You Own Me, I Own You (but not really)

Having established (in another thread) that some anthropologists trace the economic concept of property to the naturalistic idea of “owning” another person, I’d like to explore some implications.

First, I should stress that ownership in this sense does not imply a master/slave relationship or possession in the same way that one can possess a rock, say, or jugs of wine. Instead I’m focusing on the more familiar sense of human relationships wherein we commonly speak of “my family,” or “my friends,” or “my neighbors,” and so on. These phrases convey a kind of possession that can never be realized fully in practice but which is significant enough to be acknowledged.

It seems to me that property of this kind is central to the basic concept of economy, meaning the production and consumption of goods. One can use the the logic of self-interest to illustrate. The ownership of other people suggests a range of application: Since some people are more your property than others, you can use them to a greater extent in achieving the personal economy you seek. This, of course, is precisely where the logic of self-interest breaks down. It is not really possible to own another person in the sense of controlling them completely. There must be some element of cooperation in such a human property relation, some sense in which it is consensual or at least conditional.

In effect, the psychological reality of “owning” others inherently reveals that you don’t. Or, put another way, to the extent you can marshal the people you own to help in your production, they in turn own you for purposes of their own consumption.

It would be a mistake to describe the property relation among human beings as essentially capitalistic or communistic. It is alternatively one, then the other, then the first again. It is, rather, more important to conceive of the property relation as a social mechanism, deriving from a particular psychological experience we all have, that tends, in its natural function, to preserve the equality (or social reality/relevance) of persons.

Here is what an economist can say about the concept of property: Human beings in general have a highly developed sense of property which we apply to things and to other human beings. Further, our sense of property appears to serve as a means of organizing ourselves for economic purposes (production and consumption). But because the essence of the property relation is psychological, it can become perverted, especially by making the assumption that it is literally true. One can, after all, turn people into literal property (slaves) through the use of force, or by stratagems such as debt calculation or even, merely, by achieving the “consent of the governed.”

We have historical examples of attempts at all these methods; we also have the benefit of knowing that none was ever permanent nor even theoretically necessary. By way of contrast, the paradoxical equality of human beings remains ineluctable.

7 thoughts on “You Own Me, I Own You (but not really)

  1. There are almost universal examples of property in the natural world.

    Plants and animals compete for territory and mating privileges.

    In some cases, the “ownership” is seasonal and transitory.

    In the simplest of terms, all living things have one drive, to procreate. All else are essentially paths to that end.

    Humans have drawn this out to mean familial power over generations, which is a bit odd. Great fortunes made a century ago are the power source for progeny today no matter how successful or unsuccessful they may be in their own right. We adhere to dynastic power as worthy of property care, control and custody, regardless of the value to society, the market or even global relations.


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    1. You make the Marxian point that exploitation of the producers is inevitable, but we know that Marx’s argument in support of that conclusion was fallacious.

      The exploitation of workers is not inevitable by any means. It can occur, but when it does it occurs as a matter of conscious choice, usually supported by some frivolous, rationalizing theory.

      The transmission of wealth through inheritance needs to be examined in a similar, dualistic way. Once you grasp that a concentration of wealth generates economic activity in which all of the participants are beneficiaries to some extent, it makes perfect sense for there to be someone to serve as steward in order to protect and administer it. Yes, corruptions can happen, but so can enhancements. Just as Plato told: there are good kings, and bad kings.


      1. No, I was simply stating that dynastic wealth, and its access to power, has little connection to earned wealth and its properties other than accident of birth.

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        1. And I note that it has every connection. As I wrote in the essay, “our sense of property appears to serve as a means of organizing ourselves for economic purposes (production and consumption).”


          1. That might be true. The question is whether owning land, patents, factories, etc. in perpetuity through familial connections rather than for a time limited method of death of the founder and inactive descendants.

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          2. In a way, I suppose. My understanding was that the estate tax originated in the early 1900’s to dampen the monopolistic dynasties of the robber barons.

            This does not mean the inheritors will be living in the streets, but it also questions the establishment of ultra rich families whose founders are long gone. I still believe that great wealth gives access to great power, particularly in a money dependent political system like ours.

            A democratic republic like ours should reserve power to the political because that is determined by the people through election. In theory.

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