You Don’t Own That! The Evolution of Property

April 24th, 2016

Get off my lawn.

In a recent post on the “evolution of money,” which concentrated heavily on the idea of (balance-sheet) assets, I promised to come back to the fundamental idea behind “assets”: ownership. Herewith, fulfilling that promise.

There are a large handful of things that make humans uniquely different from animals. In many other areas — language, abstract reasoning, music-making, conceptions of self and fairness, large-scale cooperation, etc. — humans and animals vary (hugely) in degree and kind. But they still share those phenotypic behavioral traits.

I’d like to explore one of those unique differences: ownership of property. Animals don’t own property. Ever. They can and do possess and control goods and territories (possession and control are importantly distinct), but they never “own” things. Ownership is a uniquely human construct.

To understand this, imagine a group of tribes living around a common water source. A spring, say. There’s ample water for all the tribes, and all draw from it freely. Nobody “owns” it. Then one day a tribe decides to take possession of the spring, take control of it. They set up camp surrounding it, and prevent other tribes from accessing it. They force the other tribes to give them goods, labor, or other concessions in return for access to water.

The other tribes might object, but if the controlling tribe can enforce their claim, there’s not much the other tribes can do about it. And after some time, maybe some generations, the other tribes may come to accept that status quo as the natural order of things. By eventual consensus (however vexed), that one tribe “owns” the spring. Other tribes even come to honor and respect that ownership, and those who claim and enforce it.

That consensus and agreement is what makes ownership ownership. Absent that, it’s just possession and control.

It’s not hard to see the crucial fact in this little fable: property rights are ultimately based, purely, on coercion and violence. If the controlling tribe can’t enforce its claim through violence, their “ownership” is meaningless. And those claimed rights are not just inclusionary (the one tribe can use the water). Property rights are primarily or even purely exclusionary. Owners can prevent others from doing anything with the owners’ property. Get off my lawn!

When push comes to shove (literally), when brass tacks meet the rubber on the road (sorry, couldn’t resist), ownership and property rights are based purely on violence and the threat of violence. Full stop, drop the mic.

In the modern world we’ve largely outsourced the execution of that violence, the monopoly on violence, to government. If a family sets up a picnic on “your” lawn, you can call the police and they’ll remove that family — by force if necessary. And we’ve multiplied the institutional and legal mechanics and machinery of ownership a zillionfold. The whole world’s financial machinery — the immensely complex web of claims, claims on claims, and claims on claims on claims, endlessly and densely iterated and interwoven — all comes down to (the threat of) physical force.

There are obviously many understandings and implications to this reality (e.g. Where did your ownership claim originate? Who got excluded, originally?), which I’ll leave to my gentle readers. But I’d like to close the loop on the the comparatively rather desiccated ideas of balance-sheet assets, and money, explored in my previous post.

When the one tribe takes control of the spring, they add that spring as an asset on lefthand side of their (implicit) balance sheet. Voila, they’ve got net worth on the righthand side! In standard modern terminology, the spring is a “real” asset — a direct claim on a real good, as opposed to a financial asset, which (by definition) has an offsetting liability on some other balance sheet — is a claim on that other balance sheet’s assets, is a “claim on claims.” The tribe’s asset — its claim to the spring and the output from the spring (capitalized using some arbitrary discount rate) — has no offsetting liability on other balance sheets. It’s a purely inclusionary claim. Right?

Wrong. It’s an exclusionary claim. Which means there is a liability, or negative net worth, on others’ balance sheet(s) — at least compared to a counterfactual fable in which all the tribes have free access to the spring. “Real” assets — balance-sheet entries representing direct claims on real goods (even your claim to the apple sitting on your kitchen counter) — have offsetting entries on the righthand side of the “everyone else” or “world” balance sheet. A truly comprehensive and coherent accounting would require first assembling such a pre-human or pan-human world balance sheet. Practically, that’s utterly quixotic. Conceptually, it’s utterly essential.

So while the distinction between real and financial assets can have conceptual and analytic value, it’s important to realize that the claims behind real and financial assets are far more similar than they are different. A deed to land — the legal instrument encoding an exclusionary claim — is quite reasonably viewed as a financial asset. There is an offsetting balance-sheet entry elsewhere, if only implicit. Donald Trump certainly views the deeds he “owns” as financial instruments, fundamentally similar to his stocks and bonds. Just: the legal terms of those financial instruments — the inclusionary and exclusionary rights they impart — vary in myriad ways. (Aside: economists really need a biology-like taxonomy of financial instruments, categorized across multiple dimensions. Where’s our Linnaeus?)

Balance sheets, accounting, and their associated concepts (assets, liabilities, net worth, equity and equity shares) are the technology humans have developed to manage, control, and allocate our (violence-enforced) ownership claims, a crucial portion of our social relationships. At first the balance sheets were only implicit — when the tribe first laid claim to the spring. But humans started writing them down and formalizing them, tallying those ownership and obligation relationships, thousands or tens of thousands of years ago. (Coins weren’t invented till about 800 BC.)

When some clever talliers started using arbitrary units of account to tally the value of diverse “assets,” and those units were adopted by consensus, we got another invention: the thing we call money. Like ownership rights, the unit of account’s value is maintained by consensus and common usage among owners and owers. But like ownership, its value is ultimately enforced by…force.

Balance sheets. All is balance sheets…


I find it distressing that this kind of deep and fundamentally necessary thinking about ownership and property rights is absent from introductory (and ensuing) economics courses — both textbooks and coursework. Likewise concepts like value, utility (carefully interrogated), and yes: money (ditto). I don’t think you can think coherently about economics if you haven’t carefully considered these issues and ideas. It’s that kind of deep and broad, ultimately philosophical, thinking, in the context of a broadly-based liberal-arts education, that makes American universities — somewhat surprisingly to me — the envy of the world.

Before leaving, I have to give full props here to Matt Bruenig, who delivered this clear and coherent Aha! understanding of ownership for me after I’d struggled with it for decades. It seems so simple and obvious now; others have certainly explained it before. I feel like a dullard for taking so long.

Cross-posted at Evonomics.

  1. Curt Gardner
    April 25th, 2016 at 12:47 | #1

    Was going to say this entry had a Matt Bruenig feel to it!
    Appreciate your on-going investigations of these matters, including the last post on savings.

  2. April 25th, 2016 at 21:48 | #2

    @Curt Gardner
    Thanks Curt! You know I just write this stuff cause it’s leaking out of my ears…

  3. April 26th, 2016 at 10:39 | #3


    It’s true our ancestors fought each other and occupied lands. But moving forward, hopefully violence is not the way and neither is snatching people who are already owning that property.

    So I don’t understand how some land is my liability. Am I liable to pay to the person occupying it? On the other hand people occupying property earn from it and it’s an asset. So again I do not understand how you are arguing that accounting is some sort of conspiracy.

  4. Andrew B Brown
    May 15th, 2016 at 11:04 | #4

    Please see Federal Credit Receipts. We are turning the “national debt” into a spendable asset. However, it must go through legislation and formal channels for accountability. The “national debt” via Federal Credit Receipts is to be spent on projects of economic benefit to local communities and jurisdictions.

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