Why are Property and Ownership So Important?

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“Thou Shalt Not Steal” is found almost universally at the core of religious commandments and secular legal systems. The implication of this is that property, and property ownership, are universally considered to be of central importance. And not just in legal systems, but also in religions.

Why is property ownership so important that respect for it is enshrined as a basic tenet of Human society?

Ownership only begins to take on importance when there is scarcity involved.

We typically don’t worry about who owns the air we breathe. Air is obviously important, but as long as there is plenty for everyone, and your breathing does not reduce the amount of air available for me to breathe, then we don’t have to worry about who owns what air.

The easiest way to illustrate how the issue of scarcity leads to the concept of property and ownership is to use a typical ‘Robinson Crusoe on a desert island’ scenario.

Shipwrecked and alone on a deserted island, Crusoe would have faced a severe scarcity of modern supplies and tools. But he still had no need to worry about whose property the remaining food supplies and tools were. Because there was no one else on the island, there was no one whose usage of the supplies would impact Crusoe’s usage.

It is only when another man, Friday, arrives on the island that the issue of property might arise. For then there might be a conflict over scarce resources. Property rights serve as a means to prevent conflict over scarce items.

The structure of the property rights in this case could take a variety of forms:

  • Crusoe could maintain full ownership rights to the scarce supplies and declare that they are for his use only.
  • Crusoe could maintain full ownership rights to the scarce supplies and make all of the decisions, himself, as to how much to share them with Friday.
  • Crusoe could give ownership of some portion of the supplies to Friday, giving Friday full control over those specific supplies.
  • Crusoe could agree to share ownership of the supplies with Friday, based on mutually agreed upon rules as to how supplies would be allocated by the two men.
  • Or, the scarce supplies could be considered the property of no one, and therefore under the control of neither man.

The final option, above, assigning communal rights to the supplies so that no one owns them sounds nice. It fits nicely with the sentiment in John Lennon’s beautiful song, “Imagine“…

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

Unfortunately, “no possessions”, meaning no person owns or controls the property, doesn’t mean no person makes decisions about the property.

If neither Crusoe or Friday owns the scarce supplies, it means that each of them can decide what to do with them.

Crusoe, who has found ways to survive on local foods, might want to continue to ration the modern supplies or keep them for emergencies.

Friday might be weak and starving from the mishap that landed him on the island, and decide that he needs to consume the supplies now to regain his strength.

If Friday does start to rapidly consume the remaining supplies, what would Crusoe do? If it starts to look like there may soon be no supplies for him to save or ration, he may decide he has to consume whatever he can before Friday finishes all of it.

This scenario, which often plays out when there is ‘community property’ (scarce resources with no owner) has been called ‘The Tragedy of the Commons‘ by ecologist Garrett Hardin…

The tragedy of the commons is a dilemma arising from the situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen.

So,having clear ownership of resources is important, even when the plan is for them to be shared by everyone.

Other examples of the problem with ‘no possessions’ are pretty easy to come up with.

Suppose strangers off the street started living in your house? That would be okay, since there would really be no such thing as ‘your’ house. Or your car. Or your money.

It’s hard to imagine a functioning real-life society with no property rights, no possessions.

John Lennon’s goal is a good one…


No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

…but possessions are not the problem.

Respect for possessions, ownership, is a core requirement for a functioning society. And only a functioning society could become the kind of brotherhood of man that John Lennon envisioned.

 

4 thoughts on “Why are Property and Ownership So Important?

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