Closed borders advocates regularly inundate conversations about immigration with arguments like “It’s my country, so I should have a say in who gets in.” They analogize “my country” to “my house” and claim stopping immigration is akin to stopping home invasion. They are mistaken.
What seems like a reasonable point is actually the result of linguistic confusion. Anyone who feels their job has been “stolen” has made the same mistake. There are actually two uses of possessive pronouns, and only one of them gives you any kind veto power over others’ lives.
Possessive Pronouns Aren’t Always about Possession
Possessive pronouns (like “mine” or “yours”) have two uses in English. The first is about ownership. It denotes who has property rights over what. “This is my computer.” “This is my body.” The second is about association. It denotes how people are connected to other people or things. “This is my son.” “This is my wife.”
Ownership is always also association. Owning my computer means I also have a connection to it. But association is not always ownership. I don’t own my son. I don’t own my wife.
This is an important distinction because ownership comes with a bundle of rights that mere association lacks. I can use my computer whenever I want. I have veto power over who can use my computer. I can make alterations to my computer. I can sell my computer.
Owners can also transfer some of their rights to others. A renter purchases the right to use an apartment but doesn’t get the right to sell it. They can put up pictures even if they can’t knock down walls.
Your body is truly yours because you can do with it as you wish as long as you don’t hurt others. You can love and trade with whom you want; saying otherwise would be a violation of your personal sovereignty.
You own yourself. Your body is truly yours because you can do with it as you wish as long as you don’t hurt others. You can love and trade with whom you want; saying otherwise would be a violation of your personal sovereignty.
The same can’t be said of mere association. I don’t have the right to make alterations to my son, and I can’t sell him. I can’t tell my wife whom she can associate with.
It’s important not to confuse possessive pronouns involving association with possessive pronouns involving ownership. But that confusion happens a lot when people talk about policy, especially concerning immigration and jobs.
You Don’t Own Your Country
“Your” house is yours in a way that “your” country is not. You have ownership rights over your house. You decide who can come in and who cannot. But, as law professor Ilya Somin points out, you merely live in your country—you don’t own it.
Just because you live in “your” country doesn’t mean you get veto power over who enters it. No one owns a country because a country is a public space.
When people ask, “It's my country, so shouldn't I get a say in who comes in?” the answer is a resounding “No.” Just because you live in “your” country doesn’t mean you get veto power over who enters it. No one owns a country because a country is a public space.
Nor does the government own the country. Doing so means its ownership claims will invariably interfere with ownership claims of the individual. It would give the government the authority to suppress the freedom of speech, association, and other personal choices. Unless there are truly unanimous decisions, ownership as majority rule will rob individual owners of their rights.
Imagine a neighborhood of 100 homes. Suppose ten homeowners prefer to move to a condo and rent out their homes. The other 90 don’t like this change, perhaps because renters are transient and may thus be less neighborly, and these 90 vote to ban rentals. It is, they argue, “their” neighborhood. Just as they exclude renters from their home, they should be able to exclude renters from their neighborhood. By an overwhelming majority, the ban passes.
The ban takes away ownership rights of the minority. The homeowners who wanted to rent out their homes can no longer use their property as they wish. The majority’s desire to make rules for “their” neighborhood violated the rights of everyone who disagreed with them.
No one owns “the neighborhood.” Like a country, the neighborhood is made up of several discrete property claims that no one person controls. We use possessive pronouns here purely for purposes of association, as in, “There’s a new restaurant opening near my neighborhood.” There is no claim of ownership attached to that statement.
Advocates of lower immigration often confuse the owning “my” with the associative “my.” They argue that making rules for everyone is an enforcement of their property rights, when really, such rules violate the property rights of everyone who disagrees with them.
If literally no one wanted to interact with immigrants, no immigrants would come because no one would hire them, they would have nowhere to live, and no one would sell them food. Clearly, some individuals want to hire and trade with immigrants, and those individuals have a right to do that. Immigration restrictions take away that right.
You Don’t Own Your Job
Workers make a similar mistake when they complain that someone stole “their” job. They paint immigrants or foreign competition as thieves, like a person who stole a computer. They are dead wrong.
Stealing a computer is a clear act of theft because the victim is denied something she owns. In contrast, a job cannot be stolen because a job cannot be owned. The use of the possessive in “my job” is to indicate association, not ownership.
A job is the result of an agreement between employer and employee. Either side can reject associating with the other, but at no point does either side “own” the other.
A job is the result of an agreement between employer and employee. Either side can reject associating with the other, but at no point does either side “own” the other. When we say “my job,” we mean it only as association, not ownership. We recognize our lack of ownership whenever we complain about our lack of autonomy at our job.
That recognition disappears when workers are fired. Upon termination of the relationship, some workers suddenly feel as though they were robbed. Much like a man complaining so-and-so stole his girlfriend, some workers adopt an attitude of victimhood. They feel something was taken from them. Something that was “theirs” is no longer theirs. But while an ended relationship is emotionally impactful, a loved job is no more owned than a loved person.
Relationships are not about ownership. Boyfriends don’t own girlfriends. Wives don’t own husbands. Employers don’t own employees. Employees don’t own employers. If one side terminates the relationship to work with or love another, no theft took place.
When we allow people to talk in terms of job “stealing,” we implicitly condone their efforts to protect their job. Who wouldn’t want to stop theft? These protections, however, invariably lead to denying people actual ownership rights.
Preventing jobs from being “stolen” means forcing someone to work with someone they don’t want to. An employer doesn’t have ownership over an employee, but she does have ownership over herself. Forcing people to work together, as many European countries do by outlawing at-will employment, violates a person’s personal sovereignty.
Language is wonderful but sometimes confusing. We park in driveways and drive in parkways. Shipments go by car and cargos go by ship. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. Possessive pronouns are not always about possession.
It’s important to keep these things straight.