Who Owns Your Property?


If you paid money for something, say you bought sheets of steel, and it was a legal transaction, do you have absolute ownership of those ...

If you paid money for something, say you bought sheets of steel, and it was a legal transaction, do you have absolute ownership of those sheets?

If there were an emergency, an act of nature, and your neighbors needed those steel sheets to build a bridge or a boat or something so everyone could escape, would they have the right to take the steel sheets from you even though you objected to them taking it? Perhaps those sheets were special order, specially cut, highly polished, and expensive; and you, after surveying the situation, decide the emergency is not quite as bad as everyone else thinks and if everyone would stay calm the emergency would pass, everyone will be safe, and you will keep your sheets of expensive, polished steel. Let’s also assume no one is taking the time to offer to repay you for the steel; they are too rushed. Are they stealing from you? Remember, they are in an emergency, and they believe, the majority of people involved, the steel sheets are necessary to save themselves and you. Also, remember this is not your big brother government taking your steel sheets, these are your neighbors, people like you.

So your neighbors take your steel sheets, use them--destroying them in the process--and happily everyone emerges from the emergency safe and uninjured. You are upset because they did it without your permission. You are convinced, although no one else is so sure, that the emergency was not so bad. Luckily, you have insurance on the sheets, so you get much of your money back, also your neighbors volunteer to pay back the rest. Still, you are not happy. You had a business opportunity for those steel sheets which would make you a lot of money, thousands of times the worth of the sheets themselves. The opportunity is gone. They denied you the opportunity to make income.

Being the vengeful sort, and seeing no one will compensate you for your lost income, you want vengeance, revenge, on those neighbors. You go to the police and press charges. You seek to have the police charge them with theft for stealing your property, those polished steel sheets.

We could make the scenario even harder by supposing your insurance company refuses to cover your loss because you forgot to sign the insurance document. Also, your neighbors are very poor and lost much of their property in the emergency. So no one will give you any repayment for the expensive, sheets of steel. The county and city you live in are poor and devastated by the emergency; they will not pay you anything. Not only did you lose the income, you also lost the cost of the materials. You are out a lot of money. And you're mad.

Are your neighbors guilty of theft?

You owned the sheets of steels. No one is denying your legal ownership. Your neighbors took those sheets for their own purposes, defying your attempts to stop them. That sounds like theft. But they didn't take it for profit or out of malicious intent, and they had not been planning to steal from you. They only took them because they felt they needed the steel sheets to save themselves, and you too, from dying. That does not sound like theft.

Did you actually own the steel sheets?

You bought them, you paid for them, you lost money because others took them and used them in ways which destroyed the sheets usefulness. It sounds as if you owned them. But those steel sheets were made with iron ore placed in the ground billions of years ago, before any human, animal, fish, or plant existed. (I'm uncertain how iron ore is made, but I believe that is right.) Can anyone own it? Just because you lucked upon something in the ground, does that give you greater rights to it than other people who need it just as much as you?

Can anyone own the Earth or its resources?

If not, how can we decide who gets what?

Usually, the answer is physical strength. Those with power decide who gets what. This was true in the past and is largely true today. It is hard to come up with a better system to divide resources, except instead of a powerful individual or totalitarian government, you allow a powerful democratic society (replacing the power of the few with the power of the many).

I personally am dubious we can own things, material objects like steel sheets. Instead, I think we own rights to those things. If you bought expensive steel sheets, you have proprietary rights to those sheets. Under normal circumstances, if your neighbors took those steel sheets and destroyed them, they would be guilty of theft and destruction of property. But in a situation that is not normal, an emergency, your rights to those sheets change. Your neighbors' right to live is greater than your right to make money.

In some sense, I believe that is absolutely true. But if people who feel threatened with death in an emergency have the right to take property to save their lives or the life of others, can we do the same to save the lives of people who might be starving in a drought in Africa? For example, if a region of Africa is in a deep drought, and the crops died, the people are starving and dying, do they have an ethical right to take from others (if they were able to do so) to save their own lives?

Ownership is a tricky concept.

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Consider This:

The sun is pure communism everywhere except in cities, where it's private property. -Malcolm De Chazal, writer and painter (1902-1981)



The Evolving Monkey : Who Owns Your Property?
Who Owns Your Property?
The Evolving Monkey
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