March 2005

Ownership Society

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

“As the American Founders knew and as generations of serious students have long known, an ownership society is a society of responsibility, liberty and prosperity,” says Dr. Tom Palmer in an article with the same name as this present article by the Cato Institute in January, 2004. “A number of policy initiatives–including creation of personal retirement accounts, expansion of medical savings accounts, and school choice–have been proposed recently that seek to strengthen an ‘ownership society.’ Such initiatives build on a long and deep tradition.”

He cites Aristotle: “What belongs in common to the most people is accorded the least care: they take thought for their own things above all, and less about things common, or only so much as falls to each individually.” Thomas Aquinas made a similar observation. The philosopher John Locke rested personal identity itself on the idea of ownership.

Palmer contends, “Owners have a right to benefit from the wise use of their property and therefore incentives to take care of it. Similarly they bear the consequences of unwise management. Not only are they more likely to care for what they own, but a system of property requires people to treat others with respect, as well.” They can exclude others from the use of what belongs to them. Each owner must respect the rights of others and concern himself with their interests. Property makes people–including lawmakers–respectful of others, he says.

John Locke saw society as founded on the “mutual Preservation of their Lives, Liberties and Estates, which I [Locke] call by the general Name, Property.” Property is a necessary condition of independence. Without ownership of printing presses, paper and ink, there can be no free press. Without ownership of land and buildings, there can be no freedom of association, no freedom of common worship, no freedom of action generally. A free society is of necessity an ownership society.

Ownership makes markets possible, and markets make prosperity possible. Ownership channels the efforts of millions of persons who are unknown to each other into corporations to produce wealth, rather than into the squabbling and conflict characteristic of political control. It is the foundation of a society of widespread and growing prosperity. The extension of ownership rights into fields that have been dominated by government power–including social security, medical care and schooling–represents an opportunity for Americans to enjoy in their retirement planning, their medical care and the education of their children the responsibility, freedom and prosperity that only ownership can make possible, says Palmer.

David Boaz in his article, “Defining an Ownership Society,” also published by the Cato Institute in January, 2004, points out that President Bush wants an ownership society. Benefits Boaz claims for such a society include responsible homeowners, responsible citizens, and people who feel more dignity, pride and confidence. They have a stronger stake, not just in their own property, but in their community and their society. Margaret Thatcher, in privatizing Great Britain’s public housing, believed that that action would make homeowners more responsible citizens and see themselves as having a real stake in the future and quality of life in their communities, and, yes, that they would be more likely to vote for lower taxes and less regulation.

The United States has the most widespread property ownership in history. Increasing numbers of Americans are becoming capitalists–people who own a share of productive businesses through stocks or mutual funds. But about half of Americans are not benefiting as owners inthe growth of the American economy, though they still benefit as wage-earners and consumers. In general these are the Americans below the average income. The best thing to do to create an ownership society is to give more Americans an opportunity to invest in stocks, bonds and mutual funds so that they, too, can become capitalists, argues Boaz.

It is obvious how to do this, he says. Every working American is required to send the government 12.4 percent of his or her income up to about $88,000 via payroll taxes. But that money is not invested in real assets, and it doesn’t belong to the wage earner who paid it. It’s used to pay benefits to current retirees. If we want to make every working American an investor–an owner of real assets, with control of his own retirement funds and a stake in the growth of the American economy–then we should let workers put their Social Security taxes into private accounts, like IRAs or 401(k)s. Other reforms that enhance the ownership society include school choice, giving parents the power to choose the schools their children attend, and wider use of Health Savings Accounts, which transfer control over health care decisions from employers, insurance companies and HMO gatekeepers to individual parents.

An ownership society, says Boaz, can also improve environmental quality. People take care of things they own, and they’re more likely to waste or damage things that are owned by no one in particular.

That’s why timber companies don’t cut down all the trees on their land and instead plant new trees to replace the ones they do cut down. When the government owns all property, individuals have little protection from the whims of politicians.

The Cato Institute, the publisher of these articles, is generally described as a conservative libertarian organization. The above-mentioned generalized statements are presented as established fact with little or no objective evidence to support them except quotations from writers or philosophers, who are presenting their personal opinions. These may or may not accurately reflect the real world.

I would like to see every family own its own home, but we might ask the questions: Does ownership necessarily induce people to act responsibly? Are there no people who abuse others or exploit them by wielding unjustly the immense power they have gained by controlling large amounts of ownership of property and money? What protection does the “ownership society” give other people from them? Has America ever seriously considered allowing the government to own all property, as in Boaz’s extreme example about the whims of politicians? Does our economy realistically give low wage earners or the unemployed a fair chance to participate in the “ownership society”? Is it true that timber companies don’t cut down all the trees on land they own without replacing them? Hasn’t Boaz ever seen the egregious examples of the clear-cutting of vast tracts of forest land by corporations (large owners of property)? Or of the air pollution some corporations cause? Does it really serve our best interests for us to give up the security of traditional social security to gamble retirement savings on chancy investments in private accounts? Or to undercut the public school system by using tax money to fund private schools? What about separation of church and state? These are questions we need to consider carefully before we jump whole hog into an “ownership society.” We may find ourselves living in a debased society if we abandon some of our governmentally managed programs, such as national parks, public schools and environmental protection.

President’s Message

I want to thank the membership of our chapter for the honor of being the new president. I feel the position will be one that is made much easier by the other board members. The board we have now is working well toward facilitating our organization’s agenda. I want to thank all the board members, as a group and individually.

