From Academic Kids

Ownership is the socially supported power to exclusively control and use for one's own purposes, that which is owned. Definitions of it are closely tied to definitions of wealth, private or public.

It is claimed by many (principally among the political left), that the exclusiveness of the ownership relationship underlies much of the injustice in the world, and that the social protection of this exclusiveness can result in tyranny and oppression at both the individual and societal levels.


Pros and cons of Ownership

There are many consequences of the idea of ownership, both positive and negative; the 'moderate' view is that a degree of ownership is necessary for the proper operation of society, but that it can also lead to great injustice if taken too far. Needless to say, there are also many people who disagree with this view.

A simple example of an argument against strict ownership is the case where person A owns medicine which would cure an illness that person B suffers from, but person A demands an unjustifiably high price for that medicine, which person B cannot afford. Almost any known practice of morality or system of ethics would say that unless there are very exceptional circumstances, person A should give person B the medicine, or at least lower the price. But ownership allows person A to set any price he or she wishes, or even to flatly refuse to give out any medicine, despite the fact that such refusal would lead to many unnecessary deaths. Indeed, person A can have socially accepted physical force used (by law enforcement officers) in case person B tries to obtain the medicine without consent. It becomes theft, a socially and legally constructed term, that applies even if the only thing "stolen" is knowledge (see also intellectual property).

Some political philosophers see this inherent ambivalence of the concept of ownership as a microcosm of an unequal world where many people are starving, and where others struggle with the problems of excess. See social justice for more on this class of concern.

At a less extreme level, exclusive ownership tends to reduce the utilisation of capital. For example, in a society favouring exclusive ownership, every house in a neighbourhood may own a lawn mower which they use once a week. In a society which promotes shared use, far fewer lawnmowers could do the same job. On the other hand, exclusive ownership tends to mean that resources are not destroyed through overuse, and capital objects are maintained, since the owner has an interest in their long-term future. (See tragedy of the commons.)

Socialism and Communism

Socialism and Communism hold that individual ownership of the means of production is detrimental to the interest of the majority of individuals (particularly the working class, as well as most of what is usually called the middle class), and therefore they advocate some form of public ownership over the means of production. This may be manifested in a variety of ways, from worker-owned companies to nationalized companies under the control of a state which purportedly represents the common good.

Socialist ideas have influenced the economic systems of most industrialized countries, to varying degrees. In the majority of cases, this has taken the form of introducing a few limited socialist elements into an otherwise capitalist economy, for the purpose of promoting social justice, alleviating or even eliminating poverty, guaranteeing access to education and healthcare for all citizens, etc. Nationalizations have been limited to "the commanding heights" of the economy (e.g. heavy industry) and utilities (e.g. gas, electricity, and so on). The policy of combining a capitalist economy with extensive socialist aspects is known as social democracy.

There have also been a number of countries, usually falling within the category of so-called "communist states", which have had fully nationalized economies. However, the issue of who actually owned the means of production in those countries remains controversial, because they did not have democratic governments. In the absence of democracy (i.e. when the people have no control over the government), it can be argued that the government forms an elitist oligarchy - and therefore, any means of production owned by such a government are the de facto private property of the oligarchs, not the public property of the people. For these reasons, as well as many others, a large number of communists (and the vast majority of socialists) usually disavow any connection between 20th century "communists states" (often referred to as "stalinist states") and the kind of socio-economic system they are trying to achieve.

Societies Without Ownership

Some societies, notably some Native American ones, appeared to exist without the concept of personal ownership. Members of a society would feel free to take any objects they had need of, and expect them to be taken by others. When these societies were encountered by European settlers they behaved in their usual way, which led to the Europeans regarding the natives as thieves.

This can be seen as a complex irony, since the notion of "thief" is a European, property-related term, and of course European settlers were taking the land of the native Americans without discussion or consultation: the question naturally arises here of "Who was the real thief?"

Ownership and Economics

Ownership is self-propagating: If an object is owned by someone, any additional goods produced by using that object will also be owned by the same person. Thus, the more a person can own or acquire through money, the more he or she will generate other things to be owned by him or her. Ownership is central to and facilitates the development of social systems such as capitalism.

However, it remains a matter of dispute whether the effects of ownership - and our present capitalist system in general - are mostly positive or mostly negative. See the articles on capitalism and sustainable development for more on this.

Intellectual ownership

Ownership of ideas or plans or strictly sensory works is always a complicated issue. Use of patents and copyright laws in modern society has introduced ownership for non-material things usually on a temporary basis. This is a mixed blessing, providing reward to innovators, but also greatly restricting the free flow of ideas and information (a fact which, according to some critics, will hurt innovation in the long run). Contributors to open source projects agree to share ownership of their contribution through licensing, therefore allowing possibly thousands of other people to contribute to its improvement. See intellectual rights for a fuller discussion.

Corporate ownership

In business, corporate ownership is critical as it determines who controls the factors of production owned by that corporation and thus who owns the outputs:

Companies or organisations usually own factories, or more generally, the capital, and the materials used to produce. They hire employees but they don't own employees - they do however control what is sometimes called human capital or have some exclusive right to individual capital (creativity, talent).

Companies which issue stocks are officially owned by stockholders, CEOs are hired by them to run companies. CEOs themselves do not own the companies, even though they may have more control and involvement than the 'real' owners, the stockholders. Executives of small companies are often also stockholders.

Whether they make major decisions like mergers, or whether they hold actual stock, line management makes daily decisions, and may not be directly answerable to the "real" owners - sometimes leading to cases of management usurpation of the powers normally attributed to owners. According to John Kenneth Galbraith and quite a few other economists back to Adam Smith, this obviates and reduces many of the benefits of tolerating a system of ownership in any society.

Land ownership

Land ownership presents special problems. Exclusive control of natural capital, right of way or migration routes of food animals, challenges most concepts of resource and rights sharing. It is often the divergence of views on ownership of land that creates what is called "class struggle" or what is called "colonialism", both of which refer to a power structure formed by a land ethic backed by some kind of brute force.

In classical economics there is an ambiguous position taken with regard to land ownership. Many theorists seemed to consider it a necessary evil, and argued that it could not be defended if there was not some obligation to keep and improve the land. Marxist economics was founded on, and continues to argue for, land reform as a means of social justice. Also, both Marxist and anarchist theories of ownership agree on the idea that private ownership of land is illegitimate, since the land was not created by any human beings, and most property over land was originally established through the use of brute force. In the 20th century, the idea of ecological stewardship led to legal ways that land ownership could be rightfully restricted because of erosion, pollution, biodiversity and other concerns - which reduced the level of what came to be called nature's services to all in the locality. In addition, property tax increasingly was levied to pay for services offered by the state, which could not be refused (such as fire fighting).

Collective ownership

Emergency response, biotechnology, nanotechnology and terrorism present serious challenges to the idea of exclusive control over resources or knowledge that may be required in some short period of time to avert some disaster, especially a synchronous failure which may be caused simply by timing problems.

As such threats increase in depth and nature, it seems likely that (at least) ownership of natural capital and instructional capital will be increasingly held by communal, and not by private, bodies. For instance biopiracy of native plant varieties used in sustainable agriculture are increasingly recognized as "belonging to" cultures or even ecosystems from which they originated.

Communalizing of intellectual rights and instructions is further evidenced by

  1. the 2003 agreements to let developing nations access drugs to treat HIV, malaria and other conditions, for drastically lower prices than would apply if they were to pay full patent royalties
  2. the patent pool by which China and MIT retain rights in instructions for the benefit of the institutions, not individuals, who produced them.

See also


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