Valuing the Earth: On Property

This is a continuation of a series I started exploring some of the themes found in the book Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics.

In his essay The Purpose of Wealth: A Historical Perspective,Gerald Alonzo Smith surveys economists through history that have stood against the flow of economic thought, J.C.L. Simonde de Sismondi, John Ruskin, J.A. Hobson and R.H. Tawney. This is the first I’ve heard of most of these guys. I want to focus on the understanding of property in Ruskin’s thought. Ruskin quotes at length a dialogue with Socrates from Xenophon:

Then the very same things are property to a man who knows how to use them, and not property to one who does not. For instance, a flute is property to a man who can play on it fairly; but to one who is wholly unskilled in its use it is no more property than mere useless stones would be–unless he sold it… So long as he keeps it, it is not property… But if he, again, were to sell it to a man who does not know how to use it, it would not be property even when sold… Your words, Socrates, seem to imply that not even money would be property unless a man knew how to use it. Well, you seem to agree that a man’s property is only what benefits him. Suppose a man were to make us eo f his money, to buy, say, a mistress, by whos einfluence his body would be worse, his soul worse, his household worse, how could we then say that his money was any benefit to him? (192)

I think this points out that our definition of property is somewhat arbitrary. We decide as a community through laws or whatever what the definition of property is and then try to live by this definition. As the oft quoted aphorism “possession is nine-tenths of the law” points out, our legal definition of property is based on possession and rights. So, we have things like receipts that are proof of your right to possess something. The aforementioned saying is often used when this lack of proof is absent.

Let’s suppose the absence of proof that someone owns, has the right to, for example, a blender (a very important piece of kitchen equipment in Bolivia). In the United States we would try to establish who had the right to possess the blender. Maybe someone would present a receipt showing that they bought a blender on a particular day. There may be witnesses that testify that they saw a blender in someone’s house (which is another possession maintained by these same sorts of evidence). There could be evidence of someone breaking into this house. The blender in the thief’s possession might match the description of the person claiming the right to it. All of these claims are based on the definition of ownership, established in our legal system, as possession. Now, we also distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate means to acquire something. So, someone is said to own something if they can prove the legitimate acquisition of that thing.

This way of dealing with ownership and property works very well in many ways. It solves a lot of problems and may, in fact, be the best we can do through governments and legal systems. What Ruskin’s concept of property calls into question is the notion that this legal definition of property or ownership, primarily in terms of possession is the sum total of how ownership can or should be understood. Ruskin illuminates another facet of ownership, function. In the strictly legal, possessive definition ownership is an end in itself (perhaps a result of the idea proposed by modern economics that consumption is the end, or purpose, of wealth and economic activity. See the last post Valuing the Earth: The Purpose of Wealth).

And possession is in use only, which for each man is sternly limited; so that such things and so much of them as he can use, are, indeed, well for him, or Wealth; and more of them, or any other things are ill for him, or Illth. (192)

What I believe Ruskin points toward with this definition is that economics, and therefore ownership or possession, is not an end in itself. When we use the rubric of use or function, it becomes that there is an absurdity to the possession or ownership of things that we cannot use. Our insistence on the right to possess and accumulate things which we cannot properly use is the source of many of our ills. I’m not suggesting we can or should legislate this concept of ownership (I’m not even sure that it’s possible). I am suggesting that we should properly understand the implications of the definition of property we have decided to make absolute and the limitations of this definition.

I happen to like Luke Timothy Johnson’s definition that “Generally, I can safely claim to own something when I can effectively assert my power over it” (Sharing Possessions 2). This definition seems to encompass both Ruskin’s and the legal definition in terms of possession. If I exert my power over it only by keeping it in my garage or backyard, but do not actually possess the ability or desire for its use, then in some sense I do not completely exert power over the object. This is where we begin to see that our possessions can exert a kind of power over us. If the goal is only possession and accumulation then we must provide shelter for these objects, witness the phenomenon of reality shows based solely on uncluttering people’s houses. We enjoy the voyeurism of these shows, because they keep at bay the truth that we are no different.

All healthy people like their dinners, but their dinner is not the main object of their lives. So all healthily-minded people like making money–ought to like it, and to enjoy the sensation of winning it; but the main object of their life is not money; it is something better than money. (193)

I think this quote sums up a healthy perspective on the reality and role of economics and economic activity in life. It is but a means to an end. It is easy to smirk at those who work on Wall Street and the super-rich as people who have made money “the main object of their life.” It is much harder to recognize that the myth of the American Dream, American Exceptionalism continues to keep, more subtly, money as the object of all of our lives.

one of the most important conditions of a healthy system of social economy, would be the restraint of the properties and incomes of the upper classes within certain fixed limits. (193)

This may sound like a radical proposal. It is certainly one that seems hard to imagine becoming a reality, but to me it seems like the natural outgrowth of economics being a means to an end rather than its own vision of the way things should be. If economic activity serves a purpose other than accumulation and possession, then the limitation of these goals for the greater good of accomplishing this other telos is an obvious implication.

It’s a question of what vision of the future we’re serving. As Bob Dylan so eloquently put it “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Which vision of the future does our economics and our definition of ownership serve?

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