A lost sense of property

Property means several things to people. It has at least three meanings:

  • Personal safety and dignity: My clothes, my house, my money, my computer. These are mine in the sense that I need them to go through life and I need reassurance nobody will take them away from me. Actually I don’t own my house; I prefer to invest on my skills. But it’s the same idea.
  • Control over resources: My project, my team, my blog, my plan. I want to control these things. If I had a business it could be my business in this sense of controlling what the business does. These things are controlled by me and I want them free from interference so that I can pursue my goals.
  • The right to exploit: My shares, my invention, my song, my contract, my land. These are artificial rights that let me exploit resources, or the activities of others. If the thing is mine I can take any profit I can extract from it as mine to keep. This type of property is an exemption from the duty to share.

Only the first two are natural. The first is needed to have a society with human rights, although the boundary could vary. For example some people feel a strong need to own their house, and some don’t. But a desire for security of your immediate needs is universal.

The second right, right to control resources and keep them free from interference, is needed to form an advanced economy. You can’t build any kind of elaborate production or a complex technological product like a plane if you can’t control the resources and the activities that bring it about. This type of property is the necessary foundation for firms. Even things that appear to be free are based on property as control. Google services are free, but they control the site and it’s designed so that you keep visiting it rather than take the data from it and go your own way. Linux is free in the sense that someone could copy the bits and start a rival project, but the actual Linux project is well controlled.

Property as the right to exploit is different. There’s nothing intuitive or natural about it, except perhaps that it formalizes feelings like “survival of the fittest”. Normally, if you have an idea that is successful or as a group you produce valuable things, you share. When nature yields oil or fish again the normal thing is to share. Perhaps in these cases we have yet to discover how to do so in a controlled and equitable way. To these productive activities, property is an overlord. Property claims what would otherwise be shared among the people directly involved, on behalf of one or a few people who are distant. It’s no accident that most property of this type is indeed derived from lordship over land.

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