Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | April 20, 2014

Ownership — Talk About a Dumb Idea

tethered donkeys asses with hay

Ownership must be one of the dumbest concepts we’ve ever come up with. I really can’t think of an angle that our basic notion of ownership doesn’t get backwards.

So what is “ownership?” Volumes have been written about this. For my purposes, I like definitions that are recognizable and useful, even if they admit exceptions and aren’t airtight, because they enable valuable discussion, even if it covers only most (if not all) the possibilities.

“Ownership” is the right to control of access to, use, and disposition of property. If there are aspects of “ownership” that aren’t covered by that definition, what follows might not apply to them; but I think that covers the territory pretty well.

So what’s dumb about our concept of ownership? For starters: context, orientation, and motivation


The context for our concept of ownership consists of assumptions, ones that we were conditioned to accept through rearing, education, and socialization, largely not by rational explanation. These assumptions seem so self-evident that we’ve never seriously tested them as hypotheses. We assume that they are without alternatives. How we came to this confidence with so little critical scrutiny or verification is an interesting and telling question.

So what assumptions constitute the context for ownership?

  1. Control of access to, use, and disposition of property is necessary.
  2. Control of access to, use, and disposition of property is possible.
  3. Control of access to, use, and disposition of property is preferable to “lack” of control.

Interesting things happen when I point out that these are assumptions. People often react defensively, even really intelligent, well-educated people. What do I mean by making a point that these are assumptions? In other words, this couldn’t just be an observation — I must have some agenda. Of course I do: the fact that these are assumptions has deliberately and studiously been ignored, and I want to change that. Next step: launch into the many reasons why these assumptions are “true” or “justified” or unavoidable. That’s interesting; because true, justified, and unavoidable are characteristics that by definition do not apply to assumptions. If we’ve done the proof to establish them as true, they are conclusions, not assumptions. If we’ve done the work to justify them, we did that on the basis of other assumptions, so what are those? Those turn out to be very elusive, so in what sense has anything been “justified”? If we’ve done the work to ascertain that an assumption is our only option, it’s not an assumption as much as a given or even a necessity. But in fact, this work was not done, and ignorance of alternatives was presumed to be absence of alternatives. Even so, that’s not what’s really interesting.

What’s interesting is that people who most vigorously defend these assumptions about ownership have little basis to warrant any defense at all. In fact, they raise objections precisely because they lack a decent defense. Others realize how presumptuous this is. Unfortunately for them, proving, justifying, or showing how unavoidable these assumptions are puts them in a sticky wicket; because in order to do any of those meaningfully would require that they seriously considered the possibilities that the assumptions are false or that valid alternatives exist, and those possibilities are exactly what they do not want to consider in spite of claiming that they already have.

This quickly becomes clear when I prod them to explain how they proved, justified, or showed the unavoidability of these assumptions. The discussion quickly devolves into a rash of ipse dixit reiterations: why it’s “obvious,” “self-evident,” that “everybody knows” or “the experts say,” that it’s silly or ridiculous or a waste of time to question them. Questioning the assumptions or doing the work to prove, justify, or verify that they are unavoidable seems silly or a waste of time, almost as silly as questioning whether 1 + 1 = 2. If I press further, my motives and agenda get called into question, which of course marks the end of discussion for all constructive purposes.

This behavior is interesting because it’s the behavior of denial, not rational discourse. This is how believers react when their fundamental beliefs get challenged. This is why I believe brainwashing is involved in our concept of ownership.

Exploring whether control of access to, use, and disposition of property is necessary, possible, or preferable to lack of control is a worthwhile discussion, but it’s too involved for this essay. My point about our context for “ownership” is simply that we have not been intelligent about asking questions that would properly inform that discussion. We haven’t even been smart enough to recognize the questions, but instead have been uncritical and unthinking. As a result, we’ve dumbly accepted an inferior context for ownership. That’s just my opinion, of course — but so far it goes unchallenged.


What is the orientation for our concept of ownership? In this regard, ownership is incredibly dumb. In other words, where do we look for the information that we use to establish our right to control of access to, use, and disposition of property?

The simple answer to that question is: the past.

Why is that dumb? Several reasons.

