What is ownership?

It is easy to come to the conclusion that ownership is a concept which is often taken for granted, as though it were something self-obvious; however, if one considers this matter for some time, it is in fact not by any means straightforward.

Before we consider what a person deserves to own (which is an essential question for the philosophy of economics), we must determine what ownership itself is. To that end, let us consider an individual on an island by themselves. Such a person would not have any need for ‘ownership.’ They would simply do what they chose with any item that they had to hand.

But now suppose that there are two people, A and B, on the island. What does person A mean when they say ‘That stick belongs to B?’ Is it not simply that they will let B do whatever they please with that stick, and not try to hinder them, and also that they will not use the stick themselves without asking B’s permission first? Of course, there may be some limits on this. For example, if the stick is essential for the survival of the two people, person A may grant that it belongs to B, but deny person B the right to destroy the stick. So, ‘ownership’ can sometimes not mean granting the owner total control over the item.

Now suppose that we have an entire community upon the island. What do they mean if they agree that a given object belongs to person B? Well, they mean that B can do what they want with that item (again, perhaps with some exceptions, if that item is essential to survival), and that the others agree not to use the item without B’s permission. Furthermore, they agree that should someone dissent from this agreement, and try to prevent B from using the object, or try to use the object without B’s permission, then the rest of the community will protect B’s control over the object.

Therefore, ownership is a grant to a certain authority, given to an individual or group by the community at large. It is not a simply personal matter, as for example some libertarians may claim. I will detail just a few consequences of this thesis:

  1. Ownership, being a grant of authority made by the community, is something in which the community as an whole has an interest.
  2. Other types of authority are not necessarily transferable. If the community grants a certain person the authority of town mayor, that person cannot arbitrarily decide to give this authority to someone else. By analogy, it is perfectly valid for the community to make rules regarding when one person can transfer ownership to another person, since a transfer of possession is a transfer of community-granted authority. For example, it may be that the community chooses to permit such transfers provided that certain taxes are paid. By this same token, why should children necessarily get all their parents’ goods upon the death of the latter? That is akin to the familial descent of power, which is generally frowned upon.
  3. It is agreed about most types of authority that too much authority should never be permitted to reside under the control of any single individual or small group. For example, in the United States, a person cannot simultaneously hold too many political offices, and no single political office has overly extensive authority. Making such rules to limit the total ownership that a single individual can obtain is not, in principle, any different. Such limitations are even consistent with many libertarian principles, from this perspective upon ownership (as an aside, this view of ownership should be compared to certain libertarian perspectives upon land ownership, which reject permanent land ownership and refer to the latter as ‘royal libertarians’ or something like that).*
  4. Taxation is definitively not theft, because, again, ownership is a grant of authority by the community. This includes, of course, ownership of money.
  5. Investors are rather akin to moochers upon society, since they do nothing except allow others to use something over which they have authority, but of which they make no use, and in exchange expect an increase in their own authority.
  6. Wealth is power; not in the sense of a complete equality between these concepts, but in the sense that wealth is a type of power granted by the community.
  7. An economic system is a system for distributing power, and like any other system for distributing power, it should be built upon the twin principles of individual self-autonomy and the benefit and opportunity for maximal cultural and intellectual development of all individuals in the community.

Note: Deliberately, there are no arguments for these points. The reader should consider this an outline, whose intent is in large part to stimulate critical thought upon the nature of ownership, although the author does hold all the points stated herein. However, a full argument of these points could be the topic of an entire book. Such a book would also benefit from extensively expanding upon point 7 above, and discussing how best to maximize the potential of all individuals through the distribution of power.


*The author does not actually hold that there should be a specific wealth limit, at least not until we reach the level of, say, today’s billionaires, but does hold that a tax rate should be implemented which increases towards 100% as income increases to infinity, with the property that the post-tax income still will increase towards infinity. Such a tax rate should be constructable. For example, after the first million, the post-tax income could be 1000000/n for the n-th million (thus 500000 for the 2nd million, and so on). This sum diverges, as is well known. It may be possible to let the overall tax rate be a smooth function, perhaps even analytic, but this is not essential.


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