Let's Talk About Ownership

This is Michael Berger with SolutionsForLiberty.com.  Today I'd like to discuss the subject of ownership.  First off let me ask you, what is ownership anyway?

What does it mean to be an owner?

If the word "ownership" were suddenly removed from the English language what would you replace it with?  What is ownership at its core?

What word comes to mind?  Does the word you are thinking of start with the letter "c"?  Is it control?

What about the word "owner"?  If ownership is control then what does the word "owner" mean?  If the word "owner" ceased to be part of the English language what word would you use in its place?  Would it be the word "controller"?

Of course you could replace the word owner with the word proprietor, but what does it mean to be a proprietor?  Well, if someone is a proprietor of a store for example, it means they are the controller of that store.  In the end ownership always comes back to control doesn't it?

Ownership is Control


Control is Ownership

Although this is simple enough, most people are confused about ownership.  A lot this confusion is because we use the word "owner" when we mean rightful owner and also when we mean controller.

Using the same word to refer to more than one thing is not necessarily a problem.  When we hear the word "buy" we know from the context whether "buy" means to purchase, or if it is "bye" as in good bye, or "by" means next to, or if it is "bi" as in I was friends with this girl who was bi.  Since the four meanings of the word "buy" are distinct and unrelated concepts they are not easily confused.

Even though the word "ownership" does not refer to as many things as the word "buy", the definitions of ownership are related to each other and therefore easily confused.

Once when I was a little boy I rode my bike somewhere and left it for a bit to go do something.  A few minutes later, when I came back for my bike, it was gone.  It had never occurred to me that someone might take my bike.

When I realized my bike was gone I became confused; I knew that it was still my bike but it didn't feel like mine since I no longer had it.  In order to make it feel like mine again I had to get it back.

And so I walked around the block and some nearby streets in search of my bike.  Eventually I spotted some other boy riding my bike.  I ran over and grabbed it from behind by the seat post and said "That's my bike, it's my bike!" as I forced the bike to come to a stop.  Then the boy got off the bike and walked away.

Although the bike had been mine all along, in order for it to be fully mine once again I had to get it back.  From the moment I got a firm grip on that bike, I went from being the bike's rightful owner to once again being both its rightful owner and its actual owner, its controller.

What I realized back then is that you do not truly own something unless you possess it or control it.  If you are the rightful owner of something it simply means you are its rightful controller; it does not mean you are its actual controller.

Now here's an interesting question: If the bike was only fully 100% mine when it was under my control, how much was it mine during the time that the other boy had it?  Remember, for a few minutes I could not see the bike and had no idea who had taken it or where they had gone.

There is an old saying that possession is 9/10 of the law.  If that is true then the bike was 9/10 the thief's and only 1/10 mine.  My rightful ownership was only worth 1/10 VS the thief's control over the bike which was worth 9/10.  And even if the old saying is wrong, even if possession is only 6/10 of the law, the bike was still more his than it was mine.  Although I retained every right to become the actual owner of the bike again, that right was of very little value until I exercised it.

One reason there is so much confusion about ownership is because the dictionary defines ownership as rightful ownership, rather than control.  But the dictionary is wrong.  In order to understand what the word ownership really means we have to look at its use in real life.

Once in a while a police officer will recover someone's stolen property.  Of course this doesn't happen very often since the police spend most of their time babysitting the homeless and the mentally ill and generating revenue for the state.  However, when they do manage to get a stolen item back it is often said that the item was "returned to its rightful owner".

If the word "owner" by itself meant rightful owner, nobody would ever feel the need to use the phrase "rightful owner" would they?, of course not, they would just use the word "owner".  The very fact that the phrase "rightful owner" exists shows us that there is some other kind of owner, some other kind of controller, other than the rightful controller.

Now, Black's Law Dictionary does have a different definition for the word ownership than a regular dictionary of the type that you may have in your home.  According to Black's Law Dictionary ownership means having dominion, sovereign or supreme authority, the power of control.  The reason this dictionary links ownership to control and regular dictionaries do not is simple; some dictionaries were written for slave owners, whereas other dictionaries were written for the slaves.

For a select few being able to pretend that control is not ownership has been very profitable.  In fact one of the key strategies used by the rich to preserve their wealth is to, and I quote, "own nothing but control everything".

When a rich person walks into their house it is not technically their house, it belongs to a holding company they control.  Their car is not technically their car, nor is their boat their boat, even though they have exclusive use and control over these things.

Even if someone were able to win a judgment against them in court, there would be no assets to seize since on paper they would own nothing.  The honorable judge would pretend that a stack of papers in a file cabinet owned the mansion, and the Rolls Royce, and the yacht.

Although legal ownership is just a made up concept it has real world ramifications in our lives.  If you were to buy a car from someone, if you were to pay them the money and get them to give you a receipt or bill of sale and then drive away with the car, then you would be both the rightful owner and the actual owner of that car.  Nevertheless, as I'm sure you already know, until the car's title was transferred into your name you would not be the legal owner.

Now consider this: If that car were to be stolen from you before transferring the title over to your name, then it would have 3 different owners at the same time.  You would still be the rightful owner of the car and the person who sold you the car would still be the legal owner, but the thief would now be the actual owner.

