Problems and Proposed Solutions in Defining and Defending Property Ownership
In my discussions with anarcho-socialists and others who question the idea of property ownership I’ve been thinking quite a bit about property, what it is, where it comes from and how to prove it. I am somewhat disappointed by the typical libertarian and even anarcho-capitalist explanations because I feel that they don’t do well enough to address certain concerns.
The typical reasoning goes like this. Ownership is defined as exclusive control and since “I control my body” proven by the fact I’m writing this I own myself. Therefore by extension I own the products of my actions or labor. Yet at the same time it seems that some libertarians, voluntaryists or anarcho-capitalists consider property to be a mere concept, something not derived from reality, but rather just a nice idea that is successful at creating harmony between people, so long as property is actually respected (unlike with the state).
So there are four problems I see here:
1. If ownership is solely defined as “exclusive control” and property as “that which is exclusively controlled” then if someone steals something he becomes the owner since at that point he’s the only one who controls it (exclusive control). This completely removes the possibility of theft occurring.
2. “I control my body” and subsequent “I own my body” and even “I own me” doesn’t satisfy anarcho-socialists because in a statement “I own me”, “I” and “me” refer to the same thing yet they tend to insist that property must be external to its owner. I think we have to do better than what we typically do (from my experience) to resolve this.
3. Why exactly does self ownership extend to ownership of things other than self? What is the logic behind that? Also, what happens if we stop being human-centric about this and look for evidence of property outside of the human sphere? This is important if such evidence exists because it provides a significant additional proof for property beyond the disputed “I own me” reasoning.
4. How can you at the same time say that self-ownership arises from a physical objective fact that you control your body and then go about speaking of property as if it doesn’t have roots in the physical and objective world and is rather just an abstract, but useful concept that we can dismiss once we have abundance and infinite resources?? Do infinite resources suddenly change the fact you control your body?
My responses to these issues, albeit they are to some extent a work in progress, follow.
PROBLEM 1. If ownership is solely defined as “exclusive control” and property as “that which is exclusively controlled” then if someone steals something he becomes the owner since at that point he’s the only one who controls it (exclusive control). This completely removes the possibility of theft occurring.
Apparently defining ownership as “exclusive control” makes violation of property, that is theft, impossible. Regardless whether you take by trade or just steal something, ownership is just transfered, as physical control over an object is transfered. I don’t think any supporter of property ownership actually means it like this so this definition fails to communicate the actual meaning properly.
The most simple alternative definition would be “the right to exclusive control”. However, I’m becoming quite vary of references to rights, something I’ve realized in a discussion I had yesterday with another anarchist (socialist type). To illustrate consider the moral of non-coercion which basically says that “to coerce is wrong”. On this basis we typically describe “not coercing” as right, yet it isn’t right, but rather just the absence of “wrong”, an unmodified natural state. In that sense “right” doesn’t even exist. Whenever it is thus invoked it actually involves a positive entitlement or a positive obligation. If we’re speaking of negative moral statements (“you should not coerce” or “coercion is wrong”), rights don’t exist.
Thus defining ownership as “right to exclusive control” seems faulty because it implies a positive obligation where none exists. All we’re then left with is a negative moral statement, but we don’t quite know what it is yet because we haven’t yet defined ownership. We have a scaffolding of a statement, which is basically “do not act as if you own what you do not own”, but we haven’t yet defined what “own” is.
So I would take another approach. Let’s define ownership by including every condition necessary for it to be in effect. We will then know exactly which conditions need to be met before we can proclaim someone an owner and before we can classify any particular action as a violation of someone’s ownership, or theft.
The definition I thus propose is the following:
“Ownership is exclusive control of object B by object A where object A caused the object B’s current form and position or existence in time and space”.
