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New Worlds: Who Owns What

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“It’s mine!”

All of us probably uttered that sentence at some point in our childhood — probably many, many times. One of the jobs of parents and those who teach very small children is to inculcate and encourage the idea of sharing, rather than greedily hoarding toys and food all to oneself. But we’re not inherently selfish; children often exhibit a better sense of fairness and generosity than we see in a society run by adults. When it comes to considering who owns what, our economic systems are often not interested in producing anything like fairness.

Property as we think of it now is an artificial construct, because it goes well beyond the question of who has the item in hand (despite the common saying “possession is nine-tenths of the law”). We even talk about owning things that can’t be held in the hand, as with the previous essay’s discussion of land ownership, or Year Five’s dive into the topic of intellectual property. We can own certain rights to a thing but not others, so that many people each lay claim to a certain piece of the metaphorical pie. We can and do play all kinds of games with property, and some of those games are very different from the ones we’re the most familiar with.

When we talk about property, the type most of us probably leap to thinking of first is private property. This is a cornerstone of capitalism, the notion that an individual can own something — be it a consumable good like a loaf of bread, a durable good like a chair, real property (“real” in a highly technical sense, derived from the Latin word for “thing”) like land or a house, an enterprise like a company, an abstraction like intellectual property, and so forth — and, because it is their private possession, do with it as they see fit. I can eat that bread, or leave it to rot, or paint it as part of an art installation, or whatever I like.

Of course, there are limits. I may own my house — pretending for a moment that I don’t have a mortgage — but the law is still going to frown on me burning it to the ground, because of the hazard that poses to the property and persons of everybody around me. In western society, though, the ideology of private property tends to be deeply entrenched enough that we don’t place all that many limits on what people can do with their possessions. (Now pause to remember last year’s discussion of slavery, and what happens when human beings are considered property.) It’s not a sacred concept in the literally religious sense of that word, but it comes close.

Which — as an increasing number of people are pointing out — can lead to problems. What if the path to a bit of public land passes through my property, and I decide to close that path, leaving people with no way to get at the place they’re allowed to be? What happens if my land includes a waterway, and I dump toxic chemicals into it that then wash downstream to someone else’s land? What if I use up too much of the water, decreasing the amount my neighbor receives, or divert the watercourse so that it no longer reaches my neighbor’s land at all? Capitalism’s overwhelming focus on private property has contributed substantially to environmental degradation, as it often fails to take into account the effect my treatment of my possessions has on everybody around me.

There are, of course, alternatives. Here we start descending into a tangle of interrelated terminology, so for simplicity’s sake, I’m going to stick with a few broad types.

Having just mentioned public land a moment ago, we’ll start with state ownership. Here the property — often land or an enterprise, but not always; this can also be objects like production machinery or even state-owned slaves — belongs to the government, rather than an individual. This may be so the general public can have the use of it, as in that land example, or it may be so the state can reserve the use of the property to itself (or rather, its duly authorized representatives), as with a government-owned research institute.

On a smaller scale, people can own things together, rather than individually. If you’ve ever bought something from a co-op — a term you might associate most with local farmers, but there are cooperative large retail chains and co-ops in many other areas — then you’ve interacted with collective ownership, where the members of the collective jointly own the business and its products. It’s also possible, and common in some societies, to link this kind of ownership to a family lineage. In those cases it sometimes looks on the surface like private ownership, with the head of the family being the owner, but the difference is that the head isn’t actually free to do whatever they please: they cannot, for example, simply sell off a piece of land, because they are obligated to pass that land down to future generations of the family. There may be structures in place that allow the family en masse to agree to sell, or the property may be inalienable, i.e. can’t be transferred to anyone else.

Which brings back around to that notion of rights that I brought up at the start of this essay. Ownership isn’t necessarily all or nothing. To use mineral rights as an example: in the U.S., it’s possible for one person to own a piece of land in the sense of owning everything on the surface of the ground, and another person to own it in the sense of owning everything underground — which leads to interesting complications because you generally need access to the surface in order to get at what’s underneath. Or ownership can be divided fractionally, so that I own sixty percent of the gold mined from the land, while my brother owns the remaining forty percent. I might own the rights to exploit a particular mineral resource, but have my exploitation restricted so as not to damage the water rights held by someone else.

This is not only a branch of law so tangled and confusing that many people make a good living off helping laypeople navigate the thicket; it’s also a field that’s currently evolving in some fascinating ways. Non-fungible tokens, i.e. the NFTs that have been in the news so much recently, are an attempt to develop new ways to own digital assets. On a much less technological front, there’s a growing movement to recognize in law the rights of land — not in the sense of the rights possessed by the land’s owner, but the inalienable rights possessed by the land itself, like the right of a waterway not to be polluted. Our concepts of what it means to own a thing, and what things can be owned in the first place, are constantly changing.

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