On Ownership

I had an interesting conversation with three friends not long ago.  They were trying to convince me that they didn’t actually own their homes, because if they didn’t pay their taxes, the government would take their homes away.  Hence, they argue, they were only renting their homes–from the government.

After thinking about it, I realized that, although specious, this argument provides an opportunity to examine the question:  what does it mean to own something?  I speak of this briefly in point #7a here, but it is perhaps worth expanding on.

First of all, there seems to be some confusion between “possession” and “ownership.”  While we often colloquially refer to stuff we own as our “possessions,” I want to use a more narrow, precise definition. When I possess something, it is under my immediate control.  Right now, I possess a guitar, and I also possess a book that my friend Will loaned me.  I own the former, not the latter.  Ownership implies a legal right, which, by definition, invokes the courts, the laws, the police–in short, the mechanisms of the State that exist to protect property.  My possession of my guitar implies a relationship between me and the guitar; my ownership of it implies a relationship between me and the State–in other words, between me and other people (many of them carrying guns).  These people are paid to (barring unusual circumstances) prevent someone from depriving me of the control of something I own, or punish someone who has done so.

This approach makes even more sense if you look at it historically. The question: what can and cannot be considered property? is something that each social class immediately redefines when it takes control of the State.  For example, when the State is controlled by a slave-owning class, human beings can be property, and the force of the State is used to protect that property.  When the slave-power is overthrown, either by feudal lords (in Asia or Europe), or by emerging capitalists (in 19th Century America), this changes, and those who lately owned property in human beings cry out helplessly against their property being stolen.*  And the history of when, where, and how land can be owned, and what can be done with it, is a long and complex tangle of culture and class that I’m not even going to attempt to describe in detail.

At the moment, we live under the control of a State run by capitalists, hence, property is defined in such a way as to serve the interests of those who exploit the labor-power of others in order to appropriate surplus value. The fight over the exact degree of exploitation involves conflict with the individual capitalist, and also, at times, with the State itself, when the State is forced to recognize certain rights that work against the direct interest of capital (the fight for the closed shop, the right to strike, civil rights, &c).  As long as class society exists, this fight will exist in some form.  It is called the class struggle, and, when carried to its conclusion, it is called revolution.  But what I want to emphasize is that now, and at every period of history as long as there has been private property and thus a State, the State gets to decide what property is, and what you may do with it, and when you may keep it.  It does not always get to do this however it wants, without conflict or contention; but at the end of the day, it is the State that decides, and it decides in the interests of the ruling class.

So my answer to my friends who say that they are only renting their homes from the government is: Sure, you are welcome to define ownership in such a way that makes that true, but, if you do, the words “ownership” and “property” immediately lose all meaning.  The only meaning those words have ever had, is to describe a relation among people in general, and between an individual and the State in particular.  The right of the State to define and control property flows inevitably from the interests of the class that controls that State (that is, after all, what “ruling class” means).

In conclusion, if you are going to discuss ownership, or property, be aware that you are talking about property as defined by a particular State working for the interests of a particular class at a particular time.  To even discuss the concept as a pure abstraction is unscientific and ultimately useless.

*ETA: I think my favorite music is the wailing of an expropriated ruling class about how their property has been stolen.

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25 thoughts on “On Ownership”

  1. I paid for all of your books (except one) in both e-book and p-book format. All of my e-books are loaded onto Calibre and if they have DRM, the DRM is removed. Some people say this is illegal, as I don’t own the e-books. I also buy DVDs that used to come with digital versions that I could load on my computer. These have been replaced with digital versions that must be downloaded whenever I want to watch them (making them unsuited for me who want them to be quickly loaded on my pad before I go on a trip with my grandchildren – they take hours to download).

    I can see how the Powers that Be would love it if we didn’t own anything – everything we have is rented, with the owners owing rights to them. Download “real” stuff as in Stevenson’s Diamond Age book – but not own them.

    Returning to the age when most everybody was a serf.

  2. If they lived in a state with a personal property tax, would they say that the only thing they could own is US Government bonds (because those aren’t subject to state taxes)?

  3. Without even considering a change in the form of government or the class structure, the argument that you don’t own that taxable property is false. Even if you don’t pay your taxes, the seizure is merely a way to pay off the taxes: assuming your property is worth more than the taxes, penalty, interest, legal fees, &c, you get the rest of the value back. The value of the property is not taken by the state, only the costs you have previously agreed to pay as part of the price of society.

    An argument as to whether property tax is a proper form of funding the cost of society is another thing all together, please prepare an essay for the next class, and include a spreadsheet with a breakdown of how your seceded quarter-acre of land will provide emergency services, infrastructure, education and safety net aid.

