Friday, August 29, 2008

Open Letter to Barack Obama: Why NOT the “Ownership Society”?

Dear Senator Obama:

With all due respect, we were gravely disappointed by certain remarks you made on Thursday evening, August 28, 2008 in accepting the nomination of your party for the office of President of the United States.

These particular remarks struck us as tossing away an historic opportunity. Worse, they undermined the very heart of what this country stands for, and the vision and hope that America could bring not only to every man, woman, and child in the United States, but throughout the world. We refer to your words, as reported in the Washington Post of 08/29/08 (“The Speech: ‘The Change We Need Is Coming’,” A28):

"For over two decades — for over two decades, he’s [John McCain] subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy: Give more and more to those with the most, and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the ownership society, but what it really means is that you’re on your own. Out of work? Tough luck; you’re on your own. No health care? The market will fix it; you’re on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don’t have boots. You are on your own."


Senator Obama, what is wrong with an “ownership society”? You rightfully criticize an ownership society if it means that only a few people own productive wealth. What you fail to see, or to offer, is the possibility of an ownership society in which every person has real access via our laws and social institutions to the means of acquiring and possessing an independent stake in income-generating assets. You have arrogantly dismissed what Senator Hubert Humphrey in 1976 called a new “twin pillar” of U.S. economic policy — universal citizen access to direct ownership stakes in our most advanced technologies and most well-managed corporations — which could allow America to develop into an economically just society.

Admittedly, you are right in your characterization of the Republican economic platform. It will at best maintain the status quo and will help make the rich richer. But frankly, Senator Obama, you aren’t offering anything better. Republicans and Democrats alike are merely hawking their own brand of failed Keynesian repair jobs that have resulted in a looming deficit of $74 trillion in Social Security and Medicare, a debauched currency, and an economy that crawls back and forth between worship of Big Government (Washington) and worship of Big Business (Wall Street). The best you have offered is to raise the minimum wage, offer tax credits to encourage alternative energy and so-called “good jobs,” while sticking it to the fat cats and corporations that send jobs overseas.

Under both your plan and Senator McCain’s, ordinary workers will be kept in their place — powerless and propertyless. If Senator McCain has his way, Wall Street will own us. If you have your way, Washington and its Wall Street partners will.

Rather than making the ordinary citizen dependent on a private employer, or worse, on an ever-growing State and welfare bureaucracy, why aren’t you offering real change and justice? If you believe in the dignity of the person over the power of the State, why reject out-of-hand a new economic vision and plan based on 1) a limited economic role for the State, 2) free choice and open and competitive markets, 3) restoration of the rights of private property, and (what both you and the Republicans omit), 4) widespread, direct citizen ownership of the means of production.

Your glib denigration of an ownership society is all the more discreditable in that, to our knowledge. you have been handed on at least two occasions a genuine blueprint for the change you claim you seek — an economic democratization program that could build a green economy and an ownership stake in it for every citizen.

The program you were handed is called “Capital Homesteading for Every Citizen.” Founded on the same principles as Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act, Capital Homesteading is designed to open up the virtually limitless technological frontier to widespread ownership, just as the original Homestead Act opened up the agricultural frontier. True, Lincoln was a Republican, and he sought to establish and maintain the ownership society that you dismiss so easily, but he, too, was from your home state of Illinois, and might be worthy of emulation for that and other reasons.

Why not an ownership society? Frankly, what has propertylessness and powerlessness ever done for you or anybody else, for our ancestors, or the generations unborn? Is ownership so bad that you must subject it to ridicule, and offer nothing better than the protection and patronage of an impersonal and monolithic State?

Your proposals would not only maintain barriers to widespread capital ownership, they would erect more and increase the disabilities imposed by existing barriers. Is that what you want for America? Is that the change you seek?

The only way for Americans to be secure against the inroads of either Big Business or Big Government is to be economically, not just politically, empowered. Power follows property . . . having direct ownership in the means of production. A just society can only exist where power is spread broadly and access to private property is secured as a basic right of citizenship — in other words, an “ownership society.” As William Cobbett pointed out in 1827,

Freedom is not an empty sound; it is not an abstract idea; it is not a thing that nobody can feel. It means, — and it means nothing else, — the full and quiet enjoyment of your own property. If you have not this, if this be not well secured to you, you may call yourself what you will, but you are a slave.


The next time you are tempted to ridicule or denigrate ownership as a way for ordinary people to secure their futures and their freedom, remember this message: Own or be owned.

In Peace through Justice,

Norman G. Kurland, President, Center for Economic and Social Justice
Michael D. Greaney, Director of Research, Center for Economic and Social Justice
Dawn K. Brohawn, Director of Communications, Center for Economic and Social Justice

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