Freedom in Mind

Chapter 3
The Burdens of Ownership

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

We start asking children that question when they reach the ripe old age of three. The answers are amusing, because tots have no idea what the question means. Why should they? Adults have no idea what it means either.

Is it an essay question, or a multiple-choice question? The essay question would be, "What will you do when you grow up?" The child can say, "I'll get rich," or "I'll do good things," or many choices within even a limited knowledge.

On the other hand, "What will you be?" is a multiple-choice question. It really means, "Which life that you know about would you like to live?" The right answer would be, "Mine."

A child who learns the game can try out various answers. "I want to grow up to be President," gets one reaction. "I want to grow up to be King," gets another. Playing the game does not require any knowledge of what presidents and kings actually do. One just tries on various titles to see how they look and how they fit.

If a child who hears the question over and over stops taking it as a game and starts taking it seriously, the result is disaster. What you do is for you to decide. What you are is for others to decide. A Hollywood aspirant, for example, knows what he is doing: learning to act. Others see only what he is: a waiter.

The aspirant might say, "Right now I am living the life of a waiter, but someday I'll be living the life of a movie star." He might admit that this means he is pretending to be a waiter right now. He will probably not admit that it also means he will pretend to be a movie star. If I said, "I plan to live the life of a genius," you would probably take that to mean that I will pretend to be a genius—that I will rent the life of a genius.

There is a difference between living a life and renting a life. To live your life, you decide what to do, and do it. To rent a life, you decide what someone you admire would do, and do that. Instead of making choices that further your life as a rational being, you make choices that aid the pretense of being a star, or a genius, or a king.

If you ask a child, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" that says that all possibilities are open, and choice is possible. When you ask, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" that says to look at lives being lived, and pick one of those to live. To see this, imagine the reaction if the child answered, "I want to be something that nobody has ever been before."

In fact, that is the right answer. Everybody does grow up to be someone who has never existed before, and will never exist again. Each of us is unique. We recognize that by telling kids, "Just be yourself." The kid would be smart to say, "That's what I want to be when I grow up: myself."

Children are owned by their parents. They are learning self-ownership before experiencing it. It is easy to misunderstand sloppy language, and flub the crucial question: is my life created by me, or is it lent to me? Do I own my life in the absolute sense, or just in the sense that renters own a living space?

Religion says the latter, that your life in on loan from above. Others say that your life is on loan from the state. If you agree that self-ownership does not exist, then there are advantages to that as well as disadvantages. An advantage is that if you are not the ultimate owner of your life, then you do not have the ultimate responsibility. It is up to the owner to provide. The burdens of ownership are not yours. If things go wrong, it is not your fault.

But it is your pain. That's the disadvantage. You have to take what you get. People who make for themselves a happy life start by taking charge. They decide that they are the unconditional owners of themselves. They do not rent a life; they create it. They regard the responsibilities of ownership not as burdens but as advantages.

To maintain a human being, the owner must provide sustenance, shelter, instruction, and protection. Growing up was supposed to be a process of learning to provide those things for yourself—of becoming the owner of yourself. If it did not work, then you feel burdened by responsibilities. If it did work, then you feel blessed with capabilities.

The capability on which all others depend is the capability to think.

To think any thought, you must first take charge and initiate thinking. That is free will. No power but you can make you think. Since decisions result from thinking, no power but you can make your decisions. What coercion does is remove your power to act on your decisions. It takes control of what you do, but not what you think.

When slaves demand freedom, it is the result of thinking on their own. They have taken charge and want back the life stolen from them. They have noticed that self-ownership is an inescapable fact.

You can demonstrate that fact by denying it. If denying self-ownership is the result of your own thought, then you own the denial, which is an instance of owning yourself. But if it is not the result of your own thought, then it is not your denial. It is somebody else's denial. You could agree with it only after a process of thought, which would be an instance of self-ownership.

Taking charge of your thinking process is taking charge of your life. To truly own you, a slave-master would have to control your methods of thinking. Then nothing would be your fault. But be careful. If you tried to convince people that someone else was in charge of your brain, they would not call you perceptive. They would call you insane.

If by thinking you decide to live your life without thinking, then you must think of a way to survive crippled. Does that sound silly? It has been the norm for thousands of years. Men have given themselves to the Heavenly Lord, or the English Lord, or the Russian Czar, or the Democratic Republic, or the Green Ideal. Since you cannot give what you do not own, the truth has been confirmed by its denial.

Men have tried to shift the burdens of ownership from their own shoulders to stronger shoulders. They have lost freedom, and gained nothing. The smartest man in the world would not be able to do your thinking for you, because your thinking starts with your sense data. He could advise you on methods of thinking, which you would decide to try or not to try. He would surely tell you, "Face it. You own yourself. Your life is your own. You can learn to make it a triumph, or let it become a burden."

To take charge of my life, I decide to be myself. I want every moment of my life to be mine, and mine alone. I want no moment of my life stolen from me. By production and trade, I want to earn on my own everything that sustains and enriches my life. I want to share my life with others on the basis of freedom and justice, not force and fraud. I want to say at the end of my life: "Every moment of this life belonged to me and was lived by me."

