What Is Ownership In The 21st Century?

I have recently been thinking a lot about an issue that I have been unable to frame adequately in written form in several attempts over the last twenty years.

This big issue is lurking in the background of my proposal for reforming tax policy and any serious discussion regarding the sustainability of our current economic situation. It is the same fundamental issue lurking behind the polarization of our current politics.

That core issue is the question of appropriately defining “ownership” for the 21st Century.

Some examples of complicated issues related to appropriately framing the questions and definitions of ownership:

What are the current ownership rights and interests of our kids, grandkids and those many future generations from now? Who best represents them and how? How are those interests appropriately valued today? For instance who really owns fossil fuels and the right to extract them and set prices on stuff that has taken millions of years to form and, at least for today, represent the most critical resources for a modern economy.

As Peter Barnes asked in starting the Sky Trust – who owns the sky and the climate? What “fees” are appropriate for despoiling them? How do the rights of coal power plant owners, as an example, interface with the emerging ownership rights to the sky that Barnes alludes to? How does that relationship change the rules of our economy?

What are the ownership rights, responsibilities and liabilities of nuclear plant owners who create radioactive wastes and extreme toxins that lasts thousands of years with no place to safely or legally dispose of them? Similar though perhaps not as extreme questions can be asked of many other industries.

In a complex modern global economy, how do ownership rights in “the commons” cross boundaries of national sovereignty as well as boundaries of time?

In his book, “Companies We Keep”, my friend John Abrams addresses the question: who owns our work and what does that mean both for workers and their employers?

The tea party folks are really asking in large part fundamentally ownership questions: What claim does the government appropriately and legitimately have on the fruits of a person’s own labor or investment. If the government can effectively claim ownership to what others produce, what responsibilities on government come with such claims?

There are many divisive questions of how ownership is allocated and whether currently established systems of  establishing ownership are always appropriate. The list could go on exploring the complicated web of relationships that get defined by a presumed shared understanding of ownership interests. But the fundamental question of defining ownership is rarely examined explicitly in a manner that can help answer some of the more divisive and complicated issues of our times.

Slavery, the ownership of other people, was an accepted organizing principle of society for thousands of years, until relatively suddenly, evolving moral understanding and huge social disruptions determined that it wasn’t at all acceptable. Today we face similarly profound questions regarding long held but largely unexamined presumptions of ownership. Beginnings of the moral explorations of some of those presumptions are starting to emerge as drivers of current social divides in our country.

In my view, as both a moral and practical matter, we need to explore how we can best preserve and enhance the vigor, rigor, accountability and incentives of a market economy as the appropriate answers to fundamental questions about ownership evolve and emerge for the 21st century.

What is ownership really and what rights, privileges, responsibilities and protections legitimately come with ownership? Big  questions that I have been pondering and struggling with for decades.

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Filed under Best Stuff, Economic Policy, Fundamental Perspectives

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