Who should own what?

John Dunn

  • Property and Political Theory by Alan Ryan
    Blackwell, 198 pp, £15.00, August 1984, ISBN 0 631 13691 6

Human beings are very possessive creatures. It is, no doubt, not one of their more admirable characteristics. No one esteems anyone else simply for being possessive, even if they may envy the power which some accumulate under the goading of their will to possess, or may enjoy and admire the skills which others develop at least partly under the same impulses. To own, to have at one’s disposal, to exercise power over, are all marks of human effectiveness, just as much as the capacity to jump long distances or to sing resonantly in tune or to make compelling political speeches. All human effectiveness is effectiveness in some real social setting, drawn in part from contingent advantages and reflected back in the grudging or effusive acknowledgment of other human beings. Even possessiveness requires at least an imaginary audience. One might save prudently on a desert island, but one could hardly hoard there. However, while ownership itself can be enviable and in some circumstances even impressive, the mere desire to have seems to many today – just as it did to John Locke – a furtive, even incipiently criminal form of lust.

Disputes over property, and over the power which flows from it and flows back into it, are far from being the only major theme (let alone the motor) of human history. But for a number of millennia they have been increasingly thick on the ground. We may confidently expect them to continue as long as organised social life continues. How should we think about such disputes? How are they to be clearly understood? What attitude should we adopt towards them? Only an idiot would anticipate a clear and authoritative answer to these questions. But even the more sophisticated, if they take the trouble to think about it, might find themselves mildly astonished at the sheer disarray and bemusement of the accumulated human effort to find answers for them which are even superficially cogent.

This is the more surprising (or indeed the more shocking) since the world today is wired up very tautly, and very unstably indeed, into opposing systems of mutual menace, systems which amongst their other features possess the capacity between them to terminate human life on earth; and since the imagined occasion for this ludicrous and reckless depth of enmity is a disagreement over the question of how to conceive ownership. (This is certainly the Soviet view of the matter; and, however partial it is as a causal explanation and however grotesque the conception of ownership on which it rests, it is closer to the truth than a bland negation of it, expressed in the idiom of freedom and servitude.) On the less hectic stage of British domestic politics, more practical and immediate political choices likewise revolve around interpretations of ownership, its role in securing growing or diminishing wealth throughout the population and in allocating whatever wealth it does contrive to secure, as privileged rights of action amongst the individual members of this population. Both internationally and domestically these conflicts focus intense feelings. (Observe the mining pickets and the police lines on your television screens: the bricks, the smashed windscreens, and the applause that follows the cavalry charges. Note, a little later in the programme, the charms of daily life in El Salvador.) Ownership is not just a word (property is theft): it is, in all human societies, a set of rules and institutional arrangements which determines the allocation of rights to enjoy and use the natural world and the range of human products. Around its definition and redefinition, its defence, enforcement and subversion, there swirls all the myopic passion of human possessiveness: the hopes and hatreds, the loves and above all the fears which come to bear upon the opportunity to take and confer enjoyment, to provide for needs, to realise desires, to act out fantasies. One important reason why the casuistry of ownership is in such intellectual disorder is the range of the subject-matter which it must seek to bring to order: an intricate and endlessly refashioned external world, saturated with very poorly controlled human emotion, and still haunted by much of the tangled history of beliefs which have accompanied its refashioning.

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