This definition of ownership rests not only on exclusive control, but on causality and a principle of priority which I will explain below. Therefore exclusive control is no longer the only thing necessary for something to be owned, but rather we also need there to be the closest causal relationship between an owner and the object’s current form and position or existence in time and space. In other words, you only own what you caused into existence as such by your own actions (or labor).
Problems with this definition?
There is one thing about this definition which may seem problematic at first. It’s the fact that action and reaction is a continuous process to which we know of no beginning (except the big bang perhaps) and no end. It could thus be said that a thief who moves a thing from your garage to his own garage now owns this thing by virtue of causing it to exist at a different point in time and space and if he modified it, in a different form as well.
Principle of Priority
The antidote to this problem however is implicit in the very definition of ownership put forward above and it is what I might call a “principle of priority”. In simplistic terms it is about asking the question: who owned it first? If someone already owns something then it is only that someone who can cease that ownership before another can take over. Overriding that would be theft as I explain below.
This isn’t any more silly than the fact that action causes a reaction. The fact that a thief moved a thing from my garage to his own and modified it doesn’t change the fact that for him to be able to do that I had to be the one to acquire it and put it in my own garage first. Thus his subsequent possession is completely dependent upon and predicated by my prior actions which is precisely what makes me into an owner.
What makes him into a thief, however, isn’t just the fact that his possession depended on my prior actions, but the fact that my action wasn’t the one that caused him to come to possession of it, such as the act of trade or giveaway. My exclusive control of an object ends where my stream of actions is terminated by the final act of disposal yet he terminated that control before me, taking advantage of the fruits of my actions or my control without acknowledging those actions and this control.
To take an example from fundamental process of the universe, the process of causality or action-reaction, it is as if a reaction happens without absorbing the energy of an effect of a prior action that caused it. It is like removing an “effect” from a domino effect while still observing the dominoes falling. Obviously, this is impossible as causality cannot function without both cause and effect. Every action essentially “pays” for the effects of prior actions the costs imposed by a prior actor in the same sense as a force that pushes in one direction pushes equally in another.
Thieves try to override that on a macro scale of human interaction by absorbing the effect without absorbing the energy costs of it. When this happens a natural imbalance occurs. The non-paid actor is diminished (which humans express as a sense of loss and injustice and frustration that comes with it) whereas the thief is enriched. But just like everything else in the universe seeks a state of equilibrium, so will the violated person seek reparations or even revenge, causing violence in a society.
Another issue that might be raised against this way of defining ownership is that it seemingly makes parents into owners of their kids because parents caused their kids into existence at some point in time and space. However to stop at that conclusion would be to fail to acknowledge the nature of an “object” that is a human being. Namely, it cannot be externally controlled exclusively and if you somehow created beings who could by some technological means (The Borg drones bred in an incubator?) they wouldn’t really be humans anymore. The nature that makes them into humans would not be developed.
Since this is obviously not the case with pretty much all babies born it is safe to assume that to the extent to which a child exercises self control it cannot be owned by its parent. Instead it is self-owned. It directs itself to its own form and position in time and space. This ties to the established ideas about sentience, sapience and self awareness as differentiators necessary to discern between external ownership of animals and external ownership of humans whereas former becomes acceptable and latter not.
More could be said about the innards of animal ownership however which would reveal more about these extents or degrees of ownership which is oppositely proportional to the objects capacity to exclusively self-control. I will just say that every object does possess some extent of self-control which factors into its nature as itself. A rock for instance exhibits enough self-control to merely sit in place and keep itself together until outside forces break it down or move it. Given the huge gap between control that humans can exercise over a rock and control that rock can exercise over itself it is clear why humans have no qualms about owning rocks and other inanimate matter yet have huge qualms about owning other humans and some qualms about owning animals.
PROBLEM 2. Statments like “I control my body” and subsequent “I own my body” and even “I own me” don’t satisfy anarcho-socialists because in a statement “I own me”, “I” and “me” refer to the same thing yet they tend to insist that property must be external to its owner. I think a defender of property ownership has to do better than what we typically do (from my experience) to resolve this.