Thanks to Flo Wineriter for his long-time dedication to Humanists of Utah He remains our bedrock of wisdom, experience, and lots of time and effort. Likewise thanks to Wayne Wilson, who has for years been Secretary, with its multiplicity of tasks. Thanks to Leona Blackbird our Treasurer for keeping the books in order, and to Rolf Kay for arranging our social events and his other efforts throughout the years. And, thanks to all the other board members: Cindy King, Mike Huston, John Chesley, Bob Mayhew, and our newest member Sarah Smith. Their work on various committees is proceeding very well.

Thanks also to Richard Layton, our discussion group leader, to Earl Wunderli for being on the speakers committee, and to Lorille Miller our Historian. I hope I haven’t left anyone out.

Finally, many thanks to Heather Dorrell for serving as our previous President. I hope that when the hectic nature of graduate school allows, she will get involved with us again.

I am looking forward to our future.

–Bob Lane
President, HoU

State of Fear

~Book Review~

Michael Crichton’s latest book caused me to do some serious questioning of some of my deeply held beliefs with regards to the environment. For example, was banning DDT really the right thing to do? Since that ban two million people a year are dying from malaria, mostly children. DDT is actually not poisonous to humans, nor carcinogenic. However, parathion which replaced it really is unsafe. More than 100 farm workers died in the months after the DDT ban because they simply did not know how to handle toxic chemicals. According to UN statistics, before the DDT ban deaths attributable to malaria were in the range of 50,000/year world wide. Now the mosquito borne disease is again a global scourge killing 50 million people since the ban.

The story line of State of Fear is about a large environmental group out to protect us from global warming. The issue quickly becomes the veracity of the perceived threat and the unwillingness of the activists to admit the numerous problems with their data. Radical groups are willing to kill, maim, and destroy in order to protect long term funding. Environmentalism has indeed become a big business in today’s world.

People who are familiar with Crichton’s work only via the movie screen may be unaware of an issue he has long championed: the need to do pure science, unfettered by expected outcomes of large bank rolls. The book Jurassic Park explores this theme in the author’s introduction. It is not that successful businesses are inherently evil; the issue is when scientists are paid to research in search of specific findings, we stand the potential to miss truly important discoveries. Furthermore, directed research also can be harmful in a big way. Consider the consequences of the park for dinosaurs. They spent hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to make the park safe, but life has a way of extending itself.

Crichton’s novel Prey follows a similar scenario. Scientists have a specific goal, a lot of money is at stake, shortcuts are taken and ugly consequences are the end result.

The end results of Crichton’s works are exciting stories with a lot of action and suspense. But underneath the plot, the characters, and the events there is an undercurrent of social responsibility that is getting louder with each book. Humanists frequently say that science is our tool to discover truth. However, there is a distinct difference between true science and applied technology. The former, by its very nature, is free of outside influences of its directions. Crichton is an articulate champion of freeing research and allowing, indeed demanding, that humans keep searching for the unknown. I believe that this is the true foundation of science.

State of Fear elucidates these concerns much more clearly. Indeed the book is full of temperature graphs, footnotes, and includes 15 pages of bibliography. The “good guy” in the novel frequently challenges other characters to check their data and their sources. Crichton has obviously done his homework.

–Wayne Wilson

Random Thoughts

If you listen to the discussion of the tsunami this past week, you receive the clear impression that the meaning of this event is that there is no meaning. Humans are not the universe’s main concern. We’re just gnats on the crust of the earth. The earth shrugs and 140,000 gnats die; victims of forces far larger and more permanent than themselves.

–David Brooks
NY Times Op-Ed 1/1/05

Reason is the armament of ideas, the weapon employed in conflicts between viewpoints…But reason so understood has always had enemies. One is ‘religion,’which claims that revelation from outside the world conveys truths undiscoverable by human enquiry. Another is ‘relativism,’ the view that different truths, different views, different ways of thinking, are all equally valid. ‘Postmodernism’ says there are authorities more powerful than reason, such as race, tradition, nature, or supernatural entities.

But still, say the champions of reason, ‘reason’ remains by far the best guide in the search for knowledge.

–A. C. Grayling

Bush’s “faith-based initiative” drivel is just that–drivel. Basing something upon religion is the poorest idea…. especially when it comes to educating our children about sex. This “abstinence-only” thing is laughable at best, and downright dangerous to our young women at worst. I think I heard it said in this “abstinence-only” agenda that they were saying that chastity was a cure for poverty? Yeah, right! We should be teaching our children respect for each other and themselves, and should stress sexual responsibility should they decide to be sexually active. Parents should take the lead on this matter.

–Karen Wood

Love for life is not something that we can take for granted. We have to create the conditions for it, for ourselves as well as for other people. This means that it is not with coercion or weapons that we will defeat our enemies, here or abroad. It is by taking away the reasons for people to despise life to the point of taking the lives of their fellow human beings, of being willing to give up their own life at the push a button. The war against crime is a perpetual failure, and so is the war against terror. We can overcome crime and terror only by realizing that people don’t go around stealing and killing if they have something to live for, if, in other words, we make it possible for them as well as for us to love life.

–Massimo Pigliucci

Thanks to Flo Wineriter for compiling these thought provoking gems!

Common Dreams

Member Recommended Websites

One of my favorite websites is Common Dreams. It is the place I go to get my in-depth news on any issue I need clarification on. It has links to at least 500 news and commentary sources such as newspapers around the world, news services, periodicals, radio shows and television news services. It also has links to contemporary columnists and social commentators such as Jimmy Breslin, Tom Hayden, Jim Hightower, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and a hundred more.

–Bob Mayhew