The Importance of Ownership

The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property. (Karl Marx)

The system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not. (Friedrich August von Hayek)

The right to private property meant at the same time the right and duty to be personally concerned about your own well-being, to be personally concerned about your family’s income, to be personally concerned about your future. This is hard work. (Mikhail Khodorkovsky)

As the popular saying goes, reflecting a curious intertwining of temperance, envy and schadenfreude, “You can’t take it with you” when you die. So if one takes the big perspective on life, Thomas Carlyle’s “little gleam of time between two eternities”, we have no absolute claim on anything, even our own bodies, which some have understood to mean that there is no basis for ownership at all. Such might be the view of various types of metaphysical reductionism, whether of scientific, philosophical, political or religious complexion. However, the cultural mainstream of every society has always taken a more assertive approach to ownership – of land, persons, things and ideas – as central to human life in its multiple dimensions, the substance of this “little gleam”.

Yet, a young generation has arisen in the West for whom the dictums of Karl Marx on the abolition of private property are widely accepted as morally just, with little reflection on either the meaning of ownership, their lives in relationship to their own possessions, or the implications of individual ownership or its abolition for society as a whole. Nor any historical perspective, for that matter. The ancient Stoic tradition of oikeiosis, or self-preservation, reformulated by John Locke in the European Enlightenment as the rights to life, liberty and property, are the basis for the claim to bodily autonomy, frequently resorted to by the Marx-supporting young, unaware that the absence of these rights does not mean the end of ownership as such, merely the defaulting of ownership by the individual (and of the individual) to a corporation or the state. Think slavery and the East India Company, women’s rights in Afghanistan and Iran today, and mass starvation in every experiment with forced collectivisation.

You will probably be aware of the advertisement taken out by the World Economic Forum during the pandemic which stated that “By 2030 you will own nothing and you will be happy”. Naturally, there has arisen, as with all things that we learn of via social media, polar interpretations of what this means – whether referring to the idea of the circular economy, by which everything will be recycled, or a conspiracy by a globalist elite to impoverish and immiserate the masses – with denunciations and claims of disinformation from both sides of the divide. And, as with all such information, it is impossible to judge, based on evidence in the digital realm alone, whether one, both (partly) or neither of these perspectives is correct. Whatever the case, the issue of ownership of property is becoming a complex and contentious issue, intersecting as it does with issues of freedom, belonging, wealth, justice and the environment, that is, with practically every aspect of individual and social life, and so one worthy of serious exploration.

What is it to own something? There is, of course, a general definition, which is the legal right to possess and exercise control over the use of something, though this is often expanded to include different types of ownership, such as sole, multiple or corporate, and different types of entity, such as material and non-material. But it is the basic definition that I am interested in, which contains four key ideas for analysis: that of a legal right, that of possession, a presumptive ‘owned’ entity and that of control. Before moving onto that analysis, though, it is important to note that the definition implies a corollary: that there is no right to possess – i.e., have in one’s possession and dispose of, certain things for which no legal right exists (because such possession explicitly violates the relevant laws), such as other persons, stolen goods, illicit substances, categories of weapons and formerly-existing rights that the state has decided can be removed or overridden.

I want to start with the concept of possession, of which there are three categories of discernible interest. First, we can say it is to have something to the exclusion of others, that is something that others can have and use, temporarily or permanently, only by permission of, or lending, donation or sale by the owner, who has acquired it from its previous owner or owners by similar routes. Then, there are things which are the property of a creator, either tangible or intangible, which are possessions over which the creator has the moral right to assert ownership, even if there is no formal legal deed establishing ownership, an issue that might be contentious only if the owner is further asserting the right to dispose of the thing for recompense in the market. Finally, there are a group of things which are the property of the commons to which we have free access, at least in reasonable measure, from public land for personal consumption, such as fish from the sea, water, wildflowers and berries, firewood and rocks. For example, some people collect driftwood or pebbles from the beach or fossils from exposed rocks to keep as ornaments, or wood and water for cooking, with few if any impediments.

The latter case is, in some respects, the most interesting. Clearly, no legal right of ownership exists; in some cases, e.g., private land or where local bylaws exist, taking possession of such items might be prohibited. However, in general, the freedom to take possession is a limited right that is understood as a common pact established by tacit agreement among the public, on the understanding that this freedom is not to be abused. But this case is also interesting because it throws into highlight the question of what possession is when no legal right exists and when the right of acquisition depends on something as intangible as general public consent, when ownership is transitory and transcends the legal, in other words.

To turn to the entities themselves, we can assume the legal status of ownership or the common agreement exception without by any means exhausting the phenomenology of ownership. Consider the things we own can also be referred to as our ‘possessions’ and our ‘belongings’ and both these terms have a potential dual directionality. To take belonging, when we speak of something as our belonging, not only not only are we asserting a right of ownership, we should consider the idea that in making this assertion we are stating that we also belong to the thing, in other words there is an emotional attachment between us and the thing in question. We clearly do this in respect of another person when we get married: the marriage vow is unambiguously a promise of mutual belonging: “forsaking all others…to have and to hold”. And just as marriage is the foundation of family and extended social bonds, with far less gravitas ownership of property and things grounds us to place, time and a sense of social responsibility.

