• 202004.10

    The property "ownership" myth (and other thoughts on socialization)

    It was getting dark, and starting to rain. You needed a place to stay. Not just for the night, but a place to call your own after living under other people’s roofs for so long. You’re tired of moving, tired of the journey. You want to put down roots.

    By strange coincidence, a stranger approaches you and says “See that house over there? I’ll sell you the house and the property it’s on for $50K.” You have the money, you’ve saved up for a long time. You agree.

    “There’s just one or two more things,” says the stranger. “You can’t make significant modifications to the property without asking me first.” It seems reasonable, so you agree. “Any large-scale projects you wish to do on the property must be cleared by me,” stated the stranger. “And lastly, at any point, if I ever need the property for something, I can take it back from you, and if I do this I will pay market value…but you cannot refuse.” It struck you as odd, but you agree and buy the property.

    Do you own it?

    Property ownership in the United States…

    …is a myth. Nobody owns (land/”real”) property. What people own is a title of use of property, but the property itself is jointly owned between cities, counties, states, and the nation. I’ve had this argument several times with many people, and none of them can reconcile “ownership” with the fact that:

    • You often need to get government approval to modify an existing structure on property
    • You need government approval for large-scale projects on property (building any kind of large structure, digging a mine, etc)
    • Most importantly, the government can take your property away from you via Eminent Domain whenever it deems it necessary (you being compensated is irrelevant to the fact that you have no choice)

    You do not own the property you “own” but rather own a title of use, and that title comes with various restrictions. If you can prove me wrong, please feel free to comment below, but to my understanding, if someone gives you something but has the ability to take it away from you at any point, you do not own it.

    It gets interesting with things like a civil suit in which being on the losing end means some amount of your assets being seized. Did you own those assets to begin with? It’s an interesting question, but ultimately I would say you did own those assets, but through some form of wrongdoing via your own action/inaction lost access to them, via some socially-mandated set of rules that come along with social or economic interaction with other people.

    That said, the fact that you can lose your property without wrongdoing and just because the government wants it, to me, points to the fact that the property was not yours to begin with.

    Why does this matter?

    This matters because given that property is not owned individually, it follows that property is socialized. In the context of a market system, it means that when you buy/sell property, you’re really just selling the title for use of the property, not the property itself.

    So when talking about socialization of productive property or housing, nothing regarding ownership changes materially: the ownership of property is already socialized! What changes is the mediation of the use of property. What this mediation looks like without markets and how it works is another very interesting but complex set of ideas (which are outside the scope of this post).

    However, the next time someone says that socialization of property is totalitarian or “doesn’t work” or some such nonsense, tell them that all property is already socialized and ownership is a myth.