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Property and Interests

Private property is most effective in advancing the cause of liberty when ownership is closely aligned with primary interests. When the two coincide ownership can protect these interests by securing our ability to act on them. But, by the same token, liberty is eroded when ownership and interests diverge: where a person or group owns the things to which others have a primary interest, ownership becomes an instrument of control, and opportunities for domination multiply. The individualistic market and property model is predicated around a schism between interests and ownership: we produce or own things that others have an interest in to ensure that our own interests are met by others. At its best, it facilitates matching ownership with interest, at worst it keeps them apart and allows the gap to be used as an instrument of control. In part, this is what distinguishes a healthy economy from an unhealthy economy: the former aims to shorten the distance between interests and goods while the latter seeks to capitalise (pun intended) on increasing that distance. This raises a broader question as to whether the libertarian property model is universally suited to uniting interests with ownership, and hence uniquely placed to protect those interests.

Robert Nozick proposes that things come with claims already attached, and this may well be the case. His intent is to refute such institutions as tax-based wealth redistribution and promote a fully-realised private property market regime. But the claims that are attached to the things in the world are often very different to what Nozick imagines, and they may go so far as to exclude the very framework that Nozick wishes to demonstrate. His model assumes that property is about choice: we choose to make things; we choose to transfer things; we choose what to do with things, and so forth, such that everything is thus a result of free choice. The relationship between interest and ownership is only that interests shape our choices.

But this is a very poor model of what goes on in the real world. Choice is not liberty (liberty precedes and shapes choice), and what we agree to and what we would choose do not necessarily coincide. Some choose and others don’t, and some control the things that matter very much to others in ways that negate choice. In the real world we exist in relationships with things – places, activities, people – that have little to do with choice but that constitute our core interests. And these relationships give rise to claims that demand recognition. Nozick cannot be right, if he takes liberty at all seriously, that the claims that attach to property derive solely from the history of choices around these things. Individualised choice may, in fact, actively violate the most pressing claims that are attached to things. Unconstrained transfer rights make the relationship between interests and property very fragile: it only takes one party to transfer away the control over their interests for those interests to be forever compromised.

A property/market model suits some situations, especially where the goods in question are inherently individual, exclusionary, and transferable, and where the interests are transitory: in other words, consumer goods. But a different model, focussed on interests, is a more natural fit in at least some cases and, by aligning interests with ownership, is better suited to minimising domination and protecting liberty and autonomy. In this different model, some or all of the rights that we associate with property flow directly from the interests themselves. These rights flow not from ownership but from association, and so we might call such cases associational property. Associational property is not a matter of individual voluntary choice and transaction but rather derives from inherent relationships. Only changes to the association can change the ownership claims. This model recognises that liberty and autonomy depend on control remaining with the affected parties. There is nothing especially novel about the basic idea here: it is at the heart of what is best in socialism, anarchism, and even democracy. But to a libertarian it is a wholly foreign idea.

Ownership of self is perhaps the definitive case of associational property. It is the most intimate association that we all partake in, and many of the difficulties in libertarian theory come from the attempt to confuse self-ownership with conventional ownership. Self-ownership is rooted in the idea that I have the most interest in the parts of myself. Control of these parts by others is what makes slavery so offensive. I own myself and my constituent aspects simply because they are me. I did not choose to have these legs, ears, eyes, talents, or inclinations: I have relations of ownership to these elements simply because they are the integral parts of my being. Nor can I transfer these aspects to others – at best, I can agree to transfer the benefits of the use of these aspects to others: I can affect the outside world and that might conceivably be translated into transferable property claims. But I can never transfer myself in part or in whole without destroying my integrity. Self-ownership, then, derives from – and can only derive from – the prior fact of our existence, and only by ceasing to exist can we alter that relationship.

Our core interests deviate most from the libertarian individualistic property model when they involve other people. Most of our interests involve plural and complex associations. In some cases assigning controlling ownership rights over these interests to identified individuals may be efficient or practical. But as often as not such allocation is arbitrary and introduces a divorce between interest and control, creating opportunities for exploitation. The natural ownership model for these things is one that is mutual between stakeholders.

One example of this is core public infrastructure. Roads, public transport, utilities and the like are so important to our capacity to conduct our daily lives that this creates claims that are incompatible with those of private ownership: there are things that cannot be done with such items without violating important interests. The owner of a city’s water system cannot simply start pumping lemonade instead of water through the pipes. It would not be within the rights of the owner of a city’s road system to simply dig them up and plant cherry blossom trees. These shared interests create partial ownership claims over such infrastructure. Indeed, this is what we normally mean when we talk about public ownership.

A hugely important topic, to be saved for another day, is one of the most important interests that most of us have: that of the ownership of our productive activities. It is no secret that the gap between ownership and production is immense in its currently dominant form of stocks and shares. This has been a major source of irresponsibility, instability, locally and globally, and a driving force behind growing inequality. For now, I will simply state the conclusion that seems obvious to me: we need to take seriously the notion that the space of ownership of production must change dramatically to be limited to the workers, communities, and, in some special cases, consumers. Another zone of shared interest, again to be deferred in its discussion, is our ecology.

We all have critical stakes in ourselves, in our cities, in our ecologies, and in our workplaces. Regardless of the plurality of stakeholders with interests, any separation of interests from ownership introduces the opportunity for control and domination to emerge. When transferable ownership is superimposed on self-ownership we create the possibility for slavery, exploitation, and human misery; when critical infrastructure is sold-off to remote owners, driven by profit, we lose local autonomy and stability; when our workplaces are owned by volatile and disinterested shareholders the worker’s life becomes fragile and non-autonomous. These are all forms of domination that occur when natural forms of ownership are supplanted by a form that simply does not fit. What we have seen over recent decades is the privatisation of the greater part of public infrastructure, the quiet privatisation of public spaces (replacing rights to public protest with the right to advertise), the widespread imposition of mobile capital, and the enforcement of labour “flexibility” (read as “insecurity”). These all represent compromises of core interests in favour of increased domination. The question to be posed is whether, given the core interests involved, these transfers to private individualised ownership has been anything but a violation of trust.


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