It is for this reason that radical ideologies, including religious fanaticism and politically extreme sects have railed against material goods and private property. For ideological movements rightly regard attachment to the world as leaving no room for religious fervour or revolutionary action. But even within mainstream religion there has been a distinct frowning on excessive attachment to the things of this world. One of the principal precepts of Buddhism is that desire (attachment to people and things) is the cause of suffering. Indeed, when we move to the idea of possession, we see a connotation of ownership that is more problematic, particularly in its bidirectionality; that is, not only a holding fast to, a grasping of something, but of being captured by the thing. Desire to possess can be so strong that we are no longer master of our feelings, which can wreak havoc in the world. So, in this case, we are right to harbour a certain scepticism towards ownership.

There is, in fact, a tradition found in the sceptical philosophies and their incorporation into some religious traditions that honours this emotive distancing from things while recognising a spiritual bond, which is the idea of stewardship. From this perspective we are never finally the outright owners of something but rather the stewards who are called to care for things in order to bequeath them to future generations. This has a strong relationship to the idea of the commons, discussed above. Historically, the common lands could only survive when there was a common consent to abide by the collective good, and also today the rather more limited case of the commons retains the element of both tacit agreement and shared responsibility for its preservation and continuing status. What I would like to suggest is that rather than being an anomalous exception, the common good is fundamental to ownership as such. By this, I am not advocating that property should necessarily be held in common, but that there is an important element of ownership rests on the idea of the common good, our responsibility not just to the present but to the future.

However, before developing this idea further, I want to sound a cautionary note: one reason why private ownership has proved so potent, including our ability to dispose of our possessions in any legal manner that we choose, even if that risks offending common sensibilities, is that the idea of the common good has too often been the refuge of charlatans and incipient tyrants who have arrogated to themselves the mantle of the collective virtue. Ownership is a form of power that gives an owner protection against abuse by other individuals and organisations including the state, in the former case by the laws punishing crime and in the latter by fundamental human rights. Therefore, in my view, it is insufficient to rely on a common good argument for ownership alone, despite the attractiveness of the concept of stewardship. There needs to be guarantees of the right of ownership in law.

Although the idea of property is as old as human settlement, laws governing the rights of possession only developed with sophisticated societies, for example within Roman Law. However, in Roman Law and forms of law deriving from that tradition, such as the Napoleonic codes common across Europe today, law is created and administered solely by the state. In England an entirely different legal tradition developed known as the Common Law. Under the Common Law, laws were created by judges, entirely independently of monarch or parliament, considering and passing verdicts on particular local claims, which then became precedents which applied across all of England. It was from such Common Law that private property rights emerged that were then carried to America and other places by English settlers. With ownership – initially this was principally of land – an owner inherited a bundle of rights, such as occupation, building, access and usage rights, which they were free to dispose of separately.

The system of the Common Law was the process by which judges in seeking the truth and right in the details of particular cases actually manufactured common consent to the rule of law, including the rights of ownership of private property. It requires common consent across all society, including the institutions of authority, to see ownership as foundational to the common good. That consensus seems to have been largely achieved by the mid-twentieth century in the Anglophone world, but since that time the state continued to grow and the bundle of rights bequeathed under common law have been gradually whittled away by central and local government regulation. Moreover, the institutions that provided some bulwark against the power of the state, such as organised religion, trade unions, civil society oversight, the sanctity of marriage and the autonomy of the individual and family, have either withered of their own accord or been actively undermined. This leaves individuals increasingly at the mercy of arbitrary government power.

Today the right of ownership established in law is not just a fact, but I consider a fact to be increasingly problematic. We are moving to a time when central governments have not just the possibility but increasingly the inclination to frustrate ownership (or the lack of competence to provide opportunities for such, which amounts to the same thing), particularly ownership that bolsters autonomy and therefore individual freedom, such as home ownership, car ownership, the ownership of one’s own information. Ownership does not only promote freedom; it increases both wealth and a sense of belonging. In this light, the exorbitant rise in energy costs, the imposition of increasing travel costs and restrictions, the insatiable demand for information and the inflationary rises in the price of food can be seen indirectly as an attack on freedom and solidarity and the creation of a dependent and compliant populace, something governments came to particularly appreciate during the pandemic lockdowns.

