Saturday, August 27, 2011

Rethinking property

Suppose Alison has been playing a game of solitaire, but has left the room. A little while later, Trevor, aged 4, notices the cards lying on the table and reaches for them. Another member of the family calls out, "Trevor, don't touch those, they're Alison's!" A straightforward case of teaching a young person about property rights, isn't it?

Perhaps not. The deck of cards may belong to the family rather than just Alison. And in any case, it's really not the ownership of the cards themselves that's the issue, it's their arrangement on the table. If that arrangement is significantly disturbed, the game will be ruined even if the cards themselves are not at all damaged. So why do we construe this as an issue of property rights?

I believe the reason is that we find it much easier to express property claims than to describe the real issue, which is respect for other people. Perhaps we might have said, "Trevor, don't touch those, Alison is playing a game of solitaire!" The trouble is, Trevor may not know what solitaire is, or what that has to do with touching the cards. In fact, it may not even be clear that Alison is still playing. Perhaps she got tired of playing, and just abandoned the game. In that case, the arrangement of the cards wouldn't matter to her—but more about that later. Suffice it to say that the complexities in this and many other situations can easily get out of hand, and we fall back on the simple formulation: "Don't touch that, it's not yours."

Unfortunately, we tend to get fooled by our own simplification. In the Western tradition of political philosophy, property rights have been a central focus, as exemplified by the writing of thinkers like Hobbes and Locke. Today many see the notion of property rights as a sacrosanct and even supreme principle. But this obsession with private property has its costs. If access to resources depends on ownership, then it is natural to equate property with security. This psychological dynamic plays out in individual obsession with accumulation. On a broader scale, our economic systems emphasize that continual growth is the only option. Considerations of sustainability are given little attention.

The limitations of the private property model are readily apparent when it comes to land. Suppose you own a piece of land with a beautiful tree on it. I own adjacent land which I dig up, and in so doing I damage the roots of the tree so that it dies. Similarly, if I pollute my land with toxic chemicals, they may seep into nearby land and water. If I dump radioactive waste on my land, even if nearby areas are unaffected, the land may be rendered permanently unusable. Long after my life has passed, my footprint on the planet may continue. Such considerations lead to ideas of stewardship, which have a long history. The notion that property comes with responsibility seems to be an attempt to mitigate the more anti-social tendencies that ownership can promote.

Of course in the short term, stewardship may be motivated by self interest. A classic scenario that examines these issues is the tragedy of the commons. Suppose there is pasture land where people take their cattle to graze. It has been argued that if the land is held in common, it will be overused and the land will be exhausted—to everyone's detriment. If the land is privately held, the owner has an interest in wise use of the land. This scenario has connections to the history of English agriculture and the enclosure of public lands, but the interpretation continues to be debated. Furthermore, the supposed wise use of a resource by a single owner has plenty of counter examples. Particularly in the case of non-renewable resources, the use is often anything but wise.

Let us now return to the case of Alison and Trevor. Alison left the room, but did she intend to return to her game? If she didn't then by leaving the cards lying on the table she isn't exercising good stewardship over the cards themselves. If anyone else wants to play another game or use the table for a different purpose, they'll first have to tidy up the cards. The ownership of the cards (or the table) is not the main point. Instead, the key issue is respect for other people.

More broadly speaking, conflicts that are framed as property issues often go far beyond ownership and involve more fundamental issues of respect, tolerance, and basic human needs. Our society's traditions, conventions, and language can easily corral us into thinking that property rights are supreme. As we go through life, and as we raise our children, we should keep this in mind.
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Anonymous Laura Grace Weldon said...

Very good points. I've mused over these issues in reference to society as well as children for years and agree that, as you say, they "involve more fundamental issues of respect, tolerance, and basic human needs." I find it particularly interesting how much attention is given by parents, child minders, and educators to sharing and equitable use of playthings. Two year olds are expected to share their toys, and when they don't, are made to apologize with feigned remorse while the adult world can't agree to share space on the road let alone essential resources.

2:37 PM, August 28, 2011  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

That's an interesting point about children being "made to apologize with feigned remorse". A genuine apology has to come from within. A pro forma apology is really more a performer apology.

5:55 PM, August 28, 2011  
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