  1. It predicates ownership on the least controllable, least alterable factors available. We can influence the present and the future. The past is immutable, except for illusions that it’s different than it actually was, aka bullshit, error, or lies. This immutability might in fact be an important reason why we developed our concept of ownership the way we did: once established, past-predicated ownership is very secure and durable.
  2. It predicates ownership without regard to the most important reasons for control of access to and use of property: such as advantage, benefit, progress, well-being, etc., all of which require foresight and planning. While those who ignore the past might be destined to repeat it, those who base important thinking solely on the past without regard to present and future concerns — or even worse, as determinative of present and future possibility (which is exactly what past-predicated ownership in fact does and, I believe, was intended to do: reduce the range of available options) — can hardly be considered prudent or smart, let alone wise.
  3. Since ownership is a matter of past event, it is considered a right or an entitlement. As I already alluded, once ownership rights have been established, it takes considerable and significant events to alter or retract them. This ensures a high level of unresponsiveness in control of access to and use of property, ranging from no responsiveness at all — i.e., ownership entitles me to do whatever the hell I want with my property without regard to advantage, benefit, progress, well-being, etc. — to extremely slow, often grudging, the-minimum-absolutely-necessary “responsiveness.”
  4. The kicker: we establish ownership from an orientation that’s antithetical to our preference once we’ve established it. Once control of access to and use of property is settled and secure, we concern ourselves with the present and the future, not the past. We monitor, manage, and maintain the property. We make plans for its use and care. Once control status is settled, we adopt an orientation to best utilize it, hopefully resulting in advantage, benefit, progress, well-being, etc. In other words, we establish ownership looking backwards, and utilize it looking forwards. Why the diametric reversal of orientation? If present awareness and foresight are preferable for enjoying our property, why not for establishing our right to enjoy it? To date, no one has been able to tell me why we shouldn’t use a present/future-facing orientation to establish ownership, let alone how our past event orientation is superior. Why? Because the question, dumbly enough, they’ve never considered the possibility.


What motivates us to own? Why is the right to control of access to and use of property attractive? Most people think that ownership ensures control over property, but that’s just a cover story. Without establishing ownership, we control access to and use of many things: the air we breathe; the sunshine we expose ourselves to; the ground we choose to walk on; the ocean or lake water we swim in; and the bodies we use to do all that. (Notice that we don’t exercise much control over their dispositions, though.) We consider interference with breathing, sunning, walking, swimming, and other common activities as wrongs, sometimes even criminally so. In other words, when access to and use of something are unchallenged, concepts like “ownership” and “property” aren’t even pertinent, and we don’t assume responsibility for disposing the things we accessed and used.

In other words, we don’t worry about the right to control of access to and use of property (or even consider it property) unless we’re concerned that our ability to access to and use of property is insecure and we’re concerned that others might interfere with our access, use, and disposition of it. We don’t even think in terms of “rights” except as a preclusion or rebuff of such interference. If there’s no challenge and no interference, we just access, use, and dispose of it, no “rights” or “right to control” required.

So, the true intent of ownership isn’t to ensure access to and use of property but to preclude interference by potential access and use by others. There’s a difference. Ownership isn’t aimed at enabling our control but preventing the competing control of others. In practical terms this is abundantly obvious: at any particular moment, most of the property owned by someone, somewhere on the globe is neither accessed nor used, but rather sits inert, available for access and use that no one avails themselves of. Ownership in actual fact does not ensure access to or use of property, but rife disuse. During the majority of time when an owner does nothing with his property, we consider access to it and use of it a violation of ownership, usually a criminal violation. Three things about this are dumb:

  1. It means that presumption of risk of interference with access to and use of property is fundamental to the very notion of ownership. Statistically, this is in fact a red herring, which would be obvious if this assumption had been tested as a hypothesis. As an uncritically accepted assumption, it’s subject to the same problems as our assumptions about the context for ownership. What if risk of interference with access to and use of property were a very small risk? This is actually the case, a fact that the insurance industry was founded on. Insurance is profitable because crime and accidents rarely happen, not often happen. What if risk of interference with access to and use of property were eliminated entirely? Would ownership still make sense? In fact, no — it wouldn’t and it doesn’t. Rental companies have markets for their services because, when interference with access to and use of property is eliminated, ownership makes little sense at all. When we know that access to and use of a car or a tool or a facility will not be interfered with, we would rather not own them and avoid the cares and costs of ownership, like maintenance and responsibility for their disposition (aka, sale, destruction, archiving, warehousing, etc.)
  2. Ownership addresses access to and use of property resulting in advantage, benefit, progress, well-being, etc., but only as secondary concerns. The primary concern of ownership, as already mentioned, is prevention of interference with access to and use of property without respect to the results of that access and use or lack of it. In other words, ownership is first concerned — which indicates most concerned — with undesirable contingencies rather than desirable potentialities. This is patently anti-progressive and arguably an inferior prioritization.
  3. Ownership as prevention of the access and use of our property by others guarantees that most of the potential advantage, benefit, progress, well-being, etc. that could be realized from the property will never be realized, because we’ve limited its access and use to an extreme minority of cases: when the owner accesses and uses it. (Of course, 24×7 business operations are an exception to this, so “most” in this regard might be more appropriate to personal property.) Recognition of how little sense this makes is precisely why sharing markets and exchanges have proliferated over the last decade.

