From Volume 79, Number 1 (November 2005)
Use of the phrase “ownership society” to designate an end state toward which one believes that American policy should strive entails certain commitments. The usage cannot mean merely that public policy ought to seek to bring about a society in which some people own some things; we have lived in that society, without interruption, since the first days of our republic. Nor can use of the phrase contemplate merely a society whose law recognizes, vindicates, and protects property rights; again, that has been a central feature of our polity since its first days under our present constitution. To what, then, can the notion of an “ownership society” refer? It must refer to a society whose members are publicly conscious of the individual and the societal value of ownership, and who work systematically to propagate that value among themselves. The “ownership society” (“OS”), that is, not only recognizes, preserves, and protects ownership, but also it celebrates, fosters it, and spreads it. It is, in short, a latter-day rendition of that venerable American ideal, the Jeffersonian “yeoman republic.”
But making a society-shaping and enduring public commitment to ownership promotion raises several antecedent practical tasks that must be addressed both sensibly and sensitively if the project is to put down roots, flourish, and endure. First, the project must be conceived, articulated, and implemented in a manner consistent with the core values and political self-understandings of those who comprise the society that wills to be an OS. Where the society has featured multiple such valuational and political traditions over time, this task further requires that some synthesis of, or overlapping consensus among, these traditions be derived and articulated: an ideologically neutral yet nonetheless value-expressive language must be wrought.