What is ownership?

Ownership: the act, state, or right of possessing something. See “owner”.

”Owner: a person who owns something : one who has the legal or rightful title to something : one to whom property belong.
— Merriam-Webster

...the dictionary goes on to use these words in examples:

  • Business/property owners
  • He and his sister are owners of the restaurant.
  • We were able to return the wallet to its rightful owner.
  • — often used in combination: dog-owners and cat-owners

How do you own something?

Traditional definitions dictate two ways:

1.    You trade something you own of value (your time, money, asset) for an asset that someone else owns. 


Hopefully, in the process, both parties freely trade what they have, for what they want, and both feel benefited.  Both feel that what they traded was worth less to them, than what they received in return.

At face value, this seems to be very nice, voluntary, and equitable.  What could be better, than a transaction as expressed above?  You make something (money or a good, or service) and you trade it for something you value more.  Wonderful!

2.   You put effort/time/utility into a raw material.  A material that until your contribution: had little or no value to another person.


For example, you might pick up a stick off the ground, and cut it into lenghts and bundle it.  This would seem to have value and utility to a person desirous of starting a fire.

Another example might be picking up a piece of rock, and working on it with another rock, until you have shaped one of the rocks into a stone ax head.  The rock now has value, that it did not have before you applied your efforts and skills. Your value added would create your "ownership" of the raw material.

Some problem with ownership:

1.   Sofa vs. Pets vs. Kids vs. Employees vs. Assistance

You can own this.

You can own this.


The basic materials for a sofa come from the earth.  

Some person took a tree and made a board.  Another guy smelted iron and made a screw or nail.  Others made foam cushions.  Others made fabric from mostly plant based raw materials.

A craftsman then came along.  That craftsman then claims ownership, because he paid those other men for the raw materials (wood, nails, screws, fabric, foam rubber, etc) and then he assembled these parts to create something new; with value beyond what the basic parts could offer individually. 

The man at the furniture store bought the sofa from the craftsman.  He traded dollars for the craftsman's products, and then the store owner added value, by putting lots of sofas in one place, so that his clients don't have to visit many separate craftsmen to find a sofa they want. 

You own a sofa because you went to the store and bought a sofa.  

Verdict: Pretty clear cut.


Pets (also works with livestock)

How do you own a pet?  You spend money (that you earned), and get a pet.   You give your money to the person or business that claims to own the pet, and they give you the pet.  Then you are a pet "owner" (as described in the dictionary definition of "ownership").  You could also breed your pet, and this will also grant you ownership of the offspring as the products of the pet or lifestock become your property via birth under your control.

If I own my pet/livestock, I decide how it lives. When it eats, drinks, gets medicine, and when it might be time for it to go to the great beyond.  You might argue, this is my "value added" of my ownership.  

If my pet bites someone: I am responsible 100%, because I'm the owner.  All decisions fall on me, as the owner.  I'm the legal owner because I paid for the commodity and could argue "value added".

Verdict: Pretty clear cut, that humans can own other living things in this way.




Do I own my kid?  Well, like the sofa or pet, you "purchased it".  You spent the money to get to conception.  You paid the doctors, and all the suppliers that made the birth possible.  You paid for the house, and the furniture, and the diapers and the food and the medicine and all of it, that made this new person possible.  You also owned and "added value" to the raw materials that were used to make the new child, when you chose a mate, and combined the materials in a useful way. Like livestock, the baby is under your ownership by birthright.

So, based on our ownership rules from above: you own that kid.  But that just gets them born into the world: what about afterward?

Well, again, you are paying.  You are supporting this person 100% and making their life possible.  Without you, it's arguable that this other person will die.  That's continued value added.  Like the pet above, you decide on food, and medicine and drinks and shelter.   

Also like with the pet; if this new person does something illegal while in your care: you are completely responsible for them...at least until they are 18 years old.  So again, until this person is of the age of consent: they are your property. 

You "own" your kids, just like the sofa or the pet.

Verdict: Pretty clear cut, based on definitions and progressions, but with an age caveat.



Employees have some of the same attributes as kids, pets and sofas; but also some differences.

Whereas there is an initial cost to kids, pets and sofas to gain "ownership", with employees, they freely choose to come to your employ with no up-front cost in most cases (exceptions: signing bonuses, recruiters, advertising and other deals). 

Although, the employer could argue that they had to build a building, and have power run to the building, and plumbing installed...all in an effort to get the employees to arrive.  These investments might be argued as part of a "purchase price" of an employee, much like furniture is part of the cost of a baby, or a chew toy; the cost of a dog.  But let's not get bogged down in that detail.

Once the employee arrives, they trade their skills, labor and time freely in exchange for money, benefits and other perks of employment.  So that alone, makes them completely different than kids and pets...right?

  • Well, if you think about it, the pet freely trades it's affection (asset) for food and shelter (your property) once it lives in your home. 
  • And the kid freely trades their cuteness, and later their contributions (love, music, chores, whatever) to your home, in exchange for your upbringing. 