The basic issue here is the assumption that if I AM me then I cannot own me that comes from the assumption that what is owned must be separate or external from the owner itself. From my experience defenders of property ownership don’t do a very good job at tackling this issue because most of the time they don’t even try. They generally take self-ownership as an axiom and then call everyone who denies it as crazy because they evidently use ownership of their bodies to deny it.
I do largely agree with this, however, but I don’t think stating this is enough if you really want to have an anti-property person understand property. Sometimes even seemingly self-evident “axioms” need explaining. What use is an axiom if a person fails to see it due to his pre-conceived notions. If many religions prove anything it’s that preconceived notions can make people utterly blind even to the most obvious self-evident realities.
That said, there are two questions to be asked here.
1. Does the definition of ownership require the owner to be separate from what is owned?
Let’s take a look at the definition stated previously.
“Ownership is exclusive control of object B by object A where object A caused the object B’s current form and position or existence in time and space”.
Identifiers A and B imply a separation between objects, but it is not explicitly stated. So if we would favor the explicit over implicit we could say that the requirement for separation doesn’t exist in this definition. Otherwise it would.
But there is another thing that is more explicit in this definition and that is the statement of a causal relationship. It could be worth asking if causality itself requires two objects in a causal relationship to be separate? Can an object have a causal relationship with itself? Can an action of an object cause a reaction of that same object? To answer that question we have to define the object itself. In other words, we have to answer the second question, since the object in reference here is the “self”:
2. What is “self” or what is “me”?
There can be varying ways to define the “self”. In psychological terms the focus may be solely on the brain and its chemistry, the headquarters of who you are as a person, mentally speaking. Physically however we may need to refer to an entire body as this is the vessel which you travel in and by which you are to a large extent identified and discerned from other selves. We cannot however refer to anything that is outside of a body, that is, which refers neither to the brain nor any other part of the body nor the entire body since we simply do not have any evidence that this is where “self” resides. Indeed, such claims are in the realm of the mystical and religious.
The typical argument by property ownership advocates does however involve “control over my body” so I think it would be reasonable to take that as the definition of the “self” here. We can now return to questions asked above:
“Can an object have a causal relationship with itself? Can an action of an object cause a reaction of that same object?”
The object referred to here is the “self” and it is above defined as “the body” and a body is actually consisted of a multitude of organs which are further consisted of a multitude of cells and then finally molecules and atoms. For this body to be alive and animated many processes must be ongoing within it which essentially represent action and reaction between organs, between cells and between molecules. In other words if we define the object as a consistence of many other objects then that object can have a causal relationship with itself by means of one part of an object having a causal relationship with another to in turn make the entire object be what it naturally is.
In other words, self consistence (the state of being formed by structure of smaller parts which harmoniously interact with each other) allows self-ownership. It’s of course worth pointing out that the same is true of all objects in the macro universe we are living in. Rocks are self consistent as well and thus self-owned. Trees are self-consistent and thus self-owned. We sometimes describe certain object by what we say to be its “properties”. This is quite interesting because as we’ve established here, it indeed has properties within the very context of ownership. It owns its properties.
We may for instance describe the properties of a flower to be its shape, composition, color, smell etc. Incidentally, the causal processes within a flower allow it to have these properties. These processes and smaller parts that it’s consisted of define the flower’s “self”. The flower thus owns itself and these properties as what it caused into being, consistent with the definition of ownership expressed above.
The objection that might be put forward at this point is that if flowers own themselves, how come we can own flowers. To respond I would refer to what I’ve said when I addressed the issue of parents owning their children which is the reference to the nature of the object itself. It changes everything. A flower may be self owned, but its ownership cannot include the capacity to consciously say no to a man cutting it down. So it has exclusive self-control only to the extent to which it by its nature CAN have exclusive self-control. This is also precisely why cutting it down is not a violation of its property. Its ownership extends only as far as its capacity to control does.
