The Hidden Rule of Ownership

Making sense of who gets what and why ownership is always up for grabs.

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This post is adapted from our new book, Mine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives, available March 2. To learn more about the book, visit minethebook.com.

The idea of ownership seems natural and beyond contest.  You know what it means to own stuff, whether you're buying a new home or claiming the last slice of pie.  Mine couldn't be simpler.

But a lot of what you know about ownership is wrong.

As we have shown in the blog posts this week, once you understand how the rules actually work, you will see the drama taking place beneath our workaday ownership.  Governments, businesses, and ordinary people are constantly changing the rules on who gets what and why.  Each of these choices creates winners and losers.  And this has always been so. At its core, human society exists to help us deal with competing claims to scarce resources—whether it's food, water, gold, or sexual partners—so that we don't kill each other too often.

Even the Garden of Eden story turns on ownership.  God instructs Adam and Eve that the Tree of Knowledge and its fruit belong to God alone.  It's mine.  Don't touch.  But the first people pluck the apple, are evicted from the Garden, and human history begins.  Since then, ownership has been up for grabs. And ownership conflicts present themselves where you might least expect.

  • When is it okay to recline your airplane seat?
  • Why does HBO tolerate, even encourage, you to share your password illegally?
  • What do you really own when you click the "buy now" button?
  • And why does New York City have some of the world's best drinking water?

Ownership invisibly shapes every single day of our lives. Every minute. These are the rules that determine who gets what and why. Whether you stand at the front of the line or the back. It's the medications you take, what you drive, where you live. What you can listen to and watch. We encounter the rules of ownership all the time without noticing, like fish swimming in water.

It's no coincidence that in every culture "mine" is one of the first words babies speak. Spend any time in a playground, and all you will hear is kids shouting mine, mine, mine. One kid shouts, "I had it first. It's mine!" The other cries back, "Mine! I'm holding the shovel."

You may tune out this shouting match. But if you listen carefully, you can learn something subtle and revealing about ownership. Each child is asserting an ownership story – in our example, it's "first come, first served" versus "possession is nine-tenths of the law." First-in-time and possession are two of the six stories that everyone uses to claim everything in the world. Only six:

  • First in time – "First come, first served"
  • Possession – "Possession is nine-tenths of the law"
  • Labor – "You reap what you sow"
  • Attachment – "My home is my castle"
  • Self-ownership – Our bodies, ourselves"
  • Family – "The meek shall inherit the earth"

Owners of valuable resources are always trying to figure out the particular story for "mine" that will influence others to do their will at the lowest cost and with the least hassle.  Simply by tweaking each story, they can steer you and everyone around you invisibly, gently, but powerfully to act how they want.  Yet notions of "mine" are so incorporated into our everyday behavior that we don't even notice how the rules have been chopped up, fine-tuned, and redefined to push us this way or that.

Don't be fooled.  Each side claims the moral high ground, each side wants the law bent towards its view. But there is no natural, correct rule for who owns what. It all comes down to competing stories. And because ownership is a story-telling battle, that also means it's up for grabs. The prize goes to those who know how its hidden rules really work.

Once you start looking for competing ownership stories, you will see them everywhere. We guarantee there's a newspaper headline today that snaps into focus once you understand how ownership really works—just look at current debates over who counts as "first" for the Covid-19 vaccine.

In Mine! we explore fun, surprising, and often infuriating real-life stories that reveal who gets what in the 21st century. Remarkably, governments and businesses use the exact same six simple stories kids assert to solve fights on the playground—and these stories offer our best chance to address really big problems like preserving online freedom, cooling our warming planet, and curbing America's new wealth aristocracy.

If the tools of modern microeconomic analysis interest you, then look at Freakonomics, where Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner explain everything from cheating and crime to parenting and sports.  If you're more psychologically minded, read Nudge, where Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler show how to improve our decisions on health, wealth, and happiness.  Economics and psychology are great tools.  They explain a lot.  But they also miss a lot.  Both tend to take ownership for granted, when it is anything but fixed.  If you want to see how the hidden rules of ownership really work, then Mine! is for you.

Thank you so much to the Volokh Conspiracy for inviting us to guest post over this past week.  If you are interested in having us talk at your business, organization, or school, please get in touch.  We love to discuss all things Mine!

