Property

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Property covers a vast range of rights and relations, from a single person owning a hammer, to a government and its citizens owning part of a bank's right to collect debt, to a copyright holder owning the right to prevent the transfer of information.

In political arguments, the word property is often used to set up a frame in which private property owners are threatened by the government. This story puts the owner of a small house on the same side as a giant corporation that owns the right to tear down that house to extract minerals, and it makes no distinction between democratically elected governments, repressive authoritarian governments, and governments that are run by the largest private property owners.

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Direct occupation and use of property

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, in his 1840 book What Is Property?, set up a completely different frame.[1] He noticed that our word property blurs together two different concepts. On one hand there is the right of someone who occupies or uses a piece of property, to make decisions related to that occupation or use. On the other hand there is the legal right of someone who does not directly use or occupy a piece of property, to command and profit from those who do. Proudhon argued that only occupying ownership is legitimate, and he opposed both rent and interest, as payments made by those who actually work with a piece of land or money to those who do not.

Sustaining and extractive ownership

But even if property rights could be restricted to direct occupiers and users, those users can and do exploit and damage both ecosystems and human artifacts. Yet another way to think about property is to make a distinction between sustaining ownership and extractive ownership. Through much of history, human systems of all sizes have had extractive relationships with land: depleting wood, topsoil, and minerals and moving on. In the consumerist phase of industrial civilization, we even have extractive relationships with our tools. But as the extractable resources get used up, more and more people and systems will have to shift to sustaining ownership.

Additional resources

See also

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Author: Ran Prieur