All Commentary
Sunday, August 1, 1971

Ownership and Freedom

Dr. Russell is Director of the Graduate Pro­gram in Management, Dominican College, Racine, Wisconsin.

Freedom is based on ownership. If it is possible for a person to own land and machines and build­ings, it is also possible for him to have freedom of press, speech, and religion. But if it is impossible for a person to buy and sell land and other resources, then it is also impossible for him to have peace­ful access to any effective means of disagreeing with the decisions of his government. Thus my con­tention is that, in the final analy­sis, human freedom stands or falls with the market economy of pri­vate ownership of the means of production and distribution.

True enough, freedom may be temporarily suppressed to some considerable extent by various forms of censorship under a sys­tem of private property; but, at least, there is still discussion about it (and even objection to it) in the privately owned newspapers. In contrast, my thesis is that the issue of censorship can’t even arise in a society in which all the means of production and distribu­tion are owned in common by all the people. Thus, “ownership” is the key to any discussion of free­dom.

For example, no one disputes the fact that a slave is still not free even when he is permitted several legal “freedoms.” The slave owns nothing that he can use to protest—neither a printing press nor a pulpit nor a speaking platform. Everyone understands that the slave’s owner is still in charge, primarily because he can deprive his slave of all material possessions. But few people appear to understand the similar correla­tion between freedom of religion in general and the ownership of the church buildings. Yet it should be obvious that if all churches and seminaries are owned in common through the government, freedom of religion as we know it in the United States (and in France and similar countries) cannot exist.

True enough, various “free­doms” in this area may be per­mitted by the governmental owners, sometimes referred to as the “managers of the people’s property.” And, of course, it is always possible for anyone to be a secret believer. But freedom for a person to disagree completely and openly with the religious beliefs of all other people—and to an­nounce and establish a new reli­gion—is simply not possible in a society where all resources are owned in common, instead of by individuals or groups of individ­uals. An entire nation of “in com­mon” owners simply will not per­mit their leaders to allocate scarce “food and housing” resources to the building of seminaries and churches for misguided individuals who believe that the best repre­sentation of God is a black woman, or that God is an omnipotent en­tity who directly interferes in the daily activities of persons who please or displease him. And un­der a system of governmental ownership of the means of pro­duction and distribution, surely it is obvious that there can be no seminaries and churches for those strange people who believe that “in common” or governmental ownership is contrary to the teach­ings of a Supreme Being who em­phasizes individual responsibility, voluntary association, and per­sonal salvation.

Conditions Consistent with Freedom of the Press

If freedom of the press is to have any substance, it must in­clude the following arrangement: Every person (if he is willing to pay a modest price) has easy ac­cess to a printing press, and the government itself protects his right to distribute his written messages of total disagreement with various governmental policies and officials. Surely, no one is fool­ish enough to imagine that this “free press” arrangement can ex­ist when all of the printing ma­chinery is owned in common by the people through their govern­ment.

No rational person has ever seriously suggested that Castro should promote an anti-Castro press in Cuba. But even if he were willing to tolerate the establish­ing of a privately owned “opposi­tion newspaper” in Havana, there is simply no mechanism to procure the needed factors of production and distribution for a private com­pany in a “command economy,” i.e., an economy that is operated by the government for the benefit of all the people who own everything in common. Actually, when one tries to imagine a mechanism or system to permit the operation of a privately owned newspaper in an economy of common (govern­mental) ownership, he invariably visualizes some form of a market economy wherein individual owners determine what is to be printed and how it will be dis­tributed. This, of course, supports my thesis that no freedom of the press is possible in an economy that is owned by everyone and is operated by the government for the benefit of all.

Private Ownership the Key

My theory is that freedom of press, speech, and religion are likely to flourish wherever the means of production and distribu­tion are owned by individuals and are operated for profit. (Note that detractors of the press in the United States don’t deny that the owner is printing what he wants to print; these objectors merely disagree with what the owner chooses to print and why he does it.) But in any nation where all the means of production and dis­tribution are owned in common by the government, there is no possi­ble way for writers, speakers, clergymen, and people in general to express peacefully and publicly their total disagreement with the governmental “managers.”

Test this idea empirically by looking at the nations around the world with “command” economies of common ownership and the na­tions with some recognizable form of “market” economy wherein the primary motivation for production is the hope of profit. My “mere theory” of a necessary relation­ship between the free market econ­omy of private ownership—and freedom of press, speech, and re­ligion—will be empirically vali­dated.

