Tyranny of the ‘ownership society’

The inhabitant of the ownership society would have to resign himself to moving along with economic currents.

People talk about the economy in the same way as the weather: like something that can’t be controlled, that’s totally out of our hands.

This isn’t terribly strange – and yet it is. On one hand, economic forces determine the fate of anyone who isn’t sitting on a fat trust fund. On the other hand, unlike the weather, human beings can, do and should manipulate economies to promote various social goods. So the economy isn’t at all like the weather – it is composed of human interactions, it can be controlled (to some extent) and the decision to allow it to run wild (and free) is purely political.

No doubt we’re going to be hearing a lot in the next four years about the panacea that awaits Americans if President George W. Bush successfully loosens the federal government’s already unrestrictive reins on the United States’ economy. In fact, the marketing campaign for the latest effort to reduce government influence in the economy has already started. They’ve already come up with a sexy name: “Ownership society.”

“Wow, that sounds bold and revolutionary! And I do like owning stuff!” one is tempted to exclaim – wrongly.

The truth of the matter is the “ownership society” is really just a euphemism for – among other things – the privatization of Social Security and making the tax code even more regressive.

Start saving for retirement now children, learn how to play in that classy, socially acceptable casino called the stock market and get ready to extend a most hearty welcome to Bush’s ownership society because it’s a comin’ – unless Ö

Unless public discourse in the United States takes a drastic turn. The problem is the right-wingers have already framed debate on the ownership society in terms of freedom versus security and stability. If that’s how the choice is presented, most individuals – quite understandably – are going to choose freedom and flexibility over cozy government paternalism.

The good news is the debate over the ownership society needn’t be one of freedom versus security, because there’s really not much freedom in the “free enterprise system” – for most of us at least.

If you work for a corporation – and many of us will, or do – you’re not working for yourself, you’re working for a boss, who answers to the corporation’s board of directors, who have a legal obligation to maximize profits for the corporation’s shareholders.

You have to do what your boss tells you to do (get in at 8 a.m., take only 10 days of vacation a year, stay late to finish some project Ö ) or you’ll be fired. And getting fired means you might not be able to pay your mortgage, or you’ll lose your health care (and your children’s health care), or your children won’t be able to go to college and so on. In other words, you have a lot to lose if you don’t listen to the boss – he’s got an economic gun cocked and pointed at your head. Such are the freedoms most people enjoy in our “free-enterprise” system.

Oh! But of course, you could always find another job; no one is forcing you to work the one you have. And you made a choice only to work jobs that offer health insurance. And anyway, why shouldn’t you be able to choose to forego having health insurance in order to have more money and live a (risky) but wonderfully hedonistic lifestyle instead of having your money “confiscated” by the government to provide health insurance you don’t want Ö

I can already hear right-wing intellectuals – in a perverse twist on the old revolutionary notion of the “new socialist man” – describing the inhabitant of the ownership society: He is infinitely adaptable and malleable; willing to change his career, identity and location at a moment’s notice; constantly updating his skill set; thoroughly unsentimental and unconnected; totally flexible and eager to explore the endless menu of choices the ownership society offers.

He chews the freedom fries they sell in the cafeteria with his mouth closed.

Well, that’s one way of looking at it – and, in a way, it’s compelling. More importantly, the inhabitant of the ownership society sounds pretty hip.

But he’s also an illusion. On the contrary, the inhabitant of the ownership society – like a shipwreck victim in the middle of the ocean on a small inflatable raft – has merely resigned himself to moving along with economic currents, hoping he won’t drown. That’s not freedom – that’s just acquiescing to the arbitrary whims of “The Market.”

Free decisions have to be uncoerced decisions. Markets and corporations can be just as coercive and tyrannical as governments. The ownership society is an assault on so called “entitlement programs.” But what entitlement programs, such as Social Security, welfare and unemployment benefits, do is soften the blow of economic losses and therefore restrict the coercive power of “The Market.” We need to expand entitlement programs, not limit them, and we need to interrogate this foolish idea that there’s anything “free” about free markets and free enterprise.

Nick Woomer welcomes comments at [email protected]