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: March 6, 1857

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  1. Where does the collectivist “What’s mine is mine and what’s your is mine” mantra fit into this?

    1. A mine is a hole in the ground from which valuable rocks are extracted.

  2. The idea of ownership seems natural and beyond contest.

    Thomas Jefferson didn’t think so. That’s why he changed Locke’s “property” to “pursuit of happiness”. Something I imagine the book addresses. Indeed, it all boils down to property rights.

    1. Indeed, it all boils down to property rights.

      Beginning with self-ownership, from which owning the fruit of your labor naturally follows.

      1. Maybe that’s too flippant a response. I don’t understand how “self-ownership” can even be considered a hidden rule of property ownership. Self-ownership depends on the very concept of “property” as much as it does the concepts of “self” and “ownership”. Owning inanimate things can be derived from self-ownership as part of “fruits of my labor”. Or something. I guess I am just really confused how self-ownership can be considered a hidden rule of property ownership. You may as well say the letter “a” is a hidden rule of the alphabet, or the reverse; neither makes any sense.

        Maybe it’s because IANAL and simply don’t grok these kind of quibbly arguments all that well.

        1. Self-ownership is the “life” and “liberty” part. Your life belongs to you; what you do with it, including what you think and say and do, belong to you also. I think Locke & Jefferson thought of property as stuff outside of the self– but that’s where it gets philosophically sticky.

    2. If you think it all boils down to property rights, you make a mistake when supposing Jefferson intended, “pursuit of happiness,” to be a synonym for property. Jefferson meant it as an alternative to a theory of property—a point about which he was pretty explicit in other contexts. Pursuit of happiness is a notion which opens the door to a multiplicity of goals, and an assortment of means. Jefferson intended that. The phrase was intended to open the door to the notion of action at pleasure, by a popular sovereign with freedom of choice limited only by power and wisdom.

      1. No mistake; I agree. Jefferson certainly did not mean for pursuit of happiness to be synonymous for property. Jefferson was concerned that property might not be a natural right– something existing in nature without need of definition– whereas life and liberty can be readily asserted to belong inherently to the individual whose life it is.

  3. In 2020, the wealth of American oligarch went up $1.3 trillion and the world’s oligarch got $3.9 trillion richer. That is a lot of mine. That resulted from a quack lockdown, driven by media hysteria and Left wing officials. The media and left wing politicians are owned by these oligarchs.

    That enrichment came at the cost of a $4 trillion drop in the world GDP. That resulted in millions deaths by starvation.

    Can you address that “Mine” in your next edition?

    This was the greatest score in a fraud scheme, the biggest mistake, and the greatest qucikest mass murder in human history.

    This theft should be retrieved in civil forfeiture justified by the billions of crimes committed on their platforms and the millions of crimes committed by them. I include seizures of the money of the skunks in China who scored even better than our skunks in the US. If they cannot be reached legally, their assets should be seized by hacking.

  4. “The idea of ownership seems natural and beyond contest.“

    A surprise to Native Americans.

    “The love of possession is a disease with them.” — Sitting Bull, 1877

    1. American Indians understood property very well. Your condescension and cherry picking quote tells more about you than them.

      They marked arrows so they could tell who had killed an animal. They knew who had planted crops. They knew who owned which horses, shelter, blankets, tools, and weapons. They even understood territorial ownership, because if anyone, whether European or Indian, invaded their territory, they reacted adversely.

      To pretend they were in some kind of communal communion with nature which had no use for “property” or “possession” is patronizing to the max.

      1. They marked arrows so they could tell who had killed an animal. They knew who had planted crops. They knew who owned which horses, shelter, blankets, tools, and weapons. They even understood territorial ownership, because if anyone, whether European or Indian, invaded their territory, they reacted adversely.

        Fair enough, though they might have had to deal with disputes when the dead bison had more than one arrow sticking out. And the notion of territorial ownership by a hunter-gatherer tribe was collective, wasn’t it, not individual? It was the tribe’s territory they were defending.

        I don’t know how the agricultural tribes handled this.

        1. Any tribe which had settlements, no matter how temporary, even if just for one night, understood the territory occupied by each resident as belonging to that house / teepee / whatever.

