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"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains," wrote the 17th-century political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He blamed civilization for this lamentable state of affairs, and he thought he knew why. A century before Marx, he declared that ownership of property resulted in inequality, poverty and a host of other social ills, including war and murder. He wrote, "The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying This is mine, and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” Rousseau warned that “you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody."

Rousseau influenced both the American and the French Revolutions, but his ideas on the ownership of property did not get a real test until the Russian Revolution. The results were found wanting, although it might be argued that the Soviets did not so much eliminate private property as transfer it from landed aristocrats to a privileged political class. This was accomplished through murder, imprisonment and starvation on a scale rivaled only by the Nazis in Germany and later by the Chinese Communist Party. The Soviet experiment lasted less than 75 years. In its later stages, the Communist Party boss, Leonid Brezhnev, boasted a private collection of limousines that was even larger than the one belonging to Czar Nicholas II, another luxury car buff.

The problem with trying to eliminate private ownership is that we start in the wrong place. The reason that the first man enclosed a piece of ground and called it mine is that he had already enclosed himself and called it me. The concept of private property is merely an extension of this most fundamental relationship to the world. As any developmental psychologist will tell you, we do not come into the world with an innate sense of self. It takes a couple of years to develop a psyche separate from our mother and to stake out our own boundaries. Soon after, we begin to grab everything in sight and only gradually learn the social skills that make us fit company for others, such as sharing and taking turns.

As a collective enterprise, eliminating ownership of property may be a bit ahead of the game. We would be making giant strides just to get most people to share and to take turns on a consistent basis. As a start, however, we might take a look at the personal domain that is created when we stake out boundaries between ourselves and the world.

I am not suggesting we eliminate our personal identity, which is a practical necessity, only the sense of ownership that usually accompanies it. We may say that an actor owns a certain part, yet no matter how fully he inhabits his role, he does not go home at night believing himself to be the person he plays on stage. That is the chief difference between an actor and ourselves. Most of us are so lost in the part we play that we don’t realize that the character who answers to the name of me is essentially a phantom. There is a human being there, of course, but the self that supposedly animates this creature is a figment of the imagination. The body is real; even the thoughts that pop into our heads are real. It’s just that there is nobody behind the scenes stringing the thoughts together to form a self. Once we surrender ownership of our thoughts, the self disappears and along with it any boundaries with the world. This is what Hermes Trismegistos was getting at when he said, "He who knows himself, knows the All." Henceforth, when you look upon the world, you know it is all me but never mine.

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