Monday, May 12, 2014

The Fundamental Question

                Who owns you?

                Let me put it this way:  who owns each of us? You and me?

                As a Christian it is tempting to say that, of course, God owns me.  All of us, actually.  There is a sense in which this is true.   As believers, Christians affirm that our eternal life was bought and paid for by the sacrifice of the Eternal Son.  Therefore we can fairly say that He owns us.  But let’s set that aside for the moment, and take a look at the question from a slightly different angle.

If, as the Declaration of Independence says, all of us are created equal and endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it can be inferred that each of us owns our own self.  An endowment is a gift.  A gift, once given, becomes the property of the recipient.  Just as I can make no claim to ownership of the things I have given to others, God makes no claim of ownership over us.  I might desire to see my gift to someone else used in a particular way, but I cannot and do not try to enforce such usage.  Likewise, God having given us our life, liberty and the opportunity to pursue happiness leaves us free to use those gifts as we please, whether to our benefit or detriment.  My life, therefore, belongs to me and yours belongs to you.

So who owns us? Each and every one of us?  Each of us owns our own self.  That means completely.  24 hours a day, 365.25 days a year, for all the years that we live.  Our time, our very life energy belongs to each and every one of us individually.  Every day we are gifted with more time and energy which belongs only to us, to use as we see fit.

We can take that time and energy and create something of value with it which we can sell to the highest bidder.  We can plant crops and tend animals and so provide for ourselves and quite possibly others who will buy our surplus production from us.  We can rent ourselves out to others, by the hour, the week, month or year, to transform our time, energy, and abilities into the monetary resource we need to support ourselves and satisfy our wants and desires.  We can sit on a beach with a cold beverage and a fine cigar pondering the nature of reality, or sequester ourselves in darkened rooms staring at the flickering images reflecting the imagination of others.  It is our time and our energy, our life, and our individual choice how we will use it.

Used well and wisely our time and energy can be converted into a surplus of value beyond our immediate needs, called profit or savings, which can be kept for later use when we have less time and energy to invest or spend.  Properly understood, then, profit or savings is our own time and life energy stored up for another time.  That profit or savings, therefore, is as much owned by each individual as the time and energy of the immediate day.

This is not to say that there are not legitimate claims which can and should be made on our time and energy.  The Anglican priest and poet John Donne famously wrote that “no man is an island, entire of itself,” and he was right.  We do not exist in isolation from each other, but live in community depending on each other to create or do for us that which we cannot for whatever reason do solely for ourselves.  But when I turn to another to do something for me I am asking that person to spend some of that precious commodity, life, with which they have been gifted on or for my benefit.  It is only fair that I compensate that person through the payment of wages for their time or for the purchase of the goods and services which are the result of their invested time and energy.  By the same token when I benefit from my participation in the community, sharing in the common resources and infrastructure, it is also only fair that I contribute my fair share to cover the cost of providing those resources and infrastructure which I am using.  The common term for this contribution is “taxes.”  A reasonable and honorable person recognizes that these payments, either to individuals or to the community, are the fair and justified working out of the principle that each of us owns ourselves complete with the time and energy bestowed on us each new day.

It is extremely important that we understand this, because in so many ways the fundamental concept of self-ownership is under attack every day in our society.  With increasing frequency I hear suggestions that somehow profit is evil or that to have saved up significantly more than someone else is morally repugnant.  Every day it seems I hear of some new claim on the time and life energy of some being asserted by or on behalf of someone else.

The suggestion that there is something wrong or evil about creating a profit or savings account cannot be justified, however, if we accept that each person owns him or herself complete with stored forms of time and energy, and that life in all its forms belongs to the individual to be spent when and where that person chooses, whether that is immediately or deferred indefinitely.  Profit or savings can only be vilified by first denying the principle of self-ownership.

Worse than the denigration of profit and savings is the casual ease with which so many seem willing to make a claim on the life of others these days.  If I am compelled to use a portion of my life for the benefit of another, in the absence of just compensation, I am having that portion of my life stolen from me, and whether the thief is an individual or the government does not negate the immorality of the act.  If I am compelled to spend a portion of my life providing for the wishes and desires of another, despite my unwillingness to do so for whatever reason seems sufficient to me, then I am being forced into a position of servitude to that other person.  The proper term for this position of involuntary servitude is “slavery.”  While it is considered axiomatic in our society that slavery in any form is morally repugnant and justifiably outlawed, a huge portion of our citizenry seems to have no problem with reducing nearly half of the population to the status of slaves working for the benefit of the other half.  That it is done under the covering of “taxes” and “welfare,” or the cover of “protecting certain victim classes,” does not change the reality that we have arrived at a point where half of the citizens (not just the so-called “one percent”) have been made slaves serving the other half by being compelled to pay for their needs, wants, and desires.  The only way that this can be justified is again to deny the fundamental principle of self-ownership.

The present system of taxation and welfare, of income transfers from one individual to another or from one group to another, of compelled provision of business services, is based on the immoral notion that people do not own themselves and that they belong to and exist for the benefit of the government, the society in general, the needy, or the wanting.  Ultimately, no matter how you structure or defend it, the result is the same: the life of some, in the form of their time and energy and the monetary forms those take, is stolen by others.

None of this is meant to deny that there exists a moral obligation to care for those among us who cannot provide or care for themselves.  However, this obligation if it is to be truly moral must function in compliance with the concept of self-ownership.  Since compulsion negates self-ownership, any form of compelled provision or care is necessarily immoral.  The only way to avoid this is through voluntary participation, in which each individual is free to determine whether and at what level he or she will practice care for the needy.  The name for such an approach is “charity,” and by definition it cannot be carried out through involuntary means such as taxes and government operated income transfer programs, no matter how noble sounding the cause.

Finally, returning to the issue of God’s ownership of all of us, or some of us as the case may be, the immorality inherent in the denial of self-ownership can only be viewed as much more serious if that is the case.  If we belong to Him, then our time and our energy is His to use for His ends and purposes.  When that time and energy is diverted to other ends or for the benefit of others, it would necessarily be viewed as stealing from God Himself.

I have enough problems with the things I’m going to have to explain to God when my time comes.  I’d really rather not be in the position of explaining how I justified (or carried out) a program which stole either God’s gift of life to people or, worse, that which belonged solely to Him.  I wonder how all of these people who seem to have no problem with it plan to handle that meeting.  But mostly, I’m just glad I’m not them.