Until now, I’ve considered ownership with a view to the value of property in terms of access and utility. There is another way that ownership offers value: status. Status is a strong motivation for some, though not most, to acquire ownership. Status concerns tend to be more prominent the wealthier a person is. When we’re concerned about not having enough to meet simple necessities, status tends to be less of a concern, except as a deceptive, social compensation method. So, simplistically, we could say that status is a concern for people who have enough or have a surplus, more so than people who lack what they need. We wonder why some people seem intent on collecting far more wealth than they could possibly access or utilize, but of course this presumes that access and utilization figure into their motivations. When they don’t, the status provided by excessive ownership is often involved.

When people engage in activities that seem dumb from the perspective of beneficial access and use of property, at least some appreciable value must offset the dumbness. When engaged in ownership to enhance status, I’d argue that “dumb” is too optimistic a characterization and that they’ve crossed the line into crazy.

And What’s So Dumb About That?

I’ve identified many ways in which our concept of ownership is dumb:

  • Our assumptions about the necessity, possibility, and preferability of control of access to, use, and disposition of property not only are just that — unexamined, unproven, unjustified assumptions for which there well might be alternatives — they are the results of indoctrination, not critical thinking; because we in fact do not want to consider the possibility that they might be false or that alternatives are available.
  • The orientation of our concept of ownership is ass-backwards with respect to maximizing access to and use of property for advantage, benefit, progress, well-being, etc. It’s past oriented rather than present- and future-oriented. This places ownership on the least flexible, most short-sighted, least responsive basis that we could imagine. Ironically, we establish ownership via an orientation that’s antithetical to the one we adopt after ownership is established. To enjoy our property, we do exactly the opposite of what we did to establish our right to enjoy it. No one has shown how a forward-facing orientation would be an inferior way to establish ownership, because no one has seriously considered the question. (On the other hand, Jaques Fresco and others have claimed that forward-facing ownership is superior, as it’s envisioned in resource based economies, for example.)
  • Our primary reason for seeking ownership is based on an unverified, untested presumption of risk that subordinates the ostensible reason for owning property — enjoying advantage, benefit, progress, well-being, etc. through its access and use — to a patently defensive, arguably retrogressive, and potentially immoral concern: prevention of access to and use of it by others. This ensures that we forfeit most of the potential value of most of the property in the world most of the time, especially when those who already have enough or more than enough accumulate excessive ownership, aka hoard, merely for the sake of improving their social status.

These features of ownership as we currently understand it are dumb. But there are yet other aspects of this situation that are absurd.

The dumbness above leads me to a conclusion that should not be surprising: ownership inherently conflicts with our best aspirations, such as concern for the well-being of our fellows, generosity, unselfishness, etc. In practice, when the implications of ownership conflict with our best aspirations, we invariably subordinate our aspirations. We have even been known on occasion (sic) to compromise morals, ethics, justice, personal codes, loyalty, honor, simple fairness to others, and even violate the physical safety and welfare of other living beings for the sake of ownership of stuff. Some of us even lay claim to ownership of living beings — including human beings — as if they were just so much stuff. Short of that, we routinely subordinate personal relationships with those nearest and most important to us for the sake of ownership of stuff. This is more than dumb. It’s insane, inhumane, demeaning, and abusive.

And what about our academics? With centuries of concentrated, well-funded study of things like economics, sociology, political science, and psychology under our collective belt, we’re to believe that “ownership” is the best they could come up with as a resource management mechanism? For shame. Or is the problem actually that our best and brightest never attempted to come up with something better? Or is the problem even worse — that many of our academics did in fact come up with better alternatives, but academia rejected or even repressed their work because it would have undermined a cornerstone of the very sources of funding for their institutions and ongoing work!? I’m not sure which is dumber — that our knowledge and learning elites opted (and continue to opt) for a deplorably inferior concept in order to protect their livelihoods, or that our society predicates knowledge development on systems that incorrigibly deny the benefits that could easily result from the very work they produce.

And the killer, the dumbest thing of all, is that for thousands of years (in some cultures anyway) we have limped along with these stupidities as if we had no options — even aggressively, zealously, and sometimes violently defending the belief that we have no options. We have lamely accepted assumptions as givens without serious, critical scrutiny, and in spite of all that, we still do not know why we have done nothing to change all this. There must be reasons that would explain why we settle for such an inane way of managing the planet’s abundant resources, but we don’t have a clue what they are.

That, my friends, is really dumb.


  1. I think perhaps the craziest form of ownership we have today might be in terms of trademarking taglines. I was talking to a client the other day who has a tagline for their company (a pretty common phrase) and they were wondering how to trademark it so that nobody else could use it for their company (or they would be able to sue them if they did so). I sort of had a blank-stare response. Hahaha

    • That’s funny! Yeah, we behave like our little cup of water is the most precious, important cup of water in the world… as we float on an ocean…

      I guess when all you’ve got is a little, it becomes a big deal.

  2. […] And You Thought the Titanic Was a Disaster… Towards Clarity On Ownership Ownership — Talk About a Dumb Idea […]

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