What Is Property?

Go digging for definitions of property. You’ll quickly come across things like “items that businesses have legal title to” or “possessions conferred to an individual under the rule of law.”

From this perspective, it seems pretty cut and dry. There’s some document somewhere that says that you own something and, therefore, you do.

But when you delve a little deeper into the issue, you find that it becomes a heck of a lot more complicated and philosophical. It’s not clear why a piece of paper suddenly means you own something. Aren’t legal titles just a reflection of ownership?

Some companies take the approach that they need to mark their property with asset tags. But markings themselves aren’t the reason a business owns an item. They are just a unit of account – a way of saying, “I own this.” They say nothing about why it is owned – or indeed, whether it can be owned at all.

Property As Action

Most definitions of property appeal to the existence of a state. The buck stops with public authorities, and people don’t need to ask any more questions – or so the thinking goes. Property exists because the government allows it. That’s all there is to say. We don’t need to go further.

But when you go a little deeper, this reasoning doesn’t make a lot of sense. A state is just a group of people no different from any other (or a set of abstract ideas, depending on your persuasion), so there doesn’t seem to be an intrinsic reason why they should have a monopoly over the definition of property. Legal authority, it seems, merely backs up our intuition that we should own things. It doesn’t create ownership.

So what does?

Well, one idea is that property is the result of our actions. Let’s assume that we own our efforts. If we do, then we have a right to the effects of our actions. Anything we make with them is rightfully ours.

Taking a simple example, let’s suppose that somebody creates a hammer in their workshop. Here they take an idea in their mind and make it using the energy of their body. Since we assume they own their actions, it stands to reason that they must also be responsible for the effects of their efforts, too – namely the hammer.

Practically everyone implicitly assumes that people own their actions. When somebody does something wrong, we don’t imagine somebody else is pulling the strings in their minds, making them behave in criminal ways. Instead, we work on the basis that they have control over their bodies and should be held responsible for what they do with them.

Something similar is going on with property. When you make something, there’s a clear argument for why it is yours. You were the one who conceived it and made it a reality. Your claim to that property seems much more robust than somebody who just sat and watched you do it.

Property, therefore, is something that seems to emerge from the idea that we own our actions. If we do, then we can perhaps think about business property more philosophically.

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