Who Owns a Found Thing?August 4, 2014 at 9:28 pm | Posted in Fairness | 4 Comments
Tags: air, contested territory, copyright, Crimea, ethnic conflict, gas, genetic engineering, genetically modified organisms, Henry George, intellectual property, land, metals, migration, minerals, national boundaries, Nazi, ocean, oil, ore, Owner, ownership, patents, property, Putin, religious conflict, Rohingya, Sudentenland, territorial dispute, Ukraine
Breathe in. Now breathe out.
That air you just breathed – you did not create it. You just found it where you needed it, and used it.
The land on which you stand is part of a land mass that you did not create. You just found it where you needed it, and are using it.
The same is true of the ocean which floats your boat, and of the atmosphere that waters your crops and provides the water you drink and wash with and cook with, and whose fluid supports your aircraft.
The same is true of any oil or coal or gas or metal or metal ore from the ground or the ocean.
The same is true of the planet Earth, with its temperate temperature, and its protective atmosphere and magnetic field, and of the Moon, which tidally helps to stabilize the Earth’s spin axis, and the Sun, whose light illuminates and warms the Earth.
The atoms and molecules in all those things, you did not create them. You found them, or at most you modified them from atoms and molecules that you found, using energy that you found, via physical processes that obey rules that were already there, and that you merely used.
The same is true of any life form that we catch or grow, to eat or to use in other ways. It is true even of life forms that we have varied by breeding, or that we have genetically modifed directly.
Who owns them? Whose property are they, and by what right?
They are not in any essential way the property of any individual, family, business, collective, class, nation, society, or species.
But it is sometimes convenient to treat them as if they were. Doing so reduces conflict, except when it instigates conflict.
Here are some examples:
– Repeatedly, groups of people from Africa migrated to Europe and Asia, settling those formerly unpeopled areas.
– Groups of people from Asia then migrated to the Western Hemisphere, Australia and New Zealand, settling those formerly unpeopled areas.
– Groups of people from Europe migrated to the western Hemisphere, settling in those already-peopled areas, and not gently.
– Due to the never-ending reverberation of past religious competition, large numbers of Jews in Europe (including Central and Eastern Europe) finally gave up on those areas, where their ancestors had dwelled for millenia, and migrated to the already-peopled Middle East. They were joined by co-religionists from elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa who had there been harassed by the persistent reverberations of past religious competition in those locales. The resulting turbulence has not yet dissipated.
– The Sunnis and the Shiites, the persecution of the Rohingya in Burma – the list goes on and on.
– Putin’s grabbing of Crimea, using arguments like those that the Nazi’s used to justify their seizure of Sudetenland, and its attempts to peel off Eastern Ukraine.
Now some background and some conclusions.
Readers who are familiar with the work of Henry George (1839-1897) will recognize some of his ideas in the present blog posting. To quote Wikipedia, Henry George argued that “people should own what they create, but that everything found in nature, most importantly the value of land, belongs equally to all humanity.”
The views expressed in the present blog post are clearly a variant of those views. But there are at least three differences:
(1) The present blog post implies that for tangible objects, ‘creating’ is merely ‘clever re-arranging’. So only limited ownership should be conferred by the ‘creating’ of tangible objects. That is said with full respect for the ingenuity, resourcefulness, value-added, and the hard work required. In fact, those contributions are what justify the limited ownership. In the creation of intangible works – new concepts, new ways of working, new chains of reasoning, and art of all types – a larger part of the result is truly created, justifying a larger degree of ownership, but still a limited one.
(2) The present blog post implies that to ascribe ownership to all of humanity would appropriate to our species what intrinsically belongs equally to all species, both terrestrial and extraterrestrial. The same idea is often expressed by saying that we are just the stewards of spaceship Earth.
(3) Apart from the limited ownership that is justified by the ‘creation’ of tangible objects, and the greater degree of ownership that is justified by the creation of intangible works, the present blog argues that ownership is a legal fiction created for social convenience, rather than being intrinsic and fundamental. But once ownership has become established as a convenient fiction, morality and justice require that it thereafter be ascribed fairly.
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