(This essay was written for a forthcoming issue of American Experiment Quarterly, published by the Center of the American Experiment, www.amexp.org.)

In coming months, and probably years, President Bush’s "Ownership Society" proposals will stimulate national discussion in directions politicians feared to tread for decades. This development should be seen as an opportunity to remind the American public of some critically important truths.

The fact is, "ownership" as a general concept is never at issue in any society. It is neither possible nor desirable to construct a society in which people or the material things they create are not "owned." Either you will "own" yourself or someone else will own you. As far as material things are concerned, somebody must own them too. Those "somebodies" will either be those who created them, received them as a gift, or traded freely for them, or they will be those who took them by force. There is no middle ground, no "third way" in which ownership is somehow avoided.

Indeed, ownership is both a virtue and a necessity. What is yours, you tend to husband. If it belongs to someone else, you have little incentive to care for it. If it belongs to "everyone" — the nebulous, collectivist approach — then you have every incentive to use and abuse it.

Ownership is nothing less than the right to shape, use and dispose. Even if you have legal title to something, you wouldn’t think you really "owned" it if the government told you what, how and when you could do anything with it; in that instance, the government would be the de facto owner. Ownership is control and the real owner of anything is the controller.

For thoroughly trashing the resources of any society, no more surefire prescription exists than to take them from those to whom they belong (the rightful owners) and give them to those who simply think they have a better idea of what to do with them. Think "Soviet."

The myth of "common ownership" only muddies the issue. Public parks are thought of as held in common ("the people’s property"), but that really means that the government owns them, the taxpayers pay the bill, and the public gets to use them according to the rules established and enforced by the government. The post office is another example of "common ownership." Theoretically, each American "owns" about one three hundred millionth of it, but show up at the counter and try to redeem your share and you might be surprised how fast the service can be.

The debate over the president’s "Ownership Society" proposals should be framed in these stark terms: It’s either you, or somebody else. Who should own your retirement savings — you or the government? Who should own your health care dollars — you, the government, or some third-party payer you’d prefer to avoid? Who should decide where your child goes to school — you the parent, or a handful of other parents different from you only by virtue of the fact that they work for the government?

In this light, President Bush’s offerings actually appear downright modest. Even if passed without modification, the government would still "own" a large majority share of each American’s Social Security dollars. Government and third-party payers would still dominate the health care market, and most parents who want to send their children to schools other than government schools wouldn’t get much of a break.

But the ferocity and the shallowness with which the ideological opposition in Congress has responded speak volumes about where their core values really are. To many, it’s more important that government be in control and you be dependent upon it than that your retirement savings be secure, your health care needs be taken care of or your children be well-educated. They are the control freaks among us, and some of them will not be satisfied until they own the rest of us lock, stock and barrel.

To own or be owned. Take your pick.

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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.