Yet, the pets and kids are not rewarded in any special way for their contribution.  They remain property, while employees demand more than just food and shelter and feel insulted if you would think of them as property - even though the employer has met all the criteria used to claim ownership in the other examples.

  • Employers pay for your training
  • Employers might pay for education
  • Employers pay for your healthcare
  • Employers supply the money you need to live.
  • Employers work your "raw material" into a product of more value for the next user.

These are all examples of the two methods of ownership, as defined and demonstrated above.

So if you are OK with the ideas of owning a sofa, pet or a child: couldn't you argue that your employer owns you?  And if that's is even worth considering, That open some other uncomfortable doors...

Verdict: Still seems logical and applicable; but I don't like where this is heading.



If you are on assistance, wouldn't the state own its beneficiaries?  I mean, it meets all the criteria of ownership from definition right down to the examples of sofas, pets, kids, and employees.

In the case of assistance, the State provides comfort and pays for the recipients in a way very similar to the way a parent or pet owner does the same for their "possessions" of sofas, kids and pets, respectively.  So if a person is on assistance, is it not logical that those people are the property of the state for the time that they choose to be cared for by the state?


Like children, the recipients of assistance can leave the condition of being "property" by their own choosing.  A child can leave when they become 18 or complete the proper paperwork as dictated by their state to achieve emancipation. 

A person on assistance can leave the condition of "property" by becoming gainfully employed. 

Pets, presently don't have a lot of options (short or running away) to gain their independence from the condition of "property" but maybe the Pet Equality Movement (P.E.M.) is just around the corner.

At any given time in America, approximately 52.2 million (or 21.3 percent) people in the U.S. participated in major means-tested government assistance programs each month in 2012, according to a U.S. Census Bureau. 

- Could an argument be made that if police shot, hurt or killed a person on assistance; that they were no more wrong in doing so than a pet owner would be if they chose to have their pet euthanized?

- Could the state rightly put a recipient of assistance "up for adoption" just like a parent could rightfully do so with their property?

- Could the state rightly sell a recipient of assistance, much like a sofa?

And if ownership is granted via the examples and definitions above, might any move towards more socialistic processes be also considered moves toward each person being more like property of the state?  Property with all the rights and privileges of a worn-out VCR?

All things to consider as "problems" for the idea of the concept and consistent defintions of ownership.

Verdict: Stop right there Mr!  Logic is not working for me.  This follows the rules and definitions, but don't like it at all!  I'm no longer sure a person can own another living thing.

Ownership chart for above items


2.   The Genesis Problem

In all the examples above, and in all other examples you can think of, there exists the problem of the original owner.

I can work at a job and make money, with which I can buy things, and become the owner. 

But if you track it back far enough, you realize that entire idea of ownership is built on a foundation of lies, theft and arbitrary determinations.

For example, when you go to your workplace: where do you go?  Do you go to a building?  Is the building on the ground?  If so, who owns that ground?  Is that ground in a nation?  Who owns that nation? Did the bricks that built the building come out of that ground in the nation?  Did the lumber, steel and concrete all come from the earth?  If so, who owns that stuff?

In America, you might say that the ground was originally owned by the native peoples.  But they didn't have the concept of ownership in their culture...they just lived on the ground, prayed to their gods, and took what they were given/needed.  So when Europeans came to America and introduced the idea of ownership, those ideas seemed foreign (literally) and laughable to the original people living here. 


Before long, the native people realized that this was more than a silly idea, as the Europeans (and other cultures) began to lay claim as "owners" to some of these lands and resources. When the native people objected, they were usually offered something in trade (like glass beads or booze) or told to simply accept that they no longer were permitted on this "privately owned" land.  If the native people objected, or wouldn't accept the deal offered: they were killed, jailed or dismissed.

I use America because this article will have a mostly American audience and we are all familiar with the story of America.  But this exact same scenario played out all over the globe, as new people conquered native peoples, and claimed the land for themselves. Stealing land via force and violence is not an activity that knows a nationality or time period.  It's as old as life on earth, and not even contained to humans.  Animals do the same thing, in their quest to survive and allocate scarce resources most effectively.

"Give me your watch, or I kill you!"

Isn't this actually what all ownership boils down to if you go back far enough?

Isn't this actually what all ownership boils down to if you go back far enough?

So as you walk to your questionable job, in your questionable office building, you stop to take a look at your watch to see if you are running late.  You have owned this watch for years, and you bought it from a reputable jeweler using money you earned at your reputable job.  Suddenly,  some thug comes over to you and says, "Give me that watch, or I will kill you." 

Question: Is that thug now the new, rightful and lawful "owner" of the watch that was previously on your arm?  Because if not, we might have a problem with the ownership of everything.

Answer: It's safe to say that most people would agree, "No, he doesn't become the owner of my watch, because he stole it.  I owned it because I bought it legally, using the definitions of ownership we discussed above.  This guy just used threat of force and violence and stole it from me.  Therefore, he has no legal claim to my watch.  In fact, I'm calling a cop, so they can arrest that guy, get my property back, and punish that thug accordingly."

