I decided to visit a first-year friend on the 11th floor of Carman. I had to step over little heaps of empty beer bottles and pick my way past the tiles that someone had punched out of the ceiling the previous Saturday night. As I saw that and wondered why, an image from childhood flashed into my mind.
I thought back to a dusty, dry-season day when I was 10 years old. My dad and I were driving north, 50 kilometers from my hometown of Gurué, Mozambique. We came into a clearing, an abrupt change from the usual landscape of scrub brush, and suddenly everywhere I looked I saw the rusting hulks of decaying vehicles. There was a defunct T-55 tank, its turret skewed crazily. There was some once-cutting-edge farm machinery, a harrow, and a planter—East German make.
My homeland, Mozambique, has two great national holidays: the 25th of June and the 24th of July. The first is Independence Day. The Portuguese hauled down their flag, and the new government raised the banner of a free Mozambique (I proudly fly one over my bed). But the second holiday is Nationalization Day. Soldiers seized private property all over the country. The government—at the behest of Soviet advisers—imported Eastern bloc hardware to set up vast collective farms and labor camps.
Those brutal projects ended in colossal failure, in keeping with Communist experiments the world over. Across Mozambique, they caused starvation and left sorrowful piles of rust like the ones I saw a decade ago.
The fundamental problem with these grandiose top-down development schemes—and with Carman that night—was that nobody involved cared personally about what they were doing. The Carman hallway and the East German tractors were both collectivistic. No one had ownership, both in the metaphorical sense of being personally invested in the outcome and in the literal sense of not having tenure.
Reading Karl Marx’s Das Kapital helped me to understand how important private ownership is to give ordinary people a meaningful stake in the common good. Marx’s great insight was that industrial society could dehumanize, stripping people from their communities and reducing humans to machines performing brute tasks for wages. The system denies workers their dignity and creativity and gives them no reason to value the end product.
Marx infamously concluded that this alienation had to lead to class struggle to produce the dictatorship of the proletariat. But he wrote with sympathy of the medieval economic ideal of free peasants on their farms and artisans proudly united in guilds.
The best way to deal with the horrors Marx hated would be to craft legal systems and policies that ensure stable property rights while broadening access to property. Having a meaningful stake in work and community life heals alienation.
The great British author G.K. Chesterton helped me to see this. He argued in a brilliant little essay, Sex and Property, that “the man who makes an orchard where there has been a field, who owns the orchard and decides to whom it shall descend, is imposing his will on the world. He is asserting that his soul is his own.” There is something deeply freeing about owning your work and doing it out of love.
This vision of owners investing for the future out of love for their families is indeed romantic, but it has practical economic potential. The renowned Peruvian development economist Hernando de Soto estimates that the world’s poor actually hold $9.3 trillion in assets without having legal tenure. Most slum-dwellers in Lima don’t technically own their houses. Small farmers in Mozambique don’t have a right to their land. But if they did, they could obtain collateral, invest for the future, and know new security and prosperity.
Great resident advisers know the dividends of giving residents ownership over what happens to their local communities. When people care about their floor, they take responsibility. They don’t let beer bottles pile up in the hallway. I would love to see Columbians take ownership, from the level of each floor to major decisions for the University’s future. She is our Alma Mater, after all—we must care for her, not just spend four years here to get a degree.
And we must take ownership of larger problems, too. Our generation is frustrated with the reigning political discourse: cheap shots from the left about “inequality” and the right responding with the tired trope of “opportunity.” De Soto’s mode of creative thinking about poverty is all too rare. But we Columbians will go on to influence politics and economics, each in our own way. We have a chance to insist on tackling poverty with solutions that add to the agency of the poor.
I didn’t clean up those beer bottles that night in Carman. But I should have. I learned something about dignity, property, and community. And I learned to want to take ownership of my share in my beloved college.
Luke Foster is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. He is the president of the Veritas Forum and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Fridays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.