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Ownership (and more)

The meaning of ownership or possession in modern society.

An unusual event occurs, involving a cat and a pencil sharpener. The event is witnessed by two people who report it differently. One says, "The cat swallowed my pencil sharpener", while the other says, "My cat swallowed a pencil sharpener". It would appear, then, that one guy owned the pencil sharpener while the other owned the cat. Or is that too simplistic?

The fact is, there are many shades of meaning to the little word 'my'. It may technically be a possessive pronoun, but it doesn't always imply possession. Or perhaps possession itself has many shades of meaning.

I can take my cat and my pencil sharpener to the top of a tower, but I can only throw one of them over the parapet, with impunity. Wasting a perfectly good pencil sharpener is reprehensible, but wasting a healthy cat is both cruel and criminal. Cat ownership does not confer absolute rights over the cat. Rather it is akin to cat stewardship. Though I can certainly buy a cat, what I am buying is the privilege of enjoying the cat's company, while accepting responsibility for its wellbeing.

And what about my friend? Though we use the possessive pronoun, a proper friendship is a mutual respect and affection in which ownership plays no part at all. In this case 'my' implies not ownership but a voluntary association.

One of the recurring tragedies in society is seen when individuals fail to understand the shades of meaning of 'my', making no distinction in their minds between my coat, my cat, my servant, my daughter, and my wife. Nowhere is this attitude more institutionalised than in Saudi Arabia (where I have worked and seen it at first hand). But it is not unique to Saudi and is probably alive and well in a small town near you...

What's mine is mine, sometimes

But not always. My passport, for example, clearly states "This passport remains the property of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom and may be withdrawn at any time". And with it would go 'my' freedom to conduct business in a foreign country.

My wallet is more straightforward. It is clearly mine as it was a Christmas present from my daughter. But what about the cash inside, at this moment 302 Qatari Riyals? In an abstract sense, the money is mine as I can exchange it at any time for goods or services, but the banknotes themselves most probably belong to the Bank of Qatar. In the UK, it is a criminal offence to deface or destroy currency and while I haven't checked, the same is probably true for Qatar.

The more you look at it, the more obvious it becomes that possession or ownership is rarely a clear cut issue. In particular, ownership doesn't confer absolute rights in terms of use. Take something as simple as my guitar. It is definitely mine, but other people can have a legitimate interest in where, when and how loudly I play it. Again, my guitar is quite old and was never a valuable instrument. Guitars like mine get thrown in the skip every day of the week and no-one bats an eyelid. But supposing it was a rare Stradivarius violin, irreplaceable and worth several hundred thousand pounds? Even if I had purchased it outright (as if!) do I have the right to destroy it? Isn't such an instrument part of our common heritage, every bit as much as an original Renoir or Picasso? Are we back to the cat here - isn't ownership of such a treasure actually stewardship, for future generations?

This Land is 'my' Land

If we can agree that there can be no absolute ownership of something as insignificant (in the grand scheme of things) as a Stradivarius violin or a Rembrandt, how much more should this be true of the very planet we live on? In fact, land ownership is a highly dubious concept. If I buy an acre of land, to what depth below the surface is it 'mine'? Maybe to 4000 miles where it comes to a point at the center of the Earth? Do I own the wildlife and plant life? Am I allowed to breed hornets and scorpions? Am I allowed to erect a hideous structure so that all the neighbours complain that I've ruined 'their' view? Can someone own a view? Do I own the air above my land? To what height? Is that passing seagull temporarily 'mine' too? There are just too many nonsensical implications to absolute land ownership.

In practice, land ownership can be nothing more than the privilege to exclusive use and occupancy of a piece of land for a period of time. It is a social contract with the rest of society who have legitimate interest (again) in how I conduct myself on 'my' land. The idea of ownership 'in perpetuity', which implies the absolute right to bequeath the land to my heirs is highly suspect at best.

Property Rights and Freedom of the Individual

For some, property rights are fundamental to their idea of personal freedom. In a recent on-line forum discussion, one respondent went so far as to claim: "There are no problems facing the world today that a respect for liberty and property rights can't fix".

This article is, in fact, an examination of that statement and the philosophy behind it. Now, to be fair, the discussion was about politics and economics. Clearly, the author was not claiming that a respect for liberty and property rights can cure Alzheimer's disease or bring rain to the desert. But even within the intended domain, how true is the claim?

I want to approach this mainly by asking relevant questions, to find if there is a general consensus 'out there' in respect of property rights and freedom. But first, a story...

Not long ago, a few of us went to Qatar's Dukhan Beach, a natural, largely undeveloped mile or two where the desert sands meet the waters of the Gulf. Someone rich has built a rather beautiful family villa with a sea frontage. He has erected fences to prevent people crossing his 'private' beach. He has extended the fences all the way to the low tide mark. Possibly, under Qatari law, he was allowed to do that. You and I don't know. But my question is, why should one man's property rights impinge on the rights of every one else to pass freely along the beach?

And, where one has led the way, others will follow. Soon, a line of impressive villas will appear, and the beach will become the 'property' and private play ground of a few wealthy families. It will no longer be accessible to those who simply want to swim and relax with friends, but have no desire to possess and exclude.

Imagine no possession..

..I wonder if you can? Personally, I can't, at least not in this world. However, as in all things, there surely has to be a degree of moderation? Two of my most loved possessions are the flute my father bought me 43 years ago and the classic guitar I saved up for and bought for myself two years later. I would be truly surprised if anyone seriously challenged my right to own these old instruments.

And then there's my house. It's not huge, it's been home to many families before we bought it, and will probably be home to many more before it's finally demolished. It's mine for a time, that's all. But I'd be none too impressed if a few total strangers claimed the right to move into my spare room.

In other words, I respect property rights, starting with my own. But there are limits to my respect.

For these are my mountains..

..and I'm going home. Scots, the world over, understand the strength of the bond that ties us to the land, especially the lochs and mountains of the Highlands. For example, the mountain Schiehallion, which rises majestically from Loch Rannoch. Schiehallion is owned by the John Muir Trust who care for its footpaths, flora and fauna, keep it accessible to walkers and climbers, and prevent inappropriate 'development' within their bounds. A success story. But many of Scotland's mountains are owned by private concerns who erect barbed-wire fences to protect the game birds, prosecute 'trespassers', and allow access only to the rich hunting fraternity. My questions this time are these: Should private concerns or individuals be allowed to buy a mountain? Are local people justified in cutting the barbed wire and walking where they please?

Should wealth alone entitle people to buy inordinate amounts of land, mountains, islands, stretches of river? I think not. I think that with the privilege of ownership comes responsibility to preserve or develop the land for the common good.

This land is your land..

..This land is my land. We should also remember that property rights are not absolute. There are disputed borders all over the world and millions of displaced and dispossessed people. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the dispossessed should just accept a moratorium along the lines of 'all existing borders and boundaries shall become binding from 12 noon on Friday'? It's not going to happen, is it? The prime example is the region comprising Israel and Palestine, but there are many others. The simplistic idea that 'respecting property rights' will solve such intractable problems is a non-starter.

To round up:

It appears to me that while it is very easy to claim property rights and liberty as absolutes, in the real world they are as relative as everything else and subject to the imperative of moderation, thus:

Thank you for reading!

The songs referenced in this hub are:

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