Encyclopedia > Ownership

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Ownership is the socially supported power to exclusively control and use for one's own purposes, that which is owned. The exclusiveness of the relationship can be seen to underlie much natural injustice in the world, and the social protection of the exclusiveness can result in tyranny and oppression at an individual and national level.

Socialism and communism assert that individual ownership of the means of production is detrimental to the public interest and advocate ownership of the means of production by the public. Generally, countries with these ideologies compelled companies to be nationalised, and forced production to be shared. The 20th century saw the general failure of these systems of government (although they still survive in some isolated countries,North Korea, Cuba for example). The power of ownership to exclude was, in these systems, placed in the hands of the state through state ownership. This resulted in literally millions of people being excluded from society (see Gulag, Khmer Rouge).

There are many ambivalent consequences of the idea of ownership: it seems to be necessary in all societies, giving security of belongings to satisfy our needs. However, it can hide great injustice. A simple example is where I own medicine which would cure your illness, and you cannot afford to buy it. Morality or ethics would say that unless there are very exceptional circumstances, I should give you the medicine. But ownership allows me not to give it to you. Indeed I can have socially accepted physical force used (by law enforcement officers) should you try to obtain it without my consent. Changing some of the elements of that situation shows that the developed world legally defends the situation where people suffer death by avoidable starvation, while others are living in over-abundance.

Ownership is self-propagating, since the more that a person can own or acquire through money, the more he or she will generate other things to be owned. Ownership seems to be central to economies in capitalism, and facilitates economic development and increases prosperity.

However, many would say that unbridled development is a great evil, leading to destruction of the environment and inevitable inequalities.

Onwership of ideas is always a complicated issue. Use of patents and copyright laws in modern society has introduced ownership for non-material things usually on a temporary basis. This is ambivalent also, providing reward to innovators, but also resulting in the often lamented demise of Napster for example.

In business, corporate ownership is an often important topic. Companies or organisations usually own factories, and the materials used to produce. They hire employees but they don't own employees. Companies which issue stocks are officially owned by stockholders, CEOs are hired by them to run companies. CEOS themselves do not own the companies, even though they may have more control and involvement than the 'real' owners, the stockholders. Executives of small companies are often also stockholders.

See also: property, intellectual property

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