what you found would not be yours but mine, although you need not call to my attention that you did find it.

Let’s just conclude from these minimal reflections that ownership–the right to private property–can be a fairly complicated matter. While its foundation is simple enough in most cases, its elaboration in a complicated society required a nuanced legal system, with a solid tradition of property law. This is why it is vital that no legislature or court be tolerated when it distorts private property rights (e.g., via misapplied doctrines like eminent domain). And in order to prevent the corruption of the principle of private property rights in a complex society, the citizenry–via research and scholarly centers, schools, punditry, think tanks and so forth–needs to be vigilant. Otherwise the sophistic enemies of freedom will triumph.

And those sophists are not resting, believe me. All one needs to do is read some of the publications–journals, magazines, newsletters, blogs, etc.–produced by these sophists to learn just how diligent they are in their efforts to unravel the private property rights system that had been developed over time under the influence of the classical liberals.

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