“Under public ownership, We, the People, own It!”

By Leonard E. Read

Public ownership and government control are synonymous term two ways of expressing an identical concept.

The popular notion is that a resource or service is the possession of we the people, when it is under government ownership and dispensation, and that we, the people, are objects of exploitation when resources are under private ownership and willing exchange. Socialism — public ownership — will continue to expand as long as this notion dominates.

In Brazil, for instance, private exploration and refining of oil resources are denied to both domestic and foreign entrepreneurs. Government has a monopoly of this industry. As a consequence, Brazilians innocently exclaim, “O petroleo e nosso” — the oil is ours! But if they will only look in their gas tanks, they’ll discover two gallons from private enterprising foreigners to each gallon of what they naively call “ours.” The reason for this? Government ownership and operation produces only one-third the quantity required for local consumption; some 200,000 barrels must be imported daily.

Had our Indians followed the Brazilian type of logic, they could have exclaimed, 500 years ago, “The oil is ours,” even though they were unaware of this untapped resource. Or, to suggest a comparable absurdity, we can, having planted the American flag on the moon, claim that satellite to be “ours.” I only ask, what’s the point in avowing ownership of any unavailable resource or service?

Public ownership, so-called, contrary to popular notions, is definitely not we-the-people ownership. If it were, we could exchange our share in TVA or the Post Office for dollars, just as we can exchange a share of corporation stock for dollars.

At least two conditions are necessary for ownership to exist: (1) having title, and (2) having control. In Italy, under fascism, titles to assets remained in private hands but control was coercively assumed by the state. The titles were utterly meaningless. Without control, ownership is pure fiction.

While in some vague way “we, the people,” are sup- posed to have title to TVA, for instance, we have not even a vestige of control. I no more control that socialistic venture in power and light than I control the orbiting of men into outer space. “But,” some will counter, “neither do you control the corporation in which you hold stock.” True, I do not perform the managerial function, but I do control whether or not I’ll retain or sell the stock, which is to say, I control whether or not I will share in the gains or losses. Further, I am free to choose whether or not to work for the corporation or to buy or refrain from buying its products. My control in the non-governmental corporate arrangement is very real, indeed.

Who, then, does control and thus own TVA, the Post Office, and the like? At best, it is a nebulous shifting control — often difficult to identify. Rooted in political plunder, government ownership and operation is an irresponsible control; that is, there is never a responsibility in precise alignment with authority. The mayor of a city may have complete authority over the socialized water system, but responsibility for failure is by no means commensurately assumed by him. He “passes the buck,” as they say. Most people crave authority provided responsibility doesn’t go with it. This explains, in part, why political office is so attractive and why “we, the people,” do not even remotely own what is held in the name of public ownership.

One truly owns those things to which he holds exclusive title and exclusive control, and for which he has responsibility. Let any American inventory his possessions. These will be, preponderantly, those goods and services obtained from private sources in open exchange: power and light, cameras, autos, gasoline, or any of the millions of goods and services by which we live. The things that are privately owned by others are far more available for one’s own title and control than is the case in “public ownership.”

Public ownership often creates distracting and, at the same time, attractive illusions. For instance, people served by TVA are using twice as much power and light as the national average. Why? TVA charges less than half the price. Because of lower production costs? Indeed, not! The rest of us around the nation are taxed to cover the TVA deficit. But power and light acquired in this manner can no more classify as “ours” than can any good or service forcibly extorted from true owners. To grasp what this socialism means if applied to everything, merely take a look at the Russian “economy.”

Or take another example: The political head of New York City’s socialized water system rejected metering on the ground that water is a social service to which Gothamites are entitled as citizens. The illusion: How nice to live where much of the water is for free I Yes, except that the New York City water district, astride the mighty Hudson, was having a water famine. Now, this is public ownership, pure and simple. But observe that the “public” ownership of water had all but dried up the avail- ability of water for private use. What kind of a social service is it that, by depriving individuals of title and control, finally denies them the service!

If private availability — ownership in the sense of use, title, control — is what interests us, then we will do well to preserve private ownership and an open, willing-exchange market. For proof, merely take a look in the gas tank, or the closet, or the garage, or the pot on the stove!