          1. But that doesn’t cover the far more important issue of hunting territory.

      2. Who marked arrows? And who didn’t? Where and when are you talking about? And why were those invaded Indians constantly welcoming (or sometimes not, tribes differed) other Indians and whites? Perhaps you should try it again, using examples. I will show you how:

        Unsurprisingly, various tribes and groups among American Indians thought differently about property, and behaved differently too. A great many of those rejected the notion of property in land. But even in that regard, there were exceptions. Other kinds of property were treated variously.

        One conspicuous exception on land ownership was the Zuni tribe, from the American Southwest. Maybe even before encountering Europeans, they identified, and secretly marked, a boundary around land they claimed as Zuni property. In a 20th century lawsuit, those markings and boundaries were confirmed—a fraught task, because Zuni religious tenets insisted the long-buried boundary markers be kept secret. That led to a win in court and an expansion of the Zuni Reservation. Note, however, that the premise was indeed about land ownership, but still communal ownership.

        Other Indian tribes were so committed to communitarian ownership that even after being forced out of nomadic lifestyles, they insisted on communal ownership, including farm land, farm implements, and farm production. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Coeur d’Alene Indians of North Idaho became spectacularly successful practicing communal wheat farming. That proved catastrophic. Envious white farmers couldn’t keep up. The Indians were denounced in Congress, as communists. Laws were passed to force Indian families to become, in effect, homesteaders on private holdings, and good capitalists. That was the end of their prosperity.

        See how it works? You can cite just a few specifics which support your points. You can acknowledge complexity too. Only ideology requires you to sort of imagine stuff to get a consistent result.

        1. Oh push off. If you think they didn’t care whose arrows were sticking out of a dead animal, you would be far too laid back, mellow, and uncompetitive to ever post anything here.

          If you think tribal ownership precluded individual control of specific sections of said “communal” property, you are delusional. If you want to equate tribal ownership with communal ownership, then you are calling the US communal property, and the word has lost all meaning.

          I found no references to the Couer d’Alene Indians communal farming success. Perhaps it is your turn to provide some references. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Considering how poorly true communal farming has worked everywhere else, it will have to be pretty extraordinary indeed.

          1. You spelled “fuck” wrong.

        2. Idaho contained only a small fraction of the land sold in the Indian Territories after passing of the Dawes Act. I’d guess Coeur d’Alene’s white farmers didn’t have all that much to do with it.

          1. Hit send too soon…

            But if you have sources saying otherwise I’d be happy to read them.

  5. Speaking of ownership (of racism) . . .

    THE VOLOKH CONSPIRACY
    This White, male, movement
    conservative blog has operated for
    ZERO (0) DAYS
    without gratuitous publication
    of a vile racial slur and for
    680 DAYS
    without imposing partisan,
    viewpoint-driven censorship.

    Carry on, clingers.

    1. Like a dog returns to its vomit, RAK returns to his folly.

      1. You seem to dislike publication of facts that reveal conservative bigotry and right-wing hypocrisy, Don Nico.

        Open wider, clinger.

        1. No, he just dislikes you specifically. As do I.

          Get bent, fuckface.

  6. Looking forward to reading the book. One thing: Kids suck! Them and their damn shovels! If you don’t sow, you needn’t reap!

  7. I’m not sure I get the point here. OK, there are six possible rules. But how should we decide which applies?

    1. If you buy the drinks, then your rule applies.

    2. Whichever side can persuade the most people to support their preferred rule.

  8. And because ownership is a story-telling battle, that also means it’s up for grabs.

    Story No. 7. Anything which isn’t nailed down is mine. If I can pry it loose, it isn’t nailed down.

    A theory of ownership needs revision if it soft-pedals the role of plunder.

    1. Isn’t that just the possession rule?

      1. wnoise, I see it as sort of the opposite of the possession rule. Especially the, “pry it loose,” part.

  9. Did I overlook/miss a post that discussed the HBO password example?

  10. Story No. 8: It’s on the internet, so it’s mine.

  11. Story No. 9: It showed up in my secret Swiss bank account, so it’s mine.

  12. Story No. 10: This stuff belongs to you or me. You are a member of a class debarred from owning property, so it’s mine.

  13. If you want a primer on economics read Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson…

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