The "Ownership Society" Redivivus?

It is truly a shame that not many conservatives today are familiar with the name “Wilhelm Roepke.”

The aforementioned was a Swiss economist who championed a decentralist approach to just about everything (and thus, is my kind of guy). He preferred local government over national, market exchange over state-directed planning, and small business over “monopoly capitalism.” Roepke disdained concentrations of power in favor of a rigorous application of the subsidiarity principle. This, my friends, is thoroughgoing conservatism.

I think his greatest contribution, however, was his response to something that the Marxists highlighted as a failure of capitalism. They argued that one of capitalism’s injustices (if not its chief injustice, in fact) was that an entire class of people (the proletariat) had no access to means of production of their own, and thus were reduced to a state of dependency on another class of people (the bourgeoisie). Possessing nothing to sell but their own “labor power,” the proletariat became “wage slaves.” The solution to this problem? Simple: Social revolution. The wage slaves should rise up, seize control of the means of production, establish the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” and march toward the Golden Age. We all know the story, I’m fairly certain.

Here’s what’s cool about Roepke: He shared the opinion of the Marxists that workers should have access to means of production and he agreed that what they called “wage slavery” was bad for society, but he disagreed as to why and what the solution should be. To sum up, he argued that the dependency of the working class on the bosses undermined the virtues (e.g., individual responsibility) he deemed foundational for a free society. In order to foster those virtues (and thus remain a free society), the state must take an active role in trying to give back to workers some degree of self-sufficiency. Otherwise, he predicted, the market economy would eventually lapse into some sort of socialism or welfarism, with all the attendant losses of political liberty that the loss of economic liberty brings in its wake. In short, said Roepke, if you want freedom, you have to find a way for workers to stand on their own two feet again.

All of that is pretty abstract, of course, but it’s not without its practical ramifications, and Roepke didn’t shy away from giving us some idea with regard to how this might work. The centerpiece of his policy recommendations was this: Somehow, some way, the state needs to find a way to encourage the otherwise-dependent working class to invest in productive property of their own; more specifically, workers should be encouraged to buy small plots of land on which to build their homes and raise produce for their own consumption.

I really think Roepke was on to something with this idea. There are direct implications here for rolling back the size and scope of government, something that amounts to a conservative article of faith these days.

Think through this with me: Suppose I’m a worker at Corporation X. Suppose also that I own my own home and have a decent-sized garden out back. Now, suppose I get fired from my job at said corporation. If I were paying rent on an apartment somewhere, I might have a serious problem, but since I own my home I’ve got a roof over my head. If I didn’t have a garden, I might also have an issue, but since I do have one, I can quite possibly feed myself (and my family, supposing I’ve got one). I may not be self-sufficient in every way (e.g., getting gas for my vehicle, paying utilities, etc.), but it’s not entirely inconceivable that I could, I don’t know, sell some of the produce that I grow and generate some income to sustain me while I look for another job.

Now, if I can do all of that, what need would I have for a government check? For food stamps? For unemployment insurance? I don’t see any. If government doesn’t need to provide those things (even in tough times), then government would be smaller, and if government is smaller, the revenue needed to run government would be smaller, and if the revenue needed to do that is smaller, the tax burden could be smaller, and if that’s the case, then citizens retain more disposable income. See the link?

True, the real world is messy; it’s never this cut-and-dried. I’ve read my Burke and I’ve read my Hayek. But, to reiterate what I said earlier, I think Roepke connected some dots that we need to re-connect today. He’s definitely given us some food for thought.

I can hear someone saying already, “Dubya already tried to encourage something like what you’re talking about, and it didn’t end too well.” Perhaps. But maybe W. had the right idea, just not the right plan. That being said, I’d like to toss out a modest proposal of my own, if I could be so bold. Here it is: The federal government should offer income tax breaks for families which purchase or build their own homes on small plots of land.

Four things come to mind, which I’ll address only briefly right now.

1. Note that I’m not saying we should give Bush II’s specific policies another go because “they might work this time around.” I’m just saying that maybe we shouldn’t give up on his idea of an “ownership society.”

2. Note that I said tax breaks and not tax credits.

3. Note also that I said families, not individuals. Nothing against individuals; I just think that government should also encourage a healthy family culture. (There are some implications for reducing big government here, too.)

4. Note, finally, that this is an idea in (at best) embryonic form right now. And it may be a stupid idea, anyway. But how do I know, unless I toss it out there for discussion?

Well, there you have it, folks. Your thoughts?