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THE CONCEPT OF OWNERSHIP

In Libertarian as well as Austrian Economic thinking, there are three basic ideas:

  1. People are physical beings and therefore we need physical “stuff”
  2. Physical “stuff” is scarce
  3. Physical “stuff” in its natural state has no owner

These ideas seem trivial, but they are quite important.

 

People need stuff

The reality is that we are physical beings. Our minds, however powerful may be, are enclosed and supported by physical systems. Some would say that our mind is a separate entity from our brain, some would say the opposite. It really does not matter. What matters is that without our brain, our mind cannot exist (for the moment). Therefore, we need our brain to be ourselves.

Our primary purpose in life is to sustain our brain in order to be able to fulfill what we are genetically programmed to do: spread our genes to the maximum amount of people.

In order to sustain our brain, we need sustenance and anything else that may increase our chances of spreading our genes. What this “other” stuff may be, it all depends of the degree of civilization we may have achieved. But one thing is certain: we need stuff.

Our need for stuff originates not in a moral or ethical principle, but in a biological and ultimately physical one. Morals, ethics and religion have nothing to do with this need whatsoever.

 

Stuff is scarce

Stuff is scarce. That much we know. Why is stuff scarce? We don’t have a clue but in ultimate analysis, it does not matter. We leave this question to philosophers and holy man (but not holy women – just kidding) to elucidate. Maybe god is against us, maybe the gods enjoy playing with us or maybe that’s the way the universe evolved and there are no ultimate answers. Again, we don’t care about the whys, we only care about the whats.

The most basic consequence about stuff being scarce is that it is difficult to get. One must “labor” to get it (labor understood as the expenditure or use of energy). This expenditure is our first payment, even at its most basic, there is no free lunch.

Also, using energy makes us more vulnerable to other members of our species. We become weak and if we are weak our chances of spreading our genes instead of them, decrease substantially. Therefore we must replenish the spent energy, which means that we must consume the stuff we “worked” for. Consuming stuff makes us stronger, which increases our odds of spreading our genes. At the most basic, this is the origin of selfishness and its polished version: greed. We simply cannot go against our genetically programmed objective. We simply cannot turn selfishness off. It is natural; it is not something un-ethical or in-moral or some sort of religious sin.

 

Initially Stuff has no owner

As we traverse this earth looking for stuff to consume and expending energy, when we actually manage to get stuff, we consume it. We do so because we are programmed to do so. We don’t look around for somebody else to give them this stuff. We don’t throw stuff away. We don’t destroy stuff. We consume it because we must. We really have no other choice at this, the most very basic level.

When we come across stuff, our first instinct is to consume it. This, the most basic instinct to consume stuff, also has another name: ownership. Ownership is not a legal, moral, ethical or religious principle, it is a biological imperative. We cannot turn our desire for stuff off in the same manner that we cannot turn our breathing off.

In an environment where a member of our species is more-or-less isolated from any other member of the same species; whatever stuff this member may get, this member keeps. This is so, not only because we need that stuff, but because there is nobody else around us to challenge us for the same stuff. This stuff has not been targeted by the biological imperative of any other member of our species; therefore this stuff is “ours”. In other words, this primordial “stuff” has no ownership in its natural state. We own it.

 

Summary

Ownership is simply the expression of our genetic programming. Any animal or biological entity of any kind, however basic it may be, exhibits this sort of behavior down to the bacterial level. Then it stops. Anything viral and below viruses do not exhibit this behavior. Rocks do not “need” to consume to survive. Only living things do. Only living things have the biological need to “own”. As such, ownership is not a moral, ethical or religious concept. This fact does not preclude the possibility of assigning moral, ethical or religious meanings or explanations to the concept of ownership, it only means that there is a most-basic explanation that suffices.

This explanation has the added advantage that it is objective and universal. We can all agree to the biological mechanisms of ownership, regardless of our moral, ethical or religious views. This is the goal that enables coexistence: minimum agreement. It leaves everything else to our freedom of choice.

Note: please see the Glossary if you are unfamiliar with certain words.

Continue to Lesson #145 - Property, ownership and competition - the human trinity - Part 3

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