The most egregious examples of the authoritarian use of power to disenfranchise a segment of the population recently have occurred in Holland and Canada, neither example of which has received much media coverage. In Holland, which is one of the biggest agricultural producers in the world, the government has unilaterally decided to seize the land of 3000 farms in order to meet EU emissions targets. The alternative, in at least some of the cases, is to force farms to stop using nitrogen-based fertilisers, without which the scale of production needed to produce crops at the levels required cannot be met. That the government is prepared to compensate the farmers is beside the point; families that have been sometimes for generations on the land are being driven from their homes; moreover, food production required to sustain the population and economy cannot be guaranteed. It is worth pointing out that a similar move by the Sri Lankan government brought the country to the brink of collapse in 2022.

In Holland the farmers are fighting back. What happened in Canada, though, is more immediately worrying for the precedent it sets. While most countries had already ended the lockdowns, Canada was imposing ever more draconian rules governing movement and the ability of people to work. In response, a huge convoy of truckers set off across the country to Ottawa to confront the government by parking all over the city. Rather than negotiate, the government forced donations collected to support the truckers to be redirected and froze the bank accounts of the protest leaders using an emergency law created for an entirely different scenario. The freezing of bank accounts (no pun intended) should be considered the most chilling action, not only because of the curtailment of the right to protest, but because of what it says about the right of ownership. Despite the fact that the money you earn is legitimately yours, governments now have a template, and the possibility in a digitised economy, to control your access to it if you exercise your right to protest their policies, which is tyranny in all but name.

Admittedly, we are not there yet. But the pace at which things are moving towards centralisation of government powers, a ubiquitous surveillance society and a totally digitised economy, it could arrive faster than we expect. Can we seriously expect the amassing of such power not to be abused given the experience of history? Ownership of private property, including land, goods, wealth and ideas, are the most important basis of individual freedom and free societies, codified in the laws of the land. However, with the fading of the common law tradition and shared culture there is at present nothing which grounds the legal right to ownership except the whim of the state. Its rooting in the distributed acceptance of private property as a common good among a population is the only secure basis for the legal right of ownership, a message which needs to be broadcast with some urgency.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.


  1. This is an interestingly confused observation: “the exorbitant rise in energy costs, the imposition of increasing travel costs and restrictions, the insatiable demand for information and the inflationary rises in the price of food can be seen indirectly as an attack on freedom and solidarity and the creation of a dependent and compliant populace, something governments came to particularly appreciate during the pandemic lockdowns”.

    Energy, travel, data and food are all *private* properties: Shell is private, the train companies are not owned by the British people, Facebook and Twitter harvest your data and hold it as a private property and the supermarkets are private companies and the effects you object to are caused by their private owners not the government which has rendered itself powerless to do anything about it.

    Furthermore, energy, transport, information and food are fundamental goods. You can’t use your car or heat your home without them. Small businesses cannot function without them. But they are held as private property giving their owners not only power over themselves but also the rest of us – making us dependent on them.

    Your opening quote from Marx is a misquotation (and a misattribution). That sentence actually reads “In this sense, the theory of the Communists is….” because it’s just been explained that it’s not about abolishing the private property of the small trader or the fruits of someone’s labour. Rather Marx & Engels were drawing attention to the power of those who own and control things like energy, transport, information and land. But you don’t need to read or agree with Marx and Engels to see how those who have converted the common resources of the nation into their private property (and got you to defend their right to do so) have underinvested in the UK for decades, and taken the wealth out of the country. Compare with Norway, say, where oil wealth has been saved for the benefit of the nation – but you probably think that’s tyranny!

    1. Steve, thanks for your comments. Point taken; the choice of examples was a little scattergun, but they were intended to illustrate a sense I have that governments are gradually seeking to undermine individual autonomy and dissident voices and using economic and legal means to do that. Even if they are not doing that deliberately, their failure to ensure individual empowerment and the right of holding government to account is an indication of incompetence which amounts to much the same thing, which is clear from the energy policies that most Western countries have followed. Norway and the state of Alaska have both invested their oil revenues in benefits for their populations, which is admirable, as this bolsters the power of individuals. I have made an argument in favour of private property, which benign and competent government (in representative democracy) should favour. That is not an argument for neoconservative oligopolies and crony capitalism, which is what we are seeing today.
      Regarding Marx, I checked several versions of this. Even if it was taken out of context, that was certainly how it was interpreted by Communist parties around the world. Look at the process of collectivisation in the Soviet Union in the 1920s which Lenin unleashed a wave of persecution and execution of smallholder peasants (Kulaks) and the expropriation of their land.

    2. Power does not accrue to the holders of assets or goods on which others depend unless they have exclusive control, as governments tend to when industries such as energy, transport or education are nationalised. Data is an interesting issue as big tech companies like Amazon and Google appear to have developed effective monopolies but not in a manner which falls foul of any existing monopolies legislation. Investment banking is another similarly problematic area which governments have sought to address, albeit not altogether adequately.

      But historically there has always been a small number of economic areas where the market did not provide an adequate check on powerful players, as was noted by Adam Smith. This is not and never has been a reason to abandon the market mechanism as the best basis we have found to ensure efficient and fair production and distribution of most goods and services.

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