If I am in charge of my life, then you are not. I want to be free of coercion. I must be free of coercion, so that my thinking can end in action. I see freedom for what it is: a requirement for survival of a rational animal. I have freedom firmly in my mind, not as a threat or a burden or a privilege, but as a necessity of life.

On the other hand, if I think in terms not of creating a good life, but of renting a good life, then in my mind freedom is a side issue. If I want to "be" an artist, then I will take artistic freedom to mean that whatever an artist does should be called art. Since I put being something above doing something, I don't start by defining art, and defining an artist as one who produces art. I do it backwards. I look at artists, and then define art as whatever they produce.

I the renter arrive at my idea of freedom the same way. I do not start by defining freedom, so I can decide what countries are free. I look at "free" countries, and decide that freedom is whatever they have in common. Since they all steal from the citizens, that must be part of freedom. Since they all coerce the citizens, that must be part of freedom. Freedom becomes control in some proper way rather than in some improper way.

This analysis divides people into two groups: owners and renters. The owners grow up thinking about what to do, and how to be free to do it. The renters grow up wondering what to be, and how to become it. The owners grow eagerly into self-ownership so they can get on with it. The renters would rather shirk burdens of ownership, so they try to get away with it.

Some grow up as owners, but grow weary and settle for a rented life. Others grow up as renters, but get dissatisfied with pretence, and learn to live their own lives. Since you and you alone have the power to regulate your thinking and choose your methods of evaluation, there is no time limit. You are always capable of learning better ways to think. The choice to be an owner or a renter is one you make continuously.

Renting a life has the enticements of a shortcut. I start with a vague feeling about what it would be nice to do. Make people gasp, say, at my daring schemes. What are people called who do that sort of thing? Oh yes, that funny French word. Okay, I'll grow up to be an entrepreneur. I'll just imitate the way entrepreneurs do things, and I'll end up happy.

Or will I? My time was spent studying people instead of ideas. I never actually figured out what I wanted to do. I left it as a feeling. My daring schemes sometimes succeed, and sometimes fail, but never do make anybody gasp. I'm living a good life, really, except I have this feeling that it doesn't fit. I tend to put it on and button it up in the daytime, and feel stifled. I'm not owned by myself; I'm owned by my business. But I own the business, so I have all the burdens of ownership, with no advantages.

My time should have been spent pinning things down. Why am I attracted to the idea of boldness and daring? What's good about boldness and daring? You have to be really brave. When we went on vacation in that airplane, I was scared at first, then I was impressed at the confidence of the crew and the passengers. What a wonderful thing it is to fly a machine into the air with total confidence! But sometimes they do crash. When I grow up I want to work with airplanes, and stop them from crashing.

Later, I might get asked if all the effort was worth it. "What effort? It's all been such fun. Now that I'm a pilot, and a plane designer, and a safety expert, I get to do it all. People say they don't know what I am, so I tell them I'm a flying fool. I don't draw the boundaries of my life; I just live it."

Coercive government wants to draw the boundaries. It does not understand people who do not think that self-ownership is a burden. Such people must be greedy: greedy for wealth, greedy for life, greedy for fame, greedy for power. Coercive government does not like such people, because they are impervious to the Big Trick: the offer to lift the burdens of ownership off your back.

"The least we can do," says coercive government, "is educate your children. That's in addition, of course, to protecting you. We will even protect you from yourself. If you have trouble finding sustenance, then we'll take some from your neighbor and give it to you. Of course, that means we'll take some from you for your other neighbor, but you'll probably come out ahead. In order to help you with your burdens, we will have to keep close track of you, which will help us protect you from yourself."

When coercive government offers to help with the burdens of self-ownership, it is offering to make you a slave, on a part time basis. If your life is rented, you already feel like a slave on a part time basis—a slave to your image. So the governmental offer seems reasonable. You'll find that they occasionally go too far, and later they often go too far, and finally they always go too far. But by then the burdens of government added to the burdens of ownership will convince you that you can't cope. You will rent the life that was always your destiny: the life of a full time slave.

Or, you could insist on living your own life, and shouldering the burdens of ownership yourself. "No thanks!" you could say to the government. "All I want from you is protection of my rights. I'll hire you to keep the crooks at bay, and the foreign aggressors at bay, and to settle disputes that get thorny. I'll take care of the rest. I'll provide my food and shelter. I'll buy insurance, and hire tutors. I'm capable of doing that stuff myself, as long as you guys stay off my back."

Political freedom rises and falls with the influence of owners and renters. When renters are more influential, freedom fades. When owners assert themselves, freedom gains. It does not take many owners. When George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were influential, the world changed.

To think of the responsibilities of ownership as a burden is to think of freedom as a burden, and effort as a burden, and so life itself as a burden. If you are considering casting off a rented life, and living your own unique life, don't wait too long. Coercive government is creeping up on you.

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