Ownership is the socially supported power to exclusively control and use for one's own purposes, that which is owned. Definitions of it are closely tied to definitions of wealth, private or public.

It is claimed by many (principally among the political left), that the exclusiveness of the ownership relationship underlies much natural injustice in the world, and that the social protection of this exclusiveness can result in tyranny and oppression at both the individual and societal levels.

Pros and cons of Ownership

There are many ambivalent consequences of the idea of ownership: a degree of it seems to be necessary in all societies, giving security of belongings to satisfy our needs. However, it can hide great injustice.

A simple example is where I own medicine which would cure your illness, and you cannot afford to buy it. Almost any known practice of morality or system of ethics would say that unless there are very exceptional circumstances, I should give you the medicine. But ownership allows me not to give it to you - it is always an "exceptional circumstance". Indeed I can have socially accepted physical force used (by law enforcement officers) should you try to obtain it without my consent. It becomes theft, a socially and legally constructed term, that applies even if all you "steal" is knowledge.

Some political philosphers see this ambivalence as a microcosm of an unequal world where many people are starving, and others struggle with the problems of excess. See social justice for more on this class of concern.

At a less extreme level, exclusive ownership tends to reduce the utilisation of capital. For example in a society favouring exclusive ownership every house in a neighbourhood may own a lawn mower which they use once a week. In a society which promotes shared use, far fewer lawnmowers could do the same job. On the other hand exclusive ownership tends to mean that resources are not destroyed through overuse, and capital objects are maintaned, since the owner has an interest in their long term future. (see Tragedy of the commons.)

Ownership and Communism

Socialism and communism hold that individual ownership of the means of production is detrimental to the public interest and in these political systems ownership of the means of production is held by the public. Countries with these political systems had nationalised companies under the control of government.

During the 20th century there was a general change of these systems of government (although they are still operating to some degree in some countries,North Korea, Cuba, China for example).

The power of ownership to exclude was, in some countries with these systems, placed in the hands of the state through state ownership. This sometimes resulted in millions of people being excluded from society (see Gulag, Khmer Rouge).

Societies Without Ownership

Some societies, notably some Native American ones, appeared to exist without the concept of personal ownership. Members of a society would feel free to take any objects they had need of, and expect them to be taken by others. When these societies were encountered by European settlers they behaved in their usual way, which led to the Europeans regarding the natives as thieves.

This can be seen as a complex irony, since the notion of "thief" is a European, property-related term, and of course European settlers were taking the land of the native Americans without discussion or consultation: the question naturally arises here of "Who was the real thief?"

Ownership and Economics

Ownership is self-propagating, since the more that a person can own or acquire through money, the more he or she will generate other things to be owned. Ownership seems to be central to economies in capitalism, facilitates economic development and increases prosperity.

Joseph Schumpeter predicted that despite its efficiency, capitalism would likely be challenged due to the alienation it created. Also, many would say that unbridled development is a great evil, leading to destruction of the environment and inevitable inequalities. See sustainable development for more on this.

Ownership of ideas or plans or strictly sensory works is always a complicated issue. Use of patents and copyright laws in modern society has introduced ownership for non-material things usually on a temporary basis. This is ambivalent also, providing reward to innovators, but also resulting in the often lamented demise of Napster for example. Contributors to Wikipedia agree to share ownership of their contribution through the GFDL, therefore allowing possibly thousands of other people to contribute to its improvement. See intellectual rights for a fuller discussion.

In business, corporate ownership is critical as it determines who controls the factors of production owned by that corporation and thus who owns the outputs:

Companies or organisations usually own factories, or more generally, the capital, and the materials used to produce. They hire employees but they don't own employees - they do however control what is sometimes called human capital or have some exclusive right to individual capital (creativity, talent).

Companies which issue stocks are officially owned by stockholders, CEOs are hired by them to run companies. CEOS themselves do not own the companies, even though they may have more control and involvement than the 'real' owners, the stockholders. Executives of small companies are often also stockholders.

Whether they make major decisions like mergers, or whether they hold actual stock, line management makes daily decisions, and may not be directly answerable to the "real" owners - sometimes leading to cases of management usurpation of the powers normally attributed to owners. According to John Kenneth Galbraith and quite a few other economists back to Adam Smith, this obviates and reduces many of the benefits of tolerating a system of ownership in any society.

Land ownership presents special problems. Exclusive control of natural capital, right of way or migration routes of food animals, challenges most concepts of resource and rights sharing. It is often divergence of views on ownership of land that creates what is called "class struggle" or what is called "colonialism", both of which refer to a power structure formed by a land ethic backed by some kind of brute force.

In classical economics there is an ambiguous position taken with regard to land ownership. Many theorists seemed to consider it a necessary evil, and argued that it could not be defended if there was not some obligation to keep and improve the land. Marxist economics was founded on, and continues to argue for, land reform as a means of social justice. In the 20th century, the idea of ecological stewardship led to legal ways that land ownership could be rightfully restricted because of erosion, pollution, biodiversity and other concerns - which reduced the level of what came to be called nature's services to all in the locality. And, property tax increasingly was levied to pay for "services" offered by the state, which could not be refused (such as fire fighting).

Collective ownership

Emergency response, biotechnology, nanotechnology and terrorism present serious challenges to the idea of exclusive control over resources or knowledge that may be required in some short period of time to avert some disaster, especially a synchronous failure which may be caused simply by timing problems.

As such threats increase in depth and nature, it seems likely that (at least) ownership of natural capital and instructional capital will be increasingly held by communal, and not by private, bodies. For instance biopiracy of native plant varieties used in sustainable agriculture are increasingly recognized as "belonging to" cultures or even ecosystems from which they originated.

Communalizing of intellectual rights and instructions is further evidenced by

  1. the 2003 agreements to let developing nations access drugs to treat HIV, malaria and other conditions, for drastically lower prices than would apply if they were to pay full patent royalties
  2. the patent pool by which China and MIT retain rights in instructions for the benefit of the institutions, not individuals, who produced them.