  4. The “I rent my house not own” argument seems to me fundamentally misaimed because the state does not care about your house. The state needs revenue. The state has been tasked to provide certain services; providing those services takes money. Your house is a large, common, easily quantified asset for which there is psychological precedent to tax. If the state did not tax your house, it would have to find some other choke point of funds to tax. Because for some reason, people do not like having a single point of taxation. Most people resent paying taxes, and so society engages in this rather odd game where government revenue streams are spread across a wide variety of sources: incomes taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes, sin taxes, property taxes,etc,
    for the purpose of psychologically disguising the total amount paid.

    It seems like the root argument is about the right of society (in the form of the state) to use coercive force in the face of the involuntary fact of human existence. So let’s have that debate, rather than going on about how one is only renting one’s house from the government.

    (This blurs over the fact that the use of varying state revenue streams is not entirely
    arbitrary, since different streams go to fund different levels of government, but even given that, the various levels have to cobble together cash from a variety of sources. In any case, it’s sorta ironic here that property taxes typically go to municipal government, the level where an individual taxpayer has the greatest chance of a voice.)

  5. It’s possible to argue that you own only what the government lets you have. Then in an anarchist society you own only what your neighbors let you have. Apart from that, you own only what you and your weapons can hold against all comers.

    I think I read in Readers Digest in the 1950’s or 1960’s that a greek philosopher said you truly own only what you can carry off on your back when your city is attacked. I don’t remember which philosopher was supposed to have said that. I don’t think I’ve seen it again anywhere.

    I say Steven is entirely correct, ownership is determined by the current government however the current government is set up to do it. To the extent there’s a ruling class the government does it the way the ruling class wants.

    So for example if you think you are married but the government disagrees it may jail you and your wife to keep you apart. Currently my state does this for incest, including first-cousin marriage. It used to jail white people who thought they were married to black people and vice versa, and it used to sterilize feeble-minded people who presented a threat of pregnancy or causing pregnancy.

    And the guys Steven was arguing with also have a point which agrees with him. Some people believe there’s a sort of absolute ownership. When they own something they think they ought to own it completely and have the absolute right to do anything they want with it. They think if you own land the government should have no right to tell you anything about what you can do on your own land or to your own land. But in practice this concept is not enforced by any government and so whatever they think ought to be the truth, it is not in fact so.

    They do not have the absolute ownership that some people think they ought to have. They only have whatever privileges the current government grants them.Or possibly there are absolute rights in some sense, and those rights get violated whenever people can get away with violating them, which is often.

  6. The state of New Hampshire has long made a selling point of the fact that they have no sales or income taxes. Usually this is in rather smug contrast to Massachusetts, right next door, which has both. But the trick is that in order to support the lack of sales or income taxes, NH property taxes are through the roof, and the total tax burden of NH residents is now greater than in MA.

    So do New Hampshire residents own their homes less than Massachusetts residents? I’ve known several property owners in both states, and from everything I’ve seen, the answer is no. For all its libertarian license plates, NH has pretty much as many zoning regs and development blocks as MA. The experience of being a homeowner is pretty much the same. What are the empirical effects of the supposed lack of real ownership? How could it be distinguished from just plain ol’ town laws? I don’t see a difference myself.

  7. I was one of those folks Steve was arguing with, and since I’m posting from my phone, i ask for forgiveness in advance for grammatical errors. I can’t seem to get Swype to comply with proper capitalization and punctuation at all times. It’s bratty.

    I have to admit that my side of the argument was that there is no such thing as absolute ownership, in part due to the influence of State. However, even without the influence of State, absolute ownership is impossible in a society. Pick your type of government, and pick your favorite economic system, and i will tell you why, in that society, you cannot have absolute ownership.

    It was a wonderful evening, and not just because everyone there had different philosophies about property.

  8. “…certain rights that work against the direct interest of capital (the fight for the closed shop, the right to strike, civil rights, &c)”

    Unions are one of those things that depend on your point of view.

    If you’re a socialist, they’re a first step toward control by the proletariat. Unions are a first step toward labor solidarity. Etc.

    But if you’re a capitalist, a union is only another government-supported monopoly.

    But of course a factory owner is a kind of monopolist too. Individual workers who negotiate with him must do so on his terms, and their main BATNA (Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement) is usually to find a new owner to deal with, typically in a more inconvenient location. One who won’t give them a better negotiating position.