As with many things in life government has made car ownership more complicated than it ought to be.  In fact there is no reason legal ownership and rightful ownership couldn't simply be the same thing.  Under a just legal system there would be no way to have legal ownership of something without being the rightful owner.  I mean think about it; how could you be the legal owner of something that was not rightfully yours and it still be a just legal system?

In an ethical legal system titles would not confer ownership, they would simply be evidence of ownership.  Note that I said evidence, not proof.  Instead of the title of a car or a house declaring someone to be the owner it would simply say that they were the "presumed owner".  This would mean that the state has reason to believe that the person listed on the title is the owner.

While at first this may seem like a small technicality, I assure you it is not.  One of the differences with an ethical legal system is that you could own a house without having a title.  In fact you could be the rightful, actual, and legal owner of a house even if you had no paperwork for that house whatsoever.  This does not mean that you could avoid property taxes however, that's a whole nother issue, it just means the government would not have your name recorded on any title paperwork; either there would be no title paperwork or the title would have out of date information and still show a past owner as the presumed owner.

Although not requiring a title for ownership may sound weird it's actually quite normal.  If you were to go to the store and buy a new bicycle you wouldn't get a title would you?, and yet you would become the legal owner the moment you purchased it.  The way you know that you would be the legal owner of the bicycle is that anyone who stole it from you and got caught would get in trouble with the legal system if you pressed charges.  This is because, when it comes to bicycles at least, legal ownership is tied to rightful ownership.

Since legal ownership and rightful ownership can be and ought to be the same thing, that begs the question, why does legal ownership even exist?  How did things like titles and legal ownership come about?  That my friend is a very good question.  And the answer is both simple and tragic.

The concept of legal ownership was invented a long time ago to help facilitate the theft of land.  It can be traced all the way back to early medieval times.  It stems from a legal and religious doctrine that came to be known later as the Divine Right of Kings.  The Divine Right of Kings says that kings are chosen by God and pre-ordained to rule and reign.

The idea was that since God had created the earth from nothing, he owned it and could give it to whomsoever he chose.  The assumption was that God was actively involved in the management of earth choosing which kings would rule over which lands.

Although this may sound like it would end all wars, that's not exactly what happened.  You see, there was no way to know who God had chosen to be king or what land God had chosen for him to control /own.  Contenders for the crown just had to fight it out and see who won.  Under heavy religious indoctrination, the masses believed that whoever became king, whether it was by inheritance or by invasion was God's chosen ruler.

In reality however, the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings was just a clever re-branding of the same old "might makes right" mentality that had always existed in the ruling class.  The only difference was that now it was dressed up in a way that gave it an aura of legitimacy.

You see before the divine right of kings stolen land was simply stolen land.  There was only rightful ownership and actual ownership.  Regardless of whether you obtained your land by inheritance or by purchase, or by moving onto a piece of unclaimed land, the land was yours both by right and in actuality.  Back then if a king were to come along and steal your land by force it was a blatant theft that could not have been seen as anything other than a theft.  Even if some questionable things had happened with the land in the past, for example you inherited or purchased it from someone who took it by force from an owner before them, you were still more rightful an owner of the land that you had lived on and worked on than some invading king.

When the Divine Right of Kings came along it muddied the waters because rightful ownership now had to contend with this new concept of legal ownership.  Now it didn't matter how cleanly you owned the land; even if you could prove a peaceful and voluntary transition of ownership for your land all the way back to Adam and Eve, the king still had a prior claim.

To dispute the king's ownership of your land would be to dispute Gods ownership of the earth, besides, you would probably be imprisoned or killed and your land stolen anyway.  If on the other hand you were to bend the knee to the king then you might be able to rent your land back from one of his lords.

In England and much of Europe it became impossible to own land without having a title granted by the king or someone acting on the king's behalf.  Rightful ownership became less and less relevant as legal ownership became more and more prevalent.

The first titles required to legally own land were not folders with pieces of paper in them but rather titles like Lord, Bishop, Knight, and Baron.

It wasn't until hundreds of years later that titles for land became something separate and distinct from titles of nobility.  The first paper titles for land were simply handwritten copies of the information that the king had about a person's land in the registration books he used to keep track of land taxes.

Over time legal systems were changed to allow commoners to own land.  By making it possible for the common man to legally own land the theft of land became less apparent.  You see, before, a poor man who didn't own land knew he was the unwilling victim of a greedy king and a corrupt ruling class; he knew he was a serf or a peasant who had had his rightful portion of the land stolen from him.

Under the new system of paper land titles a poor man would ignore the large tracts of land that had been stolen by the king and his government.  He would just write off those unused lands even though he had as much of a right to a part of them as any king or government official.  This was because he would focus only on the few, tiny, overpriced lots that were on the market for sale.  He would be so distracted by the details of these microscopic pieces of land that he would ignore the thousands of square miles of land that were just sitting there all around him.

Although he would hope someday to be able to have a place of his own, not having one would no longer be a cause for revolt.  The fact that he was unable to buy a property of his own was no longer the fault of the wealthy and powerful; now he was simply a loser who was unable to compete in the "free market".  He'd grow to hate himself so much that he would spend more time thinking about killing himself than he spent thinking about killing the king.  As long as he hated himself more than he hated his oppressors he was of little threat to the ruling class.