On Private Property

I just started reading Local Dollars, Local Sense, a book by Michael Shuman of Cutting Edge Capital about investing practices that support local businesses and local economies.  I bought the book because I was so excited by concepts Shuman spoke about today at the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts‘s Sustainable Leadership Summit.  But in true me fashion, I’m only 7 pages into the introduction before I’ve found something to disagree with.  🙂  On the plus side, apparently that disagreement was strong enough to propel me into blogging for the first time in months, and for that, I have to be thankful.

As Shuman leads into an explanation of why local business support is so critical to our future, he drops this line along the way:

The foundation for entrepreneurship is ownership. (p. xxiii)

Now, it’s my communalist nature to recoil at such a statement, so I thought I should be more open-minded and try it on before rejecting it out-of-hand.  I considered that I might be able to agree with that statement if “ownership” was defined very broadly in the sense of “feeling that you have a stake in and/or have responsibility for something.”  And with that modification, I think Shuman may be right – but that’s also not at all how he meant it, since he goes on in the rest of the paragraph to discuss legal impediments to clearing title for private ownership of land and capital that cause capitalism and entrepreneurship not to work properly in non-western countries (in his view). And so, I remain rankled.

I don’t disagree entirely that some things can be your private property. We don’t have to go crazy and communally share our clothes and cars and tools and every single thing. But the number one thing that usually comes up when people talk about private property – land – is the one thing I completely take issue with owning privately. Perhaps you can have certain rights to the use of land. Perhaps you can even own whatever you build on the land. But you can’t own the land.

The reason is that private ownership of land often implies or leads to a mentality of, “This property is mine, I can do whatever I want to it, and it’s ultimately nobody else’s business.” The problem is, that’s not true of land. While we enjoy drawing abstract lines on maps saying where one piece of land ends and another begins, those lines have nothing to do with reality. Even if you draw a line on the actual surface of that land or build a fence, that land is still intimately connected to the land next to it, and the water next to and in it, and the organic material on and in it. And none of those things care about our lines; they’ll come and go and transport other things with them as they please. So what you do on your land has both indirect and very direct impacts on the land everybody else uses, and it’s not just your business. The resource, and the actions you take on or with it, are public.

And quite frankly, that holds for pretty much all of the raw means of production capitalism wants to grab hold of. Land, water, air, organic, material, inorganic material: these things are common resources and we need to stop pretending that any of us can do things to them in isolation. We have to start thinking of them and treating them and respecting them as a commons, and making rules for our behavior accordingly. I’m all for “ownership” if it conveys a responsibility to care; I have no use for it when it conveys a license to abuse.

An even if we only want to talk about the products we create out of raw materials, we still have to recognize that almost everything we will produce is not going to be the product of one person’s labor or initiative. In our current concepts of ownership, we allow one person (typically the final capital or resource aggregator) to claim full credit and the vast majority of benefit for whatever results. That, too, has nothing to do with reality; besides perpetuating annoying conceptions of the “self-made man” that ought to get people thumped on the head, it also grossly devalues the contributions of the scores (or hundreds, or thousands) of people to whom the existence of that product is owed. That hardly represents a fair or just system.

If we want to lift up ownership as a key value for local communities, it needs to be significantly revised in our common understanding. If we’re going to tie the concept of entrepreneurship to ownership in it’s current form, local businesses and other owners will merely replicate on a small scale the abuses of their larger counterparts.

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