The Commons Call to Revise Private Property Rights

The commons call for a different paradigm of social and moral order, escaping from the oppression and coercion that often comes with certain private property rights.


| June 2014


In our age of predatory markets and make-believe democracy, our troubled political institutions have lost real sight of real people and practical realities. But, if you look to the edges, ordinary people are reinventing governance and provisioning on their own terms. In Think Like a Commoner (New Society Publishers, 2014), David Bollier introduces the people, projects and vision now spawning a global movement. The following excerpt from chapter 7, “The Empire of Private Property,” examines private property rights and a offers a different paradigm for social order.

The Empire of Private Property

A ship is on a cruise sailing from port to port. Laid out on the upper deck are deck chairs; there are three times more passengers than chairs on board. During the first few days of the cruise, the deck chairs have a constant change of occupants. As soon as someone gets up, the chair is considered free; no one accepts the idea of placing handkerchiefs or other objects on chairs to indicate that they are being used. This is an expedient arrangement to allocate the limited number of deck chairs.

But once the shift sails into port and a large number of new passengers come on board, this arrangement breaks down. The newcomers, who all know each other, follow a different social convention in using the deck chairs. They draw the chairs toward themselves, and, from then on, lay exclusive and continuous claim to them. As a result, the majority of other passengers cannot use any chairs at all. Scarcity reigns, fights are the order of the day, and most of the guests on board find themselves less comfortable than before.  

The “allegory of the deck chairs,” as described here by German sociologist Heinrich Popitz (and brought to my attention by Silke Helfrich), illustrates just how malleable the idea of property really is. While formal laws may declare what property rights people may have in given circumstances, our social norms are at least as important a force — and those are highly adaptable.

The cruise ship passengers had a choice. They could treat the deck chairs as their exclusive individual property even though it meant that many passengers would have to do without — or they could treat the chairs as a shared resource that would more or less meet everyone’s needs. How we define property rights matters because they influence the sorts of personal and social entitlements we may enjoy, affect the kind of social relations we will have and have enormous effects on our sense of well-being (or alienation).

In a much-quoted definition, the eighteenth-century jurist William Blackstone described property rights as “the sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.” He implied that property rights belong solely to individuals. But of course property need not be defined this way. As the cruise ship passengers showed, they could choose to exercise temporary individual “use rights” to the same resource instead of exclusive possession. (To be technical, the cruise ship owner is arguably the “owner” of the deck chairs, but the passengers possess them for limited periods of time and in this case are free to set their own rules.)






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