    Capitalists talk like markets are good. The seller who’ll make the best deal matches up with the buyer who’ll make the best deal and they make some sort of arrangement they can both live with. If one of them is too unreasonable then he isn’t the best one after all and both are welcome to make a deal with somebody else. But when it’s a monopolist negotiating with another monopolist it isn’t as good. Neither of them has an acceptable alternative.

    I could imagine a system where one big union supplied labor to all businesses. Then the union would be the monopoly and the many businesses would have a big negotiating disadvantage. The union could supply labor and distribute the pay to everybody, with bonuses to the people who actually did the work. Since the union would have most of the money it could take over the banks and could finance promising new businesses. It could work far better than what we have, given good union leadership. But that isn’t what we got.

    Two ways to look at unions. The start toward a socialist paradise or just another monopoly. How do we decide which is right? Partly by how the people involved think about it. Most union members think of the union as a way for them to get ahead. Raised in a capitalist society they think like capitalists, like monopolists. But they could be leading to great results without knowing. So that approach is flawed.

    A second approach — are they actually heading toward helping everybody? Not particularly. It’s as if union leadership got co-opted into thinking of themselves as monopolist managers. (I’m overgeneralizing from too few examples, I don’t really know much about many actual unions. When the media spreads a meme and it fits my limited experience I’m extra likely to run with it, maybe wrongly.)

    Well, but I don’t have to judge. Maybe unions will help create a new and better society, and they might do it in spite of themselves even if none of their members intend to. Or maybe they will be no help at all and the new society will route around the damage. I don’t have to decide what’s likely, unless there is something specific for me to do to favor or oppose unions, where the short-run consequences don’t override my opinion about the future.

  9. “It could work far better than what we have, given good union leadership.” Pretty much any system could work far better than what we have, given good leadership.

  10. J Thomas, I think unions are a good idea. At least it gives the worker some bargaining power. Unfortunately, just as the CEO of a corporation thinks he “owns” a company (he doesn’t, he is just an employee), the heads of unions eventually think they “own” the union. When somebody thinks they own something, they feel justified in sucking out money for themselves, which they have not earned.

    It’s the same problem with all forms of organization or state. How do you keep the people who are in power from becoming corrupt? I guess the answer is that they must never really be in power (in the usual sense). Namely they must never be in a position to direct the organization to give them money or more power.

  11. It seems obvious to me that anything related to law is controlled by the State. That is the function of the State, to enforce the rule of law. Law cannot exist without a State to enforce it. Ownership is a matter of legalities, possession is a matter of fact. QED.

    Objectivists and some of the other more wacky varieties of libertarian like to pretend that ownership is somehow primal and exists as a natural right or primitive power of some sort, but that’s just fantasy; really it’s worse than fantasy, it’s antinomy.

  12. I have spent much of today at the Parliamentary museum here in Bridgetown, which includes the profiles of the Barbadian heroes honoured for their contribution to their country; it certainly underlines a number of the points you have made, not least the role played by labour organisers in advancing conditions.

    Should you ever visit Bridgetown, I think you would enjoy the museum…

  13. Jen: Awwww.

    Stevie: It sounds like something I’d like. Thanks. Unlikely I’ll be able to make it there, though. Because capitalism. :-)

  14. J Thomas: I’m not sure about other unions, but the union I am most well informed about, IBEW does much more than simply gaining its members more money (although that is on aspect of it). They also help to give members benefits such as paid sick leave, paid vacation and overtime rates, along with helping to keep their members from losing their jobs. Also, unions have helped convince the government to put in place several important labour laws (such as those against unsafe working conditions). Also, when more people in a profession are unionized, even non-unionized workers in that profession tend to
    benefit. As an example look at the hotel industry in Toronto and in Alberta. In Toronto, where 75 per cent of the hotels are unionized, the workforce is stable, and the pay is described as good enough to raise a family on. The effect has been that even the non-union hotels have to pay higher wages to stay competitive. By comparison, in Alberta, where unions have not gotten a foothold in the hotel industry, the picture is low wages, no benefits, and higher turnover. I understand where you may get the idea that unions are of very little benefit to society as a whole (if that is what you meant and I am not simply misinterpreting what you meant) as many people believe this and, perhaps some unions are like that, however most unions are generally very good for everyone in the profession that they represent.

  15. James, good post. I was an engineer at Honeywell and was not union, but the manufacturing floor was union. I got a number of benefits because of that. So I can appreciate the benefits.

  16. I have a new insight into something I’ve been working on for years, thanks to skzb’s original post. The subset of things called property has gotten a truly bizarre redefinition in the past thirty years or so.

    For most of recorded history (and certainly the stuff in the OP) property consists of physical things: land, buildings, apples, homes…. Now there’s this funny thing called :intellectual property. Here’s the brief genesis story.

