President Bush’s vision of an “ownership society” sounds pretty good on paper. And there is some research suggesting that ownership, especially in poverty areas, helps foster a sense of well-being and security.
Ownership also has its downside. In his novel The Source, James Michener describes a fictional character named Ur whose family had lived in caves for millions of years. And for all of those years, the women planted while the men traveled, sometimes for months, to hunt.
Then Ur married a woman who came from a different tribe – one that built their own stone huts. After some discussion, she persuaded Ur that if they had their own hut, they would be free of the rules of the cave. Shortly after their new home was built, Ur could no longer go very far to hunt; he was fearful that his new home would be harmed.
Moral: The first evidence of ownership is also the first evidence of anxiety.
“It’s your money, you should decide where to spend it” is this administration’s mantra. Not so fast. True, some of the money I have put into my Social Security account over the years may come back to me when I retire, but there’s a larger picture. With all the contributions all of us have made to Social Security, we have been building an account for the common good. It helps feed elderly people who can no longer work. It provides a bit of a safety net for families. It gives people in our society the chance to maintain a level of dignity that they wouldn’t have if they were indigent.
And I like that. I don’t want to live in a society where people can think only in terms of “my money and how I spend it.” I want a place where we share some of our resources and pool some of our goods for the good of others.
I’m sure President Bush is trying to send me a message. I think he’d like me to help solve the Social Security dilemma by learning the ways of savvy investors. But I don’t want to be a savvy investor. In the long run, investing in myself will not help me – or anyone else – feel the kind of security we long for. That comes from somewhere else.
What I am most concerned about in an ownership society is what happens to us as individuals. I know many people who have many possessions. And I sometimes wonder whether they own the possessions or the possessions own them.
Will an ownership society evolve into a self-absorbed society? Will I be willing to make my annual contribution to my favorite charity if I have more anxiety and less security about the fate of my investments?
We all want security. And this administration keeps reminding us how insecure we really are. At first blush, the idea of possessing more of our money sounds like something that will make us more secure. But consider the fact that ownership is really an illusion anyway. Ultimately, we own nothing. We cannot own land; it will be there long after we are gone. The objects we think we own will come and go. Certainly, we do not possess our children; they will grow and go as they will. We don’t even possess our own bodies; they will go to ground, probably before we are ready. Of everything we think we own we are but temporary caretakers.
Once we understand that, and care for those things with honor and humility, we will understand that only when we open our doors and share what we have will we finally feel secure.