Imagine no possessions

“Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man”

      -John Lennon

In the “Ethicist” column of this week’s New York Times Magazine a reader asked whether stealing is unethical. I found the answer by the columnist Chuck Klosterman to be unsatisfying. Here is the core part of his response:

“Can objects truly be ‘owned’ by someone, or is this just a word we use to describe an unreal proviso? The more you think about that question, the more complicated it becomes. But it ultimately doesn’t matter, because we’ve collectively decided to live as though ownership is real. We believe our possessions are extensions of ourselves. So if stealing were an acceptable practice — if we lived in a world in which people just took whatever they wanted, simply because there was no clear argument for doing otherwise — our lives would be consumed by anxiety. We would live in constant fear and spend all our energy protecting our possessions. Traveling would become impossible, because we couldn’t go anywhere without bringing along everything we owned. People would be less motivated to create things, because they would have no way of stopping others from taking away those creations. Violence would increase exponentially.”

It seems to me that this is a shallow and incomplete view of the question. After Klosterman says “if we lived in a world in which people just took whatever they wanted”, he does not really follow the full implications of his own premise.

One could at least posit economies that function without ownership. This has been done a number of times in speculative literature, two notable examples being Skinner’s “Walden Two” and Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed”.

For example, in a pure gift economy, the very concept of stealing would become meaningless, since value would be created by people freely sharing what they create. Your reward would be precisely that people use what you create, while their reward would be that you use what they create.

Of course this way of thinking is radically different from the way you and I live, and it is not even certain that such a way of thinking is compatible with how our brains are wired. But shouldn’t a discussion that dwells on the nature of “stealing” also touch on the nature of “property”?

One Response to “Imagine no possessions”

  1. PhilH says:

    Absolutely stealing must deal with property as property is the abstraction that is being enforced in laws against stealing. Without ownership there is no stealing.

    Consider grazing animals. Suppose one town has ownership of land, and another has common land. The classic tragedy of the commons is that a given farmer using common land has a short-term incentive to overgraze the commons for his own benefit, at the cost of the community. So ‘fairness’ has to be enforced to prevent the tragedy. Closed or limited communities can maintain such systems because the group collectively manages the resources.

    However, there is a problem in a world where you cannot separate yourself as a community; how can you prevent outsiders abusing the communal resources? It doesn’t take a lot for community members to resent the whole system.

    I think hiring is in many cases a better model than owning outright; we don’t actually need a lot of things all the time, just on occasions, and hiring or sharing permit a kind of efficiency of scale.

    Of course on the web it’s a different story; there is no limited resource that is removed by outsiders using it, so no real reason to keep them out. But how do you get them to help pay for production of content, advice, value? Here there isn’t really ownership, and nor is there stealing, but there is still a problem of resource to address, and arguably we will need some kind of abstract social contract to be upheld somehow to keep all the bloggers fed.

    I think scarce resource is generally best managed using the ownership model because there is assurance in the longevity of it; I own it, so I will take care of it for the long term. But scarcity management via exclusive ownership is only straightforward when there is a thing that can be exclusively held. IP, digital content, none of that fits this paradigm.

    Hyde’s book “The Gift” makes the point that art is gift-based; the creative impulse visits itself as a gift on the creative, who give the world their art. Similarly science involves doing a lot of work and then giving the hard-earned results freely to the world, in a neat 150 word summary. The internet belongs in this bracket, where content, software and the like are given to the world in the hopes of receiving attention; the attention is supposedly convertible to physically scarce resources like gold again. I think gift systems like Flattr are more in line with the spirit of the internet.

    I’ll leave you with one more thought: if there is a commons of society around which we gather and connect, it arguably includes popular music and film. If these are the icons of an age, why would we let record labels and film companies keep control of it? Surely anything that reaches a certain level of commonality should become a property of the community, like a dialect is.

    So ownership is already not the universal model, and I think it is poorly suited to online anything, or even any kind of content.

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