What is ownership? We tend to think about ownership in relation to money. You buy something, you own it. But ownership is much older than that. There are plenty of animals that claim territory, and retain control over tools, or mates, or sources of food. With respect to others of their species, their sensations of ownership are just as real as ours. So what does it mean to own something?
I believe that ownership is like a file-lock in an operating system. A program locks a file while it’s in use, because otherwise, other programs would be able to tinker with that data and consequently screw the program up. File locks prevent costly errors.
As social organisms, we express ownership if we want to be able to rely on a resource being available to us in the future. Being able to rely on a resource being there enables us to plan. And for the intelligent, tool-using creatures that we are, being able to plan is everything. Planning is the program we’re trying to not mess up. The rest of our social group, by and large, respects that right to access. When everyone’s access rights are taken seriously, friction within the social group is minimized, and thus collective effectiveness increases.
Note that this model doesn’t say anything about why a given resource-lock is established. It might be to advertise mating potential, secure sources of food or shelter, or a dozen other reasons. At some level, it doesn’t matter.
Note also that I’m not making a moral argument about whether ownership is right or wrong. I’m just saying why it’s there. Similarly, I’m not saying that it’s impossible for societies to arise in which property isn’t shared. Under unusual social pressures, other access patterns can surely be established. I’m sure there are anthropologists who could point you at half a dozen examples. But the fact that such systems can occur says nothing about the evolutionary reason why the pattern is there in the majority of cases, or why something like it arises in everything from ants to octopi to us.
So there we have it. That’s why anyone owns anything. However, something interesting can happen in human societies that this model doesn’t quite take account for. In our modern, complex civilization, it’s possible for people to claim ownership over commodities that they never even see, let alone use. How does that work? I have an answer, of course. Can you guess what it is?
In the next few posts, I intend to riff on this topic, and others related to it. I welcome any and all thoughts that occur to readers along the way.
Note: For any and all who’re interested, I’ve decided to split of my more writer-ish posts and host them on my main website, as of today. If you’re interested, you can find them here.