Wednesday, September 15, 2010

21st Century Property Rights

The question of property is not as easy as it first sounds. William Blackstone, a judge circa 18th century England, defined property rights as "sole and despotic dominion." It's no accident that this formulation coincided with the Industrial Age, which has been largely founded on the premise that control over nature / other is a worthy goal. Our conception of property, while certainly becoming more sophisticated over the last 250 years, has not really shifted from this basic notion.

One of the ways property rights have evolved is that today there are limits to "sole and despotic dominion". In many neighborhoods, I could not paint my house with green polka dots, as this would violate code. So, The State (as a proxy for the community at large) places restrictions on what I may do with my property if I want it to remain mine.

However, I would assert that The State may not be the most effective or efficient arbiter in property rights. Consider the following: the bank can own a completely unused house (appropriately painted), acquired through foreclosure. I doubt many people would claim if pressed, that the unused yet appropriately painted house was more beneficial to the community than my lived-in green polka dot house next door. Clearly something is amiss with the way we assign property rights today.

One thing is clear. Property rights are derived the perceived benefit to the community (or at least non-harm) from one person or group's stewardship of what is owned. I will lose my car if I use it to run people over. I will lose my house if I use it to refine crack cocaine. So, given the rise of online tools that can instantly reflect public sentiment, perhaps it is possible to disintermediate The State as the sole authority in this matter. What if we were to look towards the proverbial wisdom of the crowds as a way of determining property rights? The state has proven itself clunky at best in mitigating modern society. Perhaps there is a way of moving this function of defining property rights out of the state's hands and into a more dynamic, adaptable, and democratic framework.

Imagine a world where property is owned because it is being well stewarded rather than ownership being a priori to stewardship. Much of the worst behavior we see in the economy would be impossible, because the second any firm stopped stewarding their properties for the benefit of the larger community, they would no longer own their properties (intellectual or otherwise). In this world ownership is derived from good stewardship, rather than the other way around.



  1. Love the proposition presented in that last paragraph.

    On a side note, here are a book you might find interesting:

    PANDAEMONIUM: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, 1660-1886. By Humphrey Jennings.

    I was going to paste a link to another book I read about the issue of land rights. Unfortunately I can't find it nor can I remember the title. I do remember a chapter about a court case (actually fabricated as a prank on a judge) where one party sued another arguing he now owned his neighbors property because a landslide had moved his land onto the other's property.

  2. It seems the question of property rights also touches on two key areas: sovereignty and managing the Commons. Classical systems thinking typically gives us two solutions for managing the Commons: Apply rules to the Commons (top down often penal approach) or privatize the Commons (more of a bottom up approach). If we observe the privatization of the commons strategy we can see that it implies a more close/intimate relationship with what is owned coupled with more control of the management decisions related to the property (aspect of sovereignty). A strategy of privatization on its own however, doesn’t necessarily result in good stewardship or sustainability since motivations for management can be myopic and self-seeking and may not pay attention to the effect privatization is having on the larger context of the Commons.

    Stewardship by definition also implies a close relationship with what is being stewarded together with a sense of “care in context”. This opens the door for healthy consideration of the relationships of what is being stewarded to the larger context of the Commons and tends to produce a more altruistic based approach to management of the resources.

    If we align stewardship with our passion, gifts, and Calling then we enfold a natural sovereignty within the expression of the stewardship that can also be seen in meritocracy based systems such as Open Source software development which characterizes ownership via stewardship quite well. Those that have created and/or invested most in the development and stewardship of a module are considered the “owners” of the modules yet this is not fixed in perpetuity but rather new stewards can come along and through demonstrated care and stewardship can become new owners (maintainers/co-maintainers). Furthermore, the ownership concept is granted by the community to the stewards based on merit rather than being granted through legal contract, purchase or other artificial means of structuring ownership. This results in a *process* of stewardship that must be maintained for ownership to be maintained resulting in sustainable-balancing feedback loops. A future where property “ownership” is implemented through ongoing meritorious stewardship is bright indeed!

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