Say you own a llama ranch, but I decide how it is operated, how the money is spent and whether or not to sell the entire operation to the alpaca cartel down the street. Which of us really owns the llama ranch?
Whatever it may say on paper, the true indication of ownership is control. It entails the right of control, up to and including disposal. Ownership and rights are so closely related, they may be considered two halves of the same idea; to own something indicates the right to control it, to have a right to something indicates the control — the ownership — of that object, potential or action.
If I own an apple, I have the right to dispose of it as I see fit (say, with peanut butter or a thick slice of sharp cheddar cheese). To say I do not have the right to throw it at your head means that your head is not owned by me; it is owned by you. If you were feeling generous you might perhaps let me throw the apple at you, but that is your call, not mine. You can recite the Encyclopedia Britannica from memory if you like, but if you’re in my house I can tell you to stop — but I certainly can’t stop you from thinking about it.
Each of these cases is based on some form of property right. The physical apple is my property, your head is yours, the speech your mouth produces is yours, the thoughts you think are yours. It gets complicated, but every human conflict is a conflict over property — over who has the right to make what decisions.
The word “property” paints a seemingly passive picture; to me, a rural landscape dotted with trees and lazy cows. But the interesting and significant part of property is all based on actions, real or potential. Who tends the farm? Who receives its produce? Who decides what to grow? Who speaks and who decides what is to be spoken? Who reads and who decides what is to be written? Who thinks and who decides what is to be thought? Who earns profits and who decides how that profit is spent? The ownership of a thing is the ownership of its actions, of what it can and does do.
There are any number of ways in which rights can be cut and categorized, but one of the most significant distinctions is between negative and positive rights. Disagreement over the existence and extent of positive rights is at the heart of many of our modern political conflicts and has been for a hundred years.
At the most simplistic, a negative right is a restraint on interference. To hold a negative right is to say that “the things I create are mine to use as I see fit,” whether they are mental or physical. Such a right does not guarantee that the person will create anything or that those creations will have a certain value, but it does state the ownership of whatever may be created.
The positive right is a different animal altogether. To hold a positive right is to say, “I am entitled to a certain amount of a certain thing.” The positive right guarantees the entitled person receives something which has already been created. It is a guarantee of results.
The negative right sanctifies creation. The positive right demands creation. The negative right protects the capacity to make. The positive right protects the capacity to consume. While not necessarily contradictory, they coexist only with great tension. That tension is due to a very divergent view of property rights.
To own something is to have the power to dispose of it — to decide what happens. To have the power to dispose of something is to own it. To the extent that you have control over what you create — including the power to contractually transfer it to another — to that extent it is your property. To the extent that your product rightfully and naturally belongs to another, it is not your property. And whoever owns the actions and products of a thing, owns the thing itself.
The only good purpose of a government is to champion the rights of those who establish it. In the case of negative rights, this means holding a shield and a sword between everyone’s production and whatever criminals that would take it. The government cannot command production — command is ownership — but it can and should protect it.
In the case of positive rights, this means supplying the rightful needs of its citizens. Those needs are necessarily for some kind of product. Government is rarely a producer of goods (with the exception of force), so the products it supplies must be derived from somewhere else, usually in the form of taxation. Because the consumption of those products is a right, the demand cannot be supplied voluntarily (because voluntary donation implies ownership by the donor). Therefore, the products must be taken by (threat of) force from the producing non-owners and transferred to the consuming owners.
If the fact that you create something means you have the least right to consume it, what does that say about the relationship between the creator and the consumer?
If a government system makes the final decisions about the utilization of products, what does that say about the relationship between the government and the producer?
If the government is the creation of its public, and the government owns the products of the individual, what does that say about the relationship of the individual to the public?
What is the value of receiving adequate nutritional and veterinary care if it means that you are someone else’s property?