On Property

23 Jul 2014

In a previous thought, I tried to argue that ideas can’t be owned because the accessibility to them can’t be controlled once expressed. That argument failed in part because my account of property was insufficiently discriminating. This is an attempt to rectify that.

Control of the access to a thing is without a doubt an essential requirement of ownership. Without being able to control how others access, use, or otherwise benefit from something, then any claim of ownership I might avow over it is vacuous. Say I declare that I own all the fish in the ocean, claim that others may not fish without my express permission, issue fishing permits and attempt to sell them connoisseurs of all things marine; but if I can’t stop others fishing without my permission, or sell or otherwise transfer those permits, then may assertions of ownership are empty.

So the term access that I’m using here has a very broad conception. In the strongest sense, it may refer to my personal capacity to prevent physical use of the thing. In the case of ideas, it also refers to my ability to prevent cognitive access to the thing and ensure its secrecy. Somethings however, don’t need physical use per se for benefit to be derived from them. In the case of a work of art, a concert, or the divine perfume of freshly baked baguettes, one doesn’t have to be in physical contact with the thing to derive benefit; access in this case refers to my capacity to prevent others deriving that benefit.

Tied up in this idea of access is the idea of deprivation. To control access to something means having the capacity to deprive another of it. If I control access to a house, then I can ipso facto deprive you of its shelter. If I control access to a concert, then I can deprive you of the joy from hearing the experience of witnessing it and sounds coming from it. Without the ability to deprive you of something, then any ownership claim I make toward it is normative rather than descriptive - that I want to or should own it, rather than a statement of fact that I do own it.

Which brings us nicely to the distinction of descriptive and normative claims of ownership. Physical things can be physically owned. This is a descriptive conception of owners, dependent on my ability to physically deprive others access to the thing. Physical things can also be legally owned. If a legal document say its mine, then legally it is. And physical things can be conventionally owned. I don’t hold any legal title to the shoes I’m wearing, but social norms and conventions allow me to own in the sense that others deem it permissible for me to deprive others access to them and even if I lack the capacity to physically prevent someone taking them - especially when they are one my feet.

Both legal and conventional conception of ownership are normative. They don’t describe the fact that I can control access a thing, but rather that others recognise I should be able to control access to it. Descriptive and normative conceptions of ownership may exist conjunctively or disjunctively. Ownership of physical things I may have physical control as well as legal title, but in other cases, I may hold legal title without physical control.

Take an example of someone who owns a holiday house in a breakaway republic somewhere. They may hold legal title, and many others may recognise that they should own the house. But if it is occupied by armed rebels then they do not own the house in the descriptive sense because they do not control it.

Normative claims of ownership are not descriptions of fact but rather agreements or arrangements between different parties. They may allow for access control and deprivation - via say the legal permissibility of police enforcement - but that is nothing more than a social arrangement.