Does censorship of privately owned newspapers, e.g., in Spain and South Africa, invalidate my thesis on ownership and freedom? Well, the mechanism for peaceful dissent (private ownership) still exists in both nations. And thus dissent is at least possible—at a relatively high cost to the dis­senter, of course. Even so, there is still an encouraging amount of newspaper disagreement with gov­ernmental policies in Spain and South Africa. But, in contrast, in Russia where newspapers are owned in common by all of the people, the possibility of editorial dissent doesn’t even exist. Since the managers of the people’s econ­omy are also the managers of the people’s newspapers, obviously they are not going to denounce themselves and their political and economic decisions in their own press.

There should be nothing sur­prising about that fact; the pub­lisher of The New York Times doesn’t denounce himself in his own newspaper—any more than do the publishers of Pravda, i.e., the leaders of the Communist Party. The private owners of The Washington Post are free to ad­vocate the abolition of private ownership, if they wish to do so. It is literally impossible, however, for the governmental owners of Izvestia to advocate that news­papers be turned over to private ownership in Russia; for there simply is no way to implement such a procedure. Nor does “who’s on top” make any difference what­ever; for as long as the “common ownership” arrangement contin­ues, the press must necessarily reflect the “in common” policies of the nation, whatever they may be.

Ownership in Common Sets Stage for Pollution

Most people are usually im­pressed by their empirical com­parisons of freedom of press, speech, and religion in East and West Germany, in China and Ja­pan, and in various other nations all around the world. They can readily see that, in practice and for whatever reasons, there does seem to be a positive relationship between freedom to dissent and the ownership of the press, and so on. And a few will finally acknowl­edge the fact that the owners of a newspaper in any country—Rus­sia or the United States—simply cannot make a decision and, simul­taneously, write an editorial de­nouncing themselves and their de­cision.

Even those few, however, are still prone to worry about the “pol­lution and slums and discrimina­tion and fraud and false advertis­ing that are caused by the free market economy.”

It should be obvious, however, that “pollution” is not peculiar to the free market economy of pri­vate ownership. The same problem exists in a command economy of ownership in common; in fact, pollution has now become an ex­ceedingly serious problem in in­dustrialized Russia with its huge hydro-dams and gigantic river diversions. Since this issue of pollution is clearly and necessarily an “in common” problem under any economic system, it must be solved through the “in common” government—whether it be a dic­tatorship or a democracy. For neither the government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority nor the privately-owned Consolidated Edison Company should be per­mitted to continue practices which destroy the land and pollute the atmosphere.

Problems in Paradise

As for racial and religious dis­crimination, one of the most vicious examples of it exists in the Soviet Union. I am, of course, referring to the “Jewish people” in Com­munist Russia where the syna­gogues, as well as the steel mills, are owned in common by the peo­ple for the benefit of all. Under a system of ownership in common, it is usually even impossible for a person to leave the country! Dis­crimination against races and re­ligions is not in any sense a “free market” problem; in fact, the mar­ket economy of private ownership of resources may well be the only arrangement that can possibly ac­commodate these historical and emotional issues in a workable manner over a significant period of time.

Slums and slum conditions exist, of course, in Moscow and other communist cities around the world. And even in Sweden—where there are no slums in the ordinary sense and where the government has as­sumed almost total responsibility for providing the people with places to live—the acute housing shortage is perhaps the most con­troversial issue in the nation. “In common” ownership offers no so­lution whatever to housing prob­lems, either in New York City or in Peking.

Nor is “fraud” peculiar to a mar­ket economy; since this is a char­acter-defect that inheres only in individuals, it exists under all forms of ownership. And false and misleading advertising is ob­viously an “in common” problem which must be solved by law, i.e., the legislatures and courts of the governments of the people—any people and any government.

Actually, the accusations so fre­quently directed against the free market economy—pollution, false advertising, violence in various forms and degrees, including war—are generally misdirected; those social ills are mostly the result of corrupt or apathetic or deluded or power-mad governmental offi­cials who are not even capable of performing their primary func­tions of maintaining the peace, suppressing fraud, and attending to other obvious functions that are clearly of an “in common” con­cern to everyone.

Well, that’s what I mean by the free market economy of private ownership of the means of pro­duction and distribution. I’m for it because I am convinced that all freedoms must necessarily disap­pear soon after the market system of producing and distributing goods and services is abolished or allowed to decay.