3 thoughts on “Ownership”

  1. Before settled farming, when the first laws were written and enforced concerning ownership, it was only a vague and ill-defined concept – if not entirely meaningless. If a hunter-gatherer made a spear and used it, or prepared a dear skin and wore it, some suggestion of ownership might have been implied by his actions but most things within those small band-communities were regarded as communal property and shared by all the members. After the development of the first towns and cities about 10,000 years ago, however, the acquisition of land or property became common practice, so laws validating the concept of ownership needed to be defined and enforced. The Hammurabi Code of ancient Babylon, for example, contains many legal words, such as ‘owner’, ‘possession’ and ‘belong’, along with their implied violation, such as ‘thief’, ‘steal’ or ‘rob’, all of which evoked penalties such as ‘death’. These laws, however, were prescribed by authorities only after they had already acquired their possessions by whatever means possible, and had established themselves within the city-state hierarchy. Their motive for prescribing these laws might therefore have been to maintain the status quo through fear of having their possessions taken from them by anarchy. After all, there doesn’t seem to be any valid reason why anyone should own anything – other than their minds (and even that is questionable as they are now being abused all the time by advertising propaganda). There is no commonly accepted moral principle to validate ownership, unless it’s something like: ‘possession is nine tenths of the law’. How can one decide whether preservation of ownership is valid because its loss to the owner is greater than its gain to the thief, or because maintaining the status quo is of overriding importance? Ownership is an entirely man-made construct that seems to have been the root cause of more problems throughout human history than it has ever solved.

  2. John,

    thanks for your great insights.

    One thing I think is very very important to point out, and which you already hinted at, is this: The economic and by extension praxeological concept of ownership is fundamentally different from the legal concept of ownership rights. Economically, ownership is nothing but the scientific observation and recognition of a person’s control/usage at a given moment in time over a certain object in space.

    Thus, the hunter whom you are referring to above absolutely and 100% owns the spear at the time he uses it.

    The legal concept of ownership rights is relevant to economics only by extension, because people take care of their property in a certain way and have certain incentives when they have a defensible claim (=right) to it. It is the task of economics to evaluate the outcomes of people respecting or denying ownership rights. It is not the task of economics to answer the question whether or not ownership and ownership rights are morally valid. This is the task of ethics.

    And ethics does answer the question of ownership as follows: When I say “It is universally preferable not to own property.” then I am facing an insurmountable contradiction. For I myself am using property in the form of standing or sitting room I am using at that moment. I am also using my vocal organs to make that claim or using my hands and a computer or a piece of paper when I write that statement. So logically, I am refuting myself not only with most of the things I probably do on a day to day basis, but even in order to make that very claim.

    The proposition “It is universally preferable not to violently assert one’s claim over (= defend) property.” faces a logical contradiction as well. Because if it were preferable not to defend one’s owned property then that means that one should rather prefer property surrender to its protection. But surrender to whom? To a person who violently seeks to assert ownership over that very property of course. His intention when embarking upon the attack is of course defensible property ownership. But even if he were Robin Hood and was planning to give it to somebody else, the good would always have to end up somewhere for someone to assert ownership rights over it. So in order for the statement to be logically valid the violent assertion of property rights has to be sometimes preferred and sometimes proscribed. But then it is impossible for the denial of property rights to be universally preferable. But universal rules are the very purpose of ethics. Thus the proposition cannot hold.

    On the other hand, the theory “It is universally preferable to enforce property rights.” does not face such a problem.

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