    Article I of the US Constitution, which enumerates the powers of the legislative bodies, notes that Congress may. for a limited time and for the purpose of promoting progress in science and the useful arts, give to authors and inventors the exclusive right to the benefit of their discoveries. So, copyright and patents.The key phrases for most of US History are the limitations of “for a limited time” and “for the purpose of promoting progress in science and the useful arts.”

    Originally, authors were guys like Emerson and Twain, inventers like Fulton and Edison. Now the copyrights for most musicians are held by the recording studios, and it has been long since anyone working for a company actually held a patent for an invention they came up with. (The company holds those.)

    Patents traditionally have been for seventeen years. Copyrights were consistent with the lifetime of the author. Then a case involving a parody of “Gone With the Wind” got squashed by Margaret Mitchell’s estate. “The Wind Done Gone” — a recasting of Mitchell’s novel in the past would have been recognized as acceptable under the “fair use” exception which had recognized parodies. The court system, however, decided that even though Margaret Mitchell was dead, no one could profit from any aspect of her novel without her estate’s permission.

    So now a company, for example, can get an automatic 17 year extension on its original by changing an inconsequential aspect of the product. (Nexium, in a famous example, is now no longer “the little blue pill.”) Microsoft code is copyrighted for 99 years.

    The interests which this particular capitalist state exists to serve have truly invented a new form of property. This is significant, because the proviso of limited times for patents and copyrights falls before the concept of property. Property can be bought and sold, passed to heirs, in perpetuity.

    I can think of no clearer example of the definition of property changing to serve the interests of the capitalist class.

  17. I think I own the songs I write, but not everyone I’ve met agrees (and that has included both modern statists who say a song to someone else’s melody is not really mine, merely a derivative work — and a modern anarchist who disapproved of copyright as a statist invention).

    I’ve written a trilogy of (non-derivative) SF books and I think I own them. (See BLOODSLUT on Amazon.)

    I also wrote some roleplaying games and sold them as “works for hire” and so I think I don’t own them, even though the companies didn’t keep up their contract terms by paying me the agreed upon royalties.

    This is all complicated. People are complicated. Anything that establishes rights between some people and other people is complicated.

    I own my thoughts and my actions — at least to the extent that I am willing to stand up for them.

    –Lee Gold

  18. JP: That is a really interesting, and useful, way to look at copyright. Thank you.

    Lee: Hmmm…you might have just inspired a new blog post. :-)

  19. “Now there’s this funny thing called :intellectual property. Here’s the brief genesis story.”

    IP law is a chose in action, making it merely the latest incarnation of a class of property that has existed in legal records for well over a millennia.

    http://www.drukker.co.uk has a brief defintion that covers the basics: “…incorporeal rights [of] this sort may be legal and enforceable in a court … such as a debt, intellectual property right (for instance, copyright, a patent, or trade mark), or an equitable chose such as a share in a trust fund, share of proceeds of sale in the hands of a mortgagee.”

    I really did intend to stay out of this thread, disagreeing as I do with much being said, but assignable intangible rights is a fascinating bit of legal history that doesn’t deserve to be redefined for this conversation.

  20. “IBEW does much more than simply gaining its members more money (although that is on aspect of it). They also help to give members benefits such as paid sick leave, paid vacation and overtime rates, along with helping to keep their members from losing their jobs. Also, unions have helped convince the government to put in place several important labour laws (such as those against unsafe working conditions). Also, when more people in a profession are unionized, even non-unionized workers in that profession tend to benefit.”

    I didn’t intend to say that monopolies can never do any good except for their owners.

    Any monopoly can lobby for laws that might do good for various people. And monopolies can benefit their owners in other ways than just increasing prices.

    My point was that there’s a whole lot of interpretation involved.

    So I’d want to look at the interpretation the actual union members use. Are they more trying to bring about world communism or are they more trying to help themselves? Their actual intentions matter more than my belief what their intentions ought to be.

    On the other hand, they could all agree what they want, but their results in the long run could be far different. For example, the New York Stock Exchange started out as a declared monopoly, intended to enrich its members at the expense of their customers. Over the centuries it evolved unexpected new scams, eventually resulting in today’s system which skims a far smaller fraction of each trade than ever before. I doubt that at any stage the participants were thinking about the long-term consequences, they just wanted to increase their personal income in the short run.

    Even if no union member is thinking about improving society, still they might have that effect in the long run.

    I can flip back and forth between thinking of them as a potential force for positive change versus just another monopoly, and I don’t see how to tell whether one view is right.

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