Changing How the World Thinks

An online magazine of big ideas


Owning the World

Property rights, greed, and owning the unownable.


An economist and journalist, Anatone Kaletsky wrote for The Economist, The Financial Times, and The Times of London before joining Reuters in 2012. He is also author of Capitalism 4.0: The Birth of a New Economy in the Aftermath of Crisis. Here, he discusses the biological basis for property rights, owning the unownable and the growing need to limit copyright protection.


Is ownership a moral, or an economic issue?

Well, it's both. Certainly there are very strongly economic justifications, weaker moral ones, as well as important political, civil, and biological justifications. The moral part of the entitlement to own property in the abstract 'good' or 'evil' sense is the weakest justification for property rights. The economic justifications for property rights are that they give people incentives to work and to improve the world. An even stronger justification is biological, though – there is clearly an evolved tendency for human beings to want to compete; to expand their power, domain and ability to control the world. The ownership of property is an intrinsic part of that.

Of course it's not unqualified, but if you try to remove the right to ownership you come up against human nature, creating therefore greater violence – both physical and psychological – than the protection (or promotion) of property, which is often accused of being the source of violence and wars and so on.

Would you say there is a sort of mental violence in refusing parts of the world to people who don't or can't own anything?

That's a loaded question. In answer to the first part of your question – “is there a mental violence in refusing some parts of the physical world to others?” – yes, there is, but I think it's a lesser violence than the attempt to overcome the instinct to possess something.

To answer the second part of your question about refusing ownership to people who don't own anything, you've got to weigh the desire for possession against another moral requirement, which is about equalising, or at least bringing closer together, the opportunities, endowments and possessions of different human beings across society.

So, if you have a society that exists where some own an enormous amount and some own nothing, I would argue that those who own a lot have a duty to share what they have, or redistribute what they have, to those who have nothing. But this isn't the same as saying that “all property is theft” which is the sort of extreme view on the other side.

So are you saying that we're biologically programmed to want to own part of the world?

Yes, I think so.

Is there an extent to which we need to own something? Do we just need to own something – anything – or do we need to own a certain amount?

Well, as with almost all moral questions, it's all a matter of degree. Do we have a biological instinct for greed? We probably do. Does that mean that the instinct for greed should be indulged and permitted to operate untrammelled in the world? I think clearly not. So, we have lots of instincts, some of which have to be restricted, others have to be promoted, some of which have to be tolerated.

Just because we have an instinct to own property doesn't mean that this instinct should be allowed to run rampant. That is why we have the state and society, part of whose role is, at least from the origins of the state, to protect property. As history has advanced, especially in the last two centuries, the role has evolved not only to protect, but to restrict the rights of property. That is, to restrict both the amount of property people have relative to others, and to restrict what people can do with their property, via regulation, taxes and so on. I don't think it's a black and white issue, which may seem a boring thing to say, but it's a question of where you position yourself on the spectrum.

In recent years, there's been a particularly interesting move in that things which were never previously available as property are now ownable, for example, certain sequences of DNA. Is it right that we should be extending the sphere of what is ownable? How can we divide, or draw lines, preventing us from owning things that no human should be able to own?

I think some things shouldn't be owned, and I think the preoccupation with protecting property rights, which has been one of the strongest political driving forces of the Thatcher-Reagan, post-1980s period, has gone too far in several respects.

One is, as you said, expanding property rights to things which were previously regarded as common or social property, or things which were never regarded as subject to property rights, like knowledge. The other sense in which property rights expanded too far was in allowing people the rights to own and use their property in an unqualified manner without significant limitations. So you have taxation levels that got too low and so on and so forth.

But on the first question, which is the more interesting one, it isn't just genes that shouldn't be patented. I actually think that the protection of all kinds of other intellectual property rights have gone too far. Copyright protection in music and literature, for example, have had their period of copyright protection extended too far. I think it's now at 70 years in the EU and even longer in the US. There's got to be a balance.


In terms of intellectual property rights, we're no longer talking about an instinctive or natural right, we're talking purely about the economics of it – what is required to give people enough incentives to develop, innovate and so on. When it gets to the point that you're looking at it from a purely economic perspective, we've pushed the line too far. On the one hand, you want to give people incentives. On the other hand you want to give people the opportunity to use property, to use knowledge, in the broadest possible way. In my view, an author will have enough incentive to write a book even if they only own the copyright for ten or twelve years. Certainly it's not clear that their descendants need copyright protection after they're dead. I think the objective of extending property rights further and further has gone too far.



Latest Releases
Join the conversation

NathalieS 17 November 2015

Dear Anatole,
I would like to hear your thoughts about owning national natural resources and making the others to pay for enjoying it (rivers, lakes, sightseeing). I live in Israel and our natural resources are rather limited but private companies have "conquered" it all. You cannot enjoy of anything now without having to pay an entrance. Of course this has many other sides, like "the company has to return its investment" etc.. But the reality is that many of us today just cannot enjoy from natural sites in the country (entrance fees are just huge). The government is happy of course Bécquer they get royalties and taxes..