This is the expedient, convenient and societally accepted reply, however, it is consistent?  Is it historically hypocritical?  Can you logically find an argument that makes the thug any less of the owner of your watch, than the original settlers of America, were the owners of the nation?

Theft as historical ownership

As settlers accumulated lands (through theft, swindle, murder and violence of the native people) they decided they needed a way to protect their new lands from other people coming in, and doing the same thing to them (stealing the land and murdering them).  So these folks decided to make groups for protection purposes.  These bands of the most violent and treacherous among them, armed themselves and promised to keep the other swindlers safe.  They made rules that said that the guy who just stole the land and resourses from the last "owner", is now the new rightful owner.  They made the men who killed the past owners into heros.  They made laws that dictated how future people must behave (and trade value) if they are to have any legal claim to any of the resourses the original plunderers just stole.  They did all this, and enforced those "laws", all provided the swindlers each paid them a part of their pay each year (tax).  This is how you get a Nation.

So to apply this thinking to our watch thief: why doesn't the thief simply say, "I wrote down that it was OK for me to steal your watch.  Here, look at this piece of paper.  It says clearly that I am now the new and rightful legal owner.  Sorry if you don't like that outcome, but it's true, because I wrote it down here on paper, and therefore, that makes it legal.  And as such, I'm free to find a new buyer at my discression without fear of repercussions."

How would this be any more or less ethical than what those who claim to own the entire nation did, to the prior owners when they stole their land and layed claim to it themselves?

If you think the nation is owned more clearly than the watch: what is your criteria for ownership? Time?

Does a certain amount of time passing after a theft or murder eventually make it a legitimate business transaction?  If so, who sets that arbitrary time period?  Because that seems like a good job to have.

It's all white collar crime

So the building that you reported to work this morning to make your money, is sitting on illegally and murderously obtained ground, in a nation created to protect scoundrels (much like protecting the watch thief in the example). 

The product or service you delivered in this building was created using the raw materials that were extracted from this illegally gotten ground, and reshaped in some way.  The new shape, you believe provides utility to new users, and because you shaped the illegal materials, you now feel you are the rightful "owner" and as such you have the right to sell it to someone else, like the watch thief.

So you are selling stolen goods, derived illegally from murdered original owners, and that makes you think you "earned" your money legitimately, so you can then go "buy" other things that other people offered by creating them using the same unlawful process to call themselves "owners". 

Seems like an honorable system.

As for the indians...

If you want to get technical about it: what about walking around on the planet in moccasins, gives the native American any more claim to owning anything than anyone else?  Because they were first?  If that was the case, don't the dinosaurs "own" everything?  Or maybe if you go back further...the primordial ooze is the rightful owner?  Back more... the cosmic dust from the big bang seems like it has some compensation due to it's bank account balances.  Maybe a class action lawsuit is needed to make all this right.

Are we doing it wrong?

- Might the concept of ownership be flawed from the start?

What if we have this very basic idea wrong?  Can you even conceive of a world without the idea of ownership?  How would anything get done?  Is there any chance it would be peaceful?  The idea of ownership has sure created a lot of violence in the world: could non-ownership be better?  Or, without the flawed idea of ownership, does everything unravel and get worse?  Or is that just fear and comfort level with established concepts talking?

- Might everything we built on the flawed concept of ownership be hypocritical and unsustainable for the long haul?

Sure, it's worked for a while, but in the REALLY long haul, will it break down?  It's proven flawed and hypocritical above: but is it unsustainable going forward?  Do we just keep forcing the blatant shortcomings of this idea into the lives of people until it collapses under it's own weight, or do we begin to envision ways to rectify the situation proactively?  

- Might There be a better way?

There must be options.  What might they look like?  Are we so locked into this present model that we can't imagine anything else?  If you totally scrapped the idea of ownership...like it never happened...what might we be doing today?  Can you only see the negatives of no ownership?  If so, why is that true?  Might there not be very posiitive ways the lack of ownership could have played out?  Have you been conditioned to discount and reject the idea of no ownership?

- Might the technological revolution and the rise of robots put the final nail in the coffin of ownership?

We have two inevitable curves going.  One line on the graph is the number of people in the world.  The other line on the graph is the number of jobs needed to supply those folks with the goods and services they enjoy.  As those two lines diverge, inevitably, the idea of money will break down completely.  It has to.  There are no other possible scenarios.  

The introduction of Artificial Intelligence and advanced robotics will cause the demand curve for human labor to dive to nearly zero.  But with all our needs met by our machines...would this be a bad thing?

Without the need for human labor, it will be almost impossible for most of the population to earn any money at all.  Some people inject the idea of a "basic human income" at this point in the conversation, but that is at best a very short term solution to very long term problem.  At that point, the idea of "money" breaks down completely.

Without "money" (in whatever form that takes) you can't have ownership.  So now you have another factor pulling the concept of ownership apart.  It seems unlikely that the concept can survive with all these true market and ideological forces pulling it apart.  And when it does inevitably succumb to those forces: how might we adapt?