Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | July 25, 2015

Towards Clarity on Ownership

We need to think simply and clearly about what ownership truly is.

How is ownership established? We might think that we acquire ownership of property from its current owner — that we offer to buy it or trade something for it, the current owner agrees, the exchange is made, and now we are the new owner. That is not how ownership is established, but rather how it gets transferred.

Ownership is originally established by seizure. Property or the material resources from which we create property were, at some point in the past, not owned by anyone. The origination of ownership of that property was an act of fiat, i.e., an arbitrary decree. Someone, sometime declared himself its owner. Before that there was no owner. After that, he was the owner. No one else declared him owner, because that implies the party making the declaration was the owner, and then we’d have to ask how that party became the owner. The provenance of ownership is always a self-bestowed, arbitrary, unilateral right of confiscation of resources that constitutes them as our property.

Some might think that intellectual property is an exception to this, as if the creator is the de facto owner by virtue of creation and the creation is automatically the creator’s property. Of course this is far from the case. Through the 20th Century, creation did not constitute ownership. Copyright, contract, and patent grants did. Creators invariably signed over any rights to their creations to publishers, record labels, movie producers, or other employer. Over the last few decades creators have asserted their ownership rights citing creator status as an argument, which ipso facto indicates their status as creators was insufficient alone to establish ownership. So, both tangible and intangible property is established by confiscation legitimized by law.

So ownership is in fact indistinguishable from theft, except that theft is a self-bestowed, arbitrary, unilateral right of confiscation of property from a current owner, while the original act establishing ownership was a self-bestowed, arbitrary, unilateral right of confiscate resources that no one had yet laid claim to. The self-entitlement of ownership, the confiscation of the resources, and the consequent deprivation of others who now are denied rights to the newly constituted property are the same in both cases. The only difference is whether or not this was the first rights self-entitlement and confiscation. This demonstrates an intrinsic incoherence in the concept of ownership: We consider the original confiscation as legitimate, but we consider every subsequent confiscation to be illegitimate solely because it wasn’t the first.

This means that we consider the significance of the actual acts of entitling ourselves to resources, confiscating them, the consequences of these actions, and the resources themselves all as secondary to the issue of right of ownership of them as property. Diminishing the realities involved in real actions taken by subordinating them to an arbitrary concept this way indicates a lack of appreciation for the actual, intrinsic value of the actions and the resources in deference to a contrived abstraction. In this diminution lies the debasement of the realities involved and their effects on those against whose access to and use of the confiscated resources ownership was asserted.

As a seizure, ownership is an inherently violent matter — doubly so, because self-entitlement of ownership rights is a confiscation of rights, which rights legitimize the confiscation of the property owned, depriving others rights to it and enjoyment of it. We usually overlook the violence of ownership because it was done unopposed, so the violence wasn’t apparent despite being quite real; or because it occurred quietly, like a theft when those being stolen from were asleep or away; or because it was done secretly or it occurred too long ago to remember and so, out of sight and out of mind, no violence occurred as far as we are aware. Establishing ownership is violent simply because property was at one moment unencumbered and available with equal right to all, and the next moment was confiscated under a self-entitled, arbitrary, unilateral right, depriving everyone else of rights to access it, use it, or decide its disposition. An owner takes property away from everyone else.

Ownership does not necessarily have anything to do with access to property, use of property, or disposition of property (i.e., how the property is situated upon termination of ownership, either through gifting, sale, destruction, or abandonment.) This is obvious, because huge caches of property remain unaccessed, unused, and indisposed throughout most of their existence as owned property. Of course, rights to access, use, and dispose of property belong to an owner, but these rights alone are insufficient to constitute ownership. A renter also has rights to access, use, and by virtue of those rights, to effectively dispose of property, but these rights don’t make a renter an owner. Ownership is essentially the right to deny others any right to access, use, or dispose of property.

An owner might never actually exercise his rights to access, use, or dispose of an item of property, but his right to deny others from accessing, using, or disposing of the property is under continual exercise. Even if the owner never expects to access, use, or dispose of the property and makes no provision to ensure that others cannot in fact access, use, or dispose of it, he always and continually expects that others are bound by his denial of their rights to access, use, or dispose of it.

So access, use, and disposal of property are not fundamental to ownership, but are optional depending on the owner’s discretion; but denial of others’ rights of access, use, and disposal of property is mandatory, essential to constituting ownership. If an owner stops denying others’ rights to the property, he has effectively abandoned ownership.

So ownership is not fundamentally concerned with rights to property, but with denial of others’ rights to property. This demonstrates another incoherence of the concept: The ostensible definition of ownership in theory turns out to be the converse of its effective definition in practice. It’s easy to understand why we prefer not to treat ownership as the deprivation it actually is, pretending instead it’s a matter of provision, but the ruse is not rationally defensible.

Ownership at core is deprivation: a depletion of property available to all as the result of its confiscation by one or a few. Private property is the result of massive deprivation supporting minimal access, use, and disposition rights. The difference between private property and privateered (stolen) property is simply the difference between honoring of the original self-entitlement and confiscation of the property vs. asserting a subsequent self-entitlement and confiscation of the property that supersedes prior ones. The arbitrariness of this is yet another incoherence in the concept of ownership: Considering a unilateral, arbitrary action that is unopposed as if it were essentially different than a unilateral, arbitrary action that faces opposition does not constitute an essential difference between the actions, but merely a circumstantial difference. This problem is compounded by the ironic circularity that the mere fact of having established a right for one party supposedly serves as the grounds for denying exactly the same right to everyone else.

Besides these conceptual incoherencies, ownership is pragmatically incoherent as well. The practical consequence of declaring all owned property as off limits to all but its owners has the natural, reasonable, and unavoidable effect of ensuring that almost all property will sit unused by almost all people — even the owners — almost all of the time, ensuring maximal deprivation of enjoyment of access to and use of property. In other words, ownership is a recipe not just for wasting our resources and property, but for squandering them.

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