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September 26, 2002

Property and Ownership - part 2

II. Control Of Your Property
The United States of America is a very property-oriented society. It is a global advocate for market-driven capitalism, promoting the dream of achieving personal luxury through innovative business. We have many laws in place to protect the possessions that a citizen accumulates -- and many lawsuits pursuing enforcement.

A word needs to be said here about distribution of wealth in the U.S.. I have no complaint about protecting ownership rights -- I've yet to hear a truly compelling argument for the abolition of private property, and see a number of ways in which owning things (one's body, clothes, books, home) protects individuals' well being. However, I'm deeply troubled by the disparity in how much stuff different people own -- the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Where does extreme wealth come from? And how just is inheritance? Without actually labeling myself a socialist (yet), I have to say that I favor placing some kind of upper limit on how much money a person can earn, and making some sort of safety net that places a lower limit on poverty. On a personal level, I eagerly await a well-reasoned proposal for how people of conscience ought to go about redistributing their assets, independent of a change in government. That said, I will set aside the question of how people come to possess what they own, and proceed on this philosophical exploration of property with the presumption that uncontested claims of ownership are legitimate.

In the U.S. it is generally recognized -- socially and legally -- that it is the right of the individual to control their property. This right borders on the absolute; attempts by government or citizen agencies to intrude on this privacy tend to elicit the strongest kind of outrage. Control of a thing means being able to change or maintain its current condition according to one's will. Let's consider what this means in some detail.

(1) Permission to touch. You are not allowed to (not supposed to) physically touch anything I own without my permission. This is a rule riddled with exceptions based on social norms and intimacy: it is accepted that strangers may knock on your door, and a guest in your home is expected to take toilet paper without asking. Yet, the rule holds true more often than we realize. Imagine your surprise, walking toward your parked car and seeing that someone is leaning against it. Or if you caught someone stroking your laundry as it hung from the clothes line. Or if within the first few minutes of meeting someone, they reached across the table and touched your nose. Most people don't hoard permission to touch -- they give it away freely as soon as they know a person better, often expecting the intimate other to simply know that they have become welcome. However, the person who presumes too much (e.g. copping a feel on the first date) may receive a punishing rebuff.

(2) Staying put. When I put a piece of my property somewhere, I expect it to stay there. If I put my coffee mug down on the breakfast table, I don't want to come back in five minutes and discover that it's been moved to the kitchen counter. When I go looking for a book on my shelf, I don't want to discover that someone has moved it to God knows where. The coffee mug is like an annex of my stomach; the book is like an auxiliary memory cartridge for my brain. I want these extensions of myself to stay in order. Just as I'd feel unsettled to lose control of some other part of my body, finding that my possessions don't stay where I put them makes me feel helpless, angry, or violated.

(3) Moving things. Whereas others are prohibited from touching -- let alone moving -- my things without permission, it's my right to freely pick them up and move them whenever I choose. I can drive my car to the other side of town and park it there. I can rearrange my furniture to suit a whim. I can stand up, stretch my body, and go out for a walk (so long as I'm not infringing on anyone else's property rights in the process).

(4) Physical alteration. If something belongs to me, then I can substantively alter it in a physical way. I could dye my hair green or pierce my ears. I could write in my books and fold the pages. I could repaint my car and put in a new engine. I could cut a hole in the wall and build an addition onto my house. I could chop down the tree that's part of my backyard. As the Fats Waller song goes, "'t ain't nobody's biz-ness if I do."

(5) To destroy or create. That which I own I may also destroy. I could seize this coffee mug and smash it on the floor. I could take my hair and chop it all off. I could burn my books. I could have my car crushed into a cube. I could rent a crane with a wrecking ball and turn my home into a pile of rubble. On a similar scale of transformation, if I own the raw materials to make something entirely new, then the resulting product must belong to me. If I had lumber, nails, and land, the house I built would belong to me. If I took some ingredients out of my cupboard and baked a cake, the cake would be mine. If I swept up my hair and wove it back into a toupee, then that wig would be my property too.

...A final word about the powers of ownership. The things you own are an extension of yourself, so you are entitled to use them as you see fit. But just as you are responsible for your actions, so too are you responsible for the actions / impact of all those things connected to you. if you park your car on a hill, the brakes give out and it rolls down, smashing into someone's house while you're away -- it's your problem to deal with. If I invite someone to sit in my big comfy chair, which then collapses in a heap, breaking the guest's leg in the process -- then I'm responsible for breaking their leg. As much as I might want to sever the possession from my self at this point, put blame for the accident on "an act of God", the logic of treating my possessions as part of my self carries through.

-- to be continued --

September 26, 2002

Posted by Sven at September 26, 2002 04:32 PM


my father keeps on trying to take posessions oof mine that i have purchased i really am trying to get him to stop but i just need help! so...

Posted by: Help ME please email at April 1, 2003 06:18 AM

i'm 22 year old and my cousin is trying say i can only use my computer 2 hours ago. is that a crime. its my computer and i own it

Posted by: help me at August 1, 2003 06:36 PM