If you want to understand ownership there
are some things you need to know about surfing. Suppose that George, Sam, and Jill go surfing
together one day. Now they’re all friends, so no one wants to grab all the good waves.
The point is for everyone to have a good time surfing. So now the first good wave begins
to break and no one wants to be selfish about it, so they look around at each other wondering
whose wave it is. And by now that wave is gone. This is not a good time surfing. What George, Sam, and Jill need is a way to
determine the ownership of the waves so that everyone gets a chance to say. “This next
wave is mine.” That’s not because they’re being selfish, though. It’s precisely because
they’re not being selfish. The selfish thing would be to do away with that sort of system
and just start pushing and shoving. People who want peace instead of pushing and shoving
need a way to determine whose wave is whose. Ownership is a right to tell other people
no. If you own a smart phone, then other people can’t use your smart phone without your permission.
But you don’t need their permission to use your phone. Now that might make it sound like
ownership is something really selfish. In fact, though, it’s the opposite of selfish. That’s why ownership is so important in society.
For one thing, ownership lets us all be more creative and do things we want to do. When
people can own resources, they can prosper from developing those resources and making
them more valuable. Then they can exchange with each other and create even more prosperity. Second, ownership actually puts a check on
selfishness and greed. When people’s ownership isn’t protected, greedy people are free to
come through and push everybody else out of the way. But with a strong ownership system
you can tell greedy people no. That also makes conservation possible: When people can say
no, they can stop other people who don’t just want to use resources but want to use them
all up. Plus, a lot of the things that we want to do are totally unselfish things. Who
knows? Maybe your biggest ambition in life is to give things away. It takes a system
of ownership to protect your right to make that choice. And third, ownership helps us all get along
with greater civility and fairness. Ownership allows us to set things aside for our own
use. So really, respecting ownership is a way of respecting each other as we go about
using the things that we depend on. But when ownership isn’t protected, it’s generally
the most vulnerable people, people without power and political connections, that suffer
the most. Other people with more power can then run them off their land or collect their
money in the form of a subsidy or a bailout. If we care about fairness for everyone then
we have to care about ownership.