As an interesting side not, if there were beings so superior to humans that they would look at us the way we look at flowers, according to this they would be right in considering us their property because our capacity to own doesn’t extend as far as theirs. However the existence of such beings is currently limited only to the realm of pure fantasy. In any case, we are evolving and just like flowers we can strive to the maximum capacity that we can muster, but no further.
PROBLEM 3. Why exactly does self ownership extend to ownership of things other than self? What is the logic behind that? Also, what happens if we stop being human-centric about this and look for evidence of property outside of the human sphere? This is important if such evidence exists because it provides a significant additional proof for property beyond the disputed “I own me” reasoning.
I think that my answer to the resolution of this problem is dispersed in my answers to the above two problems. My definition of ownership is completely agnostic to humans and simply applies to “objects”, whatever they may be. The definition rests solely on exclusive control, causality and an implied principle of priority. When either of these conditions isn’t met ownership ceases. Control itself has a built-in limitation to ownership in that it only extends as far as the object in question is capable of controlling another object or itself. Human beings are capable of controlling more than just themselves and to the extent to which this is so they can thus own objects external to themselves.
There is also no fundamental distinction between the self and other objects in terms relevant to this definition of ownership. Both involve exclusive control of objects whose existence in time/space and form is caused such as they currently are. This fits a libertarian explanation of homesteading as means of acquiring the most disputed kind of property; ownership of land. The homesteading principle involves “mixing your labor” with the land which is just another way of referring to actions which cause the land in question to change some of its properties. A simple enclosure of the land typically does the trick and the more is done with the land the stronger the ownership case for it.
PROBLEM 4. How can you at the same time say that self-ownership arises from a physical objective fact that you control your body and then go about speaking of property as if it doesn’t have roots in the physical and objective world and is rather just an abstract, but useful concept that we can dismiss once we have abundance and infinite resources?? Do infinite resources suddenly change the fact you control your body?
This problem is expressed in form of the above rhetorical questions which by themselves illustrate the contradiction and my point which is the gist of my answer to such a contradictory practice.
Ownership as defined above relies on processes which are fundamental to everything in reality. Control is a stream of actions and causality is the relationship between an action and a reaction whereas an action is a cause and a reaction is an effect. The principle of priority which I derived from it also directly derives from a chronological nature of causality as we can observe it. Denial of priority would essentially be akin to the denial of time. So all of the components of ownership as defined here are completely fundamental to the functioning of the universe as we know it.
Ownership is essentially about the relationship between the cause and the effect whereas cause owns the effect. While causality refers to cause and effect themselves and the fact that they form an ongoing process, ownership refers to the very relationship between that which causes and that which is caused. To fully understand ownership would be to fully understand how a particular effect relates to any act within the causality chain it is a part of and to which extent can that act be credited for it.
It’s not too difficult to see how this applies to humans. We are after all a part of the same universe, the same ocean of causality chains. We have our specific natures which gives us specific capacities and therefore specific potentials to cause and therefore control and therefore own. To fully understand ownership as it pertains to humans is to understand how exactly does the effect (a particular piece of property) relate to all of the acts in the action-reaction chain that was necessary to put that object in the form it is, at the time it is in and in the place that it is at. Who was the first cause? Did he or she act to dispose of it? Who was the next controller? Did he act to dispose of it or was it stolen against his will? Etc. etc.
Infinite resources or infinite amount of desired objects never changes the fact that ownership exists any more than it changes the fact that the process of cause and effect continues. It merely changes the amount of value assign to the exclusive control of any given object and the likelihood that a dispute over its ownership will arise. Just because prosperity removes the distinction between haves and have nots doesn’t mean that what made them prosperous to begin with ceased to exist – the capacity to act in order to cause what is needed or desired, control the resulting effect and trade it in for effects caused by others – the free market of caused properties.