How can anybody own anything? The most popular methods are: by Law, by Custom, or by Force. And often they’re combined. But we all know that, ultimately, none of this makes any real sense, and that, in the broadest perspective, nobody can ever own anything.
Take our bodies, for example – and surely that must be the most convincing case anyone could make for ownership. Being sole proprietor of your body is so obvious that, although we have documents and certificates for almost anything else, I have no way of proving that I own me. And of course, I don’t. And that may be a good thing. Because ownership implies responsibility – and I certainly wouldn’t want to be responsible for maintaining all the systems – respiration, digestion, circulation, and all the rest of them, which, for the most part, function automatically, and keep me going.
All this has been happening ever since I was born – speaking of which, I had no control of that event either, nor, within narrow limits, have I had much influence on the whole process of changing from a helpless infant, through various stages, to the helpless old man I am now threatening to become.
But, despite these nasty truths, our whole civilization is based on the concept of ownership. In fact, one of our Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, originally wanted his famous Declaration of Independence expression of fundamental rights to read “Life, Liberty, and Property.” This would, of course have made good sense to any slaveholder, such as Jefferson himself.
And that brings up the whole question of owning other people. If we don’t even own ourselves, how can we own others? Quite apart from the institution of slavery, what about the institution of Marriage? The traditional wedding vows stipulate that each party is taken by the other “to have and to hold.”
And what about Parenthood? To a large extent parents own their children – as may be seen in the frequent bitterness of “custody battles.” And the idea of lovers owning each other is of course the theme of countless songs about “you” being “mine.”
There have also, throughout History, been theories of property extending by various levels from the King, who owned everybody and everything, down through degrees of nobility and gentry, to the commonalty, and ultimately to the wretches who did most of the work. When the peasants of England staged a rare, and of course ultimately futile, revolt against those in power in 1381, a ditty circulated expressing, in Biblical terms, their frustration at the essential unfairness of this system:
“When Adam delved, and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?”
But we need not go back so far, nor need we even look to such institutions as our extensive prison system – where every inmate is still treated as if owned by the state – to find ownership of others an assumed social norm. One example is our Educational regime, in which millions of young people, simply because of their numerical age, are compelled by law to be confined in “schools” for many hours of the day, and for most days of the week.
Every member of the military too, whether voluntary or not, is part of a structure of rank and privilege based on subservience, which is tantamount to ownership. And even in ordinary civilian life, every employee is to some extent, during working hours, in a position of being the property of his or her employer.
Then of course there is your religion, which, even today, often puts powerful claims on you, sometimes even demanding a stipulated percentage of your income.
Probably most of the cases which come into our courts, whether civil or criminal, have to do with property rights. And in most of the wars which have ever been fought, the basic issue has been control of “territory.” As one of my own epigrams puts it, “Isn’t it surprising what terrible things people will do just to change a line on a map!”
Many international disputes over control of territory have roots which go back hundreds of years. And I need hardly point out that an empire’s colonies were, and sometimes still are, known as its “possessions.”
So here’s the situation: whatever property you may claim to own, you yourself are owned in some manner, shape, or form, by your parents, your lovers, your spouse, your school, your church, your employer, and of course by your government. The only entity which really doesn’t own you – is YOU.