The Journey series
The Right to Property
This week’s Mustard Seed examines the right to property. Ownership is closely related to liberty. One first owns their self. People apply their efforts – labour, ingenuity, creativity, and innovation – to resources. Value increases as resources are transformed or brought closer to market. The wealth created is divided among the participants. Their share becomes their property. In our free market economy each participant is free to use or trade their resources as they choose.
Because we must consume to survive there is continuous demand. We weigh our interests and abilities against the needs and desires of our community and assess where we might best expend our resources to produce enough to keep or trade to meet our needs and desires. We may join an existing enterprise or begin a new one. I chose to start a construction company.
During the recession of the 1980’s I built a fish and chips restaurant for two of my friends. They paid for all materials but, because jobs were scarce and my friends didn’t have much money, I exchanged my labour for credit in their shop. I wasn’t able to eat all my wages before one friend died and the other retired.
I once built a house for someone who sold tires. Imagine if I had been paid in tires and then had to exchange those for the things I needed. If I took a tire to the bakery to exchange for bread would I need to accept a whole tire’s worth of baked goods? Would the baker be driving around on four mismatched tires he’d acquired from four different customers?
Both examples show why money was created. It is a convenient means of exchange. It is both easier to divide and more portable. Unfortunately, it also obscures both that our remuneration is a share in the effort we contribute to our chosen enterprise and that any transaction is the exchange of a share of the effort and resources we contributed to an enterprise for a share of others’ contributions to their enterprises. Money, which exists only by convention, has become an end rather than a means.
We agree that scraps of paper and metal have great value by virtue of the imprints they bear. We covet, hoard, and jealously protect them. Increasingly we trade in electronic blips which are mere symbols of symbols. We lose the tangibility of actually exchanging our efforts towards the needs of others for their efforts toward our needs.
I count myself fortunate because I worked directly for my customers. I knew who enjoyed the fruits of my labour. In many cases my customers also owned businesses. I could see the hard work they were doing for their customers.
I often contemplate how someone might feel working in a silicon chip factory. Each day they don protective clothing to isolate their workplace from the outside world. They enter a huge clean room the size of two football fields and man monitors which instruct robotics to perform one of hundreds of steps in producing a semiconductor chip which is then sealed robotically in its shield.
The parts are moved about the factory inside hermetically sealed containers. Nobody ever actually sees the chips. Even if they did, the etchings are so small they are undetectable without a microscope. The chips are then sent off to other manufacturers to be used in who-knows-what.
How do people who oversee a robot which performs a less than .2% contribution to something that goes off to be buried inside some unknown product come to appreciate their contribution to society? Will they never know who benefitted from their effort? Will that chip become part of a machine a doctor uses to save lives? Will it become part of a weapon that is used to kill many?
When I plant, tend, and harvest tomatoes in my backyard, I know they are the fruits of my labour. I built many houses and they stand to this day as monuments to my efforts. When I got the occupancy permit and handed the keys to their house over to my customers I knew what I had given them. I knew each customer and knew they worked hard for the cheque they gave me. I knew the things I bought for my family with that money actually came from my work on that house.
With today’s urbanization, specialization, and importation it’s easy to lose those connections. It’s easy to work for the money. Tomatoes come from Safeway and they’re mine because I bought them.
Next week: Charity.
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Peter T Elliott