On ownership

I’ve been reflecting on the notion of property recently – that is, on the idea of owning things.

Owning things used to be very important to me. When I didn’t have much, I longed to own all sorts of things. I particularly remember saving up for a Texas Instrument TI-58 programmable calculator, and for a custom-made racing bike frame that used Reynolds 531 double-butted tubing. In each case, as I saved, I spent much time dreaming over what it would be like to own it, reading whatever I could about the product and wishing the time away until I could afford to buy one.

Once I managed to buy them, I loved to sit and admire my acquisition. I remember being enchanted at the effect of the tiny gold specks in the deep green paint on the bike frame. I felt like I could gaze at it for hours. With the calculator, as well as making up lots of little programs to run on it, I would carefully polish it, wiping away the slightest speck of dust, and sometimes just press the buttons to hear and feel that satisfying click they made.

I feel a little ashamed to say that I also coveted ownership in the area of relationships. The reigning paradigm in those days seemed to be that a girlfriend or boyfriend was in some sense an acquisition or a possession. Somebody with a beautiful petit(e)-ami(e) was seen as possessing great wealth, at least in regard to that relationship. There is more to the phrase ‘I wish she was mine’ – uttered in so many popular songs – than a meaningless conventional grouping of words. Being the seventies, I suppose the sense of ownership may not have been symmetric between the sexes. Fortunately, we seem to have moved beyond that now.

Being a very sport-oriented boy in my teens, notions of ownership and coveting also infused my ideas of body. I would look at the rolls of muscle flowing over the knee of one of my cyclist friends and think ‘I wish that I had [owned] thigh muscles like that – it’s not really fair that he has them and I don’t‘. I did weights in the school gym twice a week and, once I developed a fairly muscular physique, became a little proud of it, as a possession. A friend that I did the weights with was very strong and more muscly than me. But his calves were not as prominent as his other muscles and he would often bemoan the fact that, no matter what exercises he did, he was unable to persuade his calves to jut out in the manly way that he would have liked.

I think the young may be especially literal-minded about ownership. I remember being intrigued by the phrases ‘my doctor‘ and ‘my lawyer‘ the first several times I came across them. I wondered how immensely wealthy and powerful somebody must be to have their very own doctor or lawyer. I interpreted it as meaning that the doctor or lawyer worked exclusively for their ‘owner’. It took me a long time to realise that the phrases did not imply exclusivity – that all they meant was ‘the doctor I do to when I’m sick‘ (although I still thought you had to be rich to use a lawyer). I think that, at least, was a sensible attitude of my young self. In most instances ownership – which is implied by the word ‘my’ – does imply an exclusive right to use whatever is owned. The cases like that where it doesn’t are exceptions to the general rule.

Now that I am older, and more affluent, I find that ownership is increasingly unimportant to me. I don’t deny that I enjoy owning a comfortable house in a convenient neighbourhood, and that I would find the transition difficult and distressing if I were evicted and sent to live in a slum. I also find it pleasant to earn and own enough money that I can buy whatever amenities of life and small whims I desire (a new hat, a book – I seem to have no expensive habits). But I no longer wish to gaze lovingly at my possessions as I did before. Also, and I think this is much more significant, I no longer react to the observation of something beautiful, powerful or otherwise impressive by wishing that I could own it.

For example, if I see a very lithe, fit, fast runner bounding along in the park, I don’t wish that I had the talents and capabilities that they have. I am content to observe them and to be glad that there are lithe, fit, fast runners in the world. If I see a beautiful painting or sleek, super-light, aerodynamic bicycle, I am now able to admire them, appreciate their beauty, and be glad that I had the opportunity to observe them, rather than wishing that I owned it. And if I see an amazingly beautiful, funny, clever or graceful woman, I do not wish that she were my partner – which is just as well as I already have a life partner that I dearly love. I simply feel glad that there are such people in the world and that others can take pleasure in being around them and interacting with them.

In other words, ownership for me is now almost completely unrelated to whether I can be glad about something or someone.

I think part of the reason for this softening of attitude is having meditated on the nature of ownership. I started by wondering what ownership means. We tend to accept it as if it were a fundamental concept, with some sort of invisible, metaphysical existence of its own. As if it were, in some deep sense, ‘important’. Actually though, it is nothing of the sort. ‘Ownership’ is just the name we give to a situation when somebody has a certain amount of control over something. If they have the power to use that thing when they want, for what purposes they want, to prevent others from using it, and also the power to pass control of that thing to someone else either in exchange for something of value (a sale or trade) or in exchange for nothing (a gift), then we typically say the person ‘owns’ that thing.

Note that the power to use the thing, and to prevent others from using it, is simply a social convention. Given certain preconditions, such as public purchase, presentation of receipts or habitually carrying the thing around with them, we tend to award the notion of ownership of a thing to the person that bought it, has the receipts, or carried it around. Different societies and social groups set different preconditions for ownership, and those preconditions can change over time. There is nothing metaphysical or Platonic about ownership. There are no graven tablets at the end of the universe that record who ‘owns’ what in an ultimate, objective, society-independent fashion.

Nor is the power granted by society to owners ever absolute. There is nothing that we ‘own’ over which our rights to use it are unlimited. When we own land there will be rules about the uses to which we may put it and the conditions under which we may sell it. For instance one is typically not allowed to subdivide land and sell it in parts, without first obtaining permission from a suitable level of government. There are limits on how high one can build and how deep one can dig on one’s own plot of land. It appears from Pride and Prejudice that in some cases there are even constraints on the people to whom one can bequeath land – as Mr Bennett was not entitled to bequeath the house and land which he ‘owned’, and in which he and his wife and daughters lived, to his family because they were all female.

Viewed in this light, we realise that there is nothing that special about ownership, compared to say, just borrowing or hiring. Life is temporary, and ownership is really just an extended lease.

Of course, if one is not subject to a Bennettian entail, one can sometimes bequeath that which one owns to one’s heirs – something we cannot do when we rent. But even that only grants an extension of our temporary control. Generally, in the history of the world, few items of land or moveables have been handed down through the generations without being lost after a few generations through war, natural disaster, theft or economic catastrophe. Far better, surely, to enjoy the use of things while we can, whether we own, rent or borrow them, than to quest after the illusory and impossible permanence of ultimate ownership.

I concede that there are some practical advantages of ownership. One of the great motivators for young people to buy a house is that they will finally be able to settle in one place, without the likelihood of having to move from one rented apartment to another as leases end and rents go up. Once one owns a house, one can decorate it to one’s taste and modify it to suit one’s lifestyle – which one can’t do with rented accommodation. I think it is in these practical advantages that the true benefit of societal conventions of ‘ownership’ lie. They allow people to attain a greater degree of stability and security. As I have argued, such security and stability is not permanent, but it lasts longer than is generally achievable with renting or borrowing, and hence can provide greater comfort.

But I return to the observation – that came to me late in life – that one does not need to own something to enjoy it. Perhaps I was peculiar, gazing at the deep, speckled green of my Abeni bicycle frame and thinking contentedly ‘this is mine now’. Was I unusual as a young person, in obtaining pleasure from the sheer fact of ownership? I don’t know. But I am glad that now I do not feel like that – that I can take as much pleasure from seeing a beautiful bicycle, pair of jutting calves or Georgian townhouse belonging to somebody else, as I would if it belonged to me.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2015

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