What was the beginning of private property

The magazine - No. 32

Mr. Steinvorth, the government of Ecuador is demanding money from Germany and other countries so that a rainforest area with oil resources can be protected. Isn't that outrageous?

No, I wouldn't say that. Natural resources such as a rainforest or oil are actually recognized by the entire philosophical tradition as common property of mankind.

If the oil and the rainforest belong to everyone, why are such resources mostly sold and managed by individual companies?

Because there are no societies that follow this idea. But the idea is quite reasonable. If, for example, Ecuador refrains from exploiting resources in the interests of humanity, then humanity should please support them in this. The big disadvantage is that there is no one who represents the interests of future generations. In fact, the UN and similar institutions do not have the power to demand from the states: Now give something into a common fund, from which such projects are then paid for.

You have the manifesto Strengthening the Commons. Now! ”Co-authored. In it they write: There is a social movement for common goods. On the other hand, states have been privatizing for decades. How does that fit together?

Not at all. Very different traditions and philosophies collide. The movement of states to privatize everything goes back to classical liberalism of the 17th century. The idea is: private individuals are better suited to exploiting common resources in the interests of all than such clumsy institutions like states.

But that's also true. You know that from everyday life. In my house, everyone only takes care of their own apartment. Nobody does anything about the garbage in front of their door. And, as is well known, common property in the GDR was not in particularly good shape either ...

I wouldn't deny that from the start either. In a way, I'm a pretty tough liberal myself. The stairwell that is not swept is a fine example of how common resources are not being used in the best possible way when viewed as common property of all. Another example that is always used in philosophy and also in economics is a pond with a lot of fish in it. If it is viewed as common property, it will soon be overfished.

So the famous "tragedy of the commons" ...

Exactly. On the other hand, there is also the "tragedy of private property". Likewise, when goods are viewed as private property, there may be an overuse of resources without an equivalent replacement being provided. Just like what happens with oil today. Many people said decades ago that it would make sense to increase prices in such a way that the special value of crude oil can also be protected.

So both private property and the common good have a disadvantage?

Yes, this was taken into account very early in philosophy. For example with John Locke. He had the idea that common property, where it is good, should be used privately, but only on the condition that nobody who is not one of the users of these resources is disadvantaged by it.

If both private property and the commons are problematic, are there intermediate forms of property management?

Cooperatives, for example, were attempts to prevent the overexploitation of nature. They are organized for the long term and take future generations into account.

How long has private property been around? As long as there are people?

No, you can read that very nicely in philosophy. The concept of private property only emerged in antiquity, this is particularly clear with Cicero. Cicero is very clear that there should be private property because it benefits society as a whole. But certain resources like land cannot be private property. And the idea that there is a natural right to property is even explicitly rejected by Cicero. With him it is said: property is always property of a society.

Our society protects private property against it. In Article 14 of the Basic Law, however, there is also the strange sentence: "Property obliges". What does this mean?

On the one hand, property obliges us to keep house for future generations. On the other hand, to help those who, for whatever reason, have no property and cannot support themselves. The idea of ​​the welfare state is based on this.

Bill Gates could finance the budget of the state of Berlin for two years with his fortune. So all kindergarten teachers, police officers, administrators, operas, theaters and so on. Is there still a limit to private property at all?

In today's legislation as far as I know not. Those with strong shoulders must carry those with weak shoulders. In addition, however, individuals have the right to appropriate everything that is available in terms of natural and cultural resources.

Should lazy people own as much property as hardworking people?

No, they shouldn't. Property is used to use the resources of a society in such a way that it is in everyone's interest. One should not assume that property is only an original right of individuals. It is an instrument used by society to regulate relationships between people.

At the moment there is a lot of discussion about intellectual property. Do patents and copyrights stifle innovation?

Partly yes. There is empirical research into how patent rights are hindering the whole economy. On the other hand, it is of course the case that inventors have an incentive to do their work when they know that their invention is protected and they can get rich. Of course, this has always played a role in innovations in the past. The problem today is that so many inventions, for example in chemistry or physics, are produced on a production line. You can't really blame anyone any more, it's a global process - and those who happen to be the first are the big winners.

You don't even have to invent something for patents. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, secure the rights to medicines that have always been used in some cultures.

It simply shows that the idea of ​​private ownership of knowledge is becoming more and more absurd.

Can you understand musicians and record labels who are pissed off because nobody wants to pay for their products anymore?

Yeah yeah On the other hand, by downloading them, they can become even more widespread than was previously possible.

But they can't buy anything to eat from it.

Of course, those who are particularly brilliant musicians should also be rewarded for it. I'm not in favor of everything being leveled out. But that can be done by other means as well. You can measure how often someone is downloaded, you can build in counters, and then all internet users or computer manufacturers should pay money into a fund, which is then distributed to the appropriate artists.

Community movements are particularly strong on the Internet, for example Wikipedia or the open source operating system Linux - how come?

There are historical reasons for this. The first generation of modern day software producers worked together, not thinking that they could be considered the private owners of the discovery they made. It was a small group of a few hundred people who knew each other and kept looking over their shoulders. Richard Stallman, like his colleagues, was someone who wrote software for the owners of those few giant computers that existed at the time. At the beginning of the 1980s, computer owners began to see software producers as their employees. They said: What you do there is our property, we decide whether you can give your results to others or not. Richard Stallman was one of the few who refused. And then he bit his way through and thus became one of the founders of the so-called free software movement.

Can the success of collective ownership be carried over from the Internet to the analog world?

I guess so. There are many people who are interested in putting their work into a fancy company for free. Wikipedia is an excellent dictionary. There are so many people who are just proud to be able to give something to an institution that is accessible to everyone. Of course you have to be able to afford it. But this economic necessity would no longer exist if everyone, for example, received an unconditional basic income from the state. Then you put up a memorial and say you did it. This form of recognition is completely sufficient.

Ulrich Steinvorth (67) teaches philosophy at Bilkent University in Ankara. He co-authored a manifesto aimed at sparking a social debate about the commons.