A friend wanted me to look at this Daily Beast piece on ownership versus access. Very interesting! Here is what I understand to be the dominant argument:

“Without an ownership society, where citizens are prudent stewards of broadly distributed private property, freedom tends to become what it was in revolutionary France—an abstract ideal that can easily arouse destructive political feelings that know no bounds. That’s why the shift from right-to-own to right-to-access has the real potential to overturn centuries of cultural certainty about the foundations of liberty and its importance to human flourishing.”

To offer examples of how we have shifted contemporarily from a society based on ownership to a society based on access, the author provides the following examples: “The triumph of access over ownership has changed the way we think about rights. Rather than a right to health care or abortion, people assert a right to access those things.” He identifies the internet as another instance where conversations have shifted from ownership to access. This is a result, he argues, of the backlash against materialism that he identifies as having peaked in the 1990s, a reaction that resulted in people “[recoiling]  against the idea that the only way to secure [the material necessities of life] was to work hard enough and long enough to own them.”

It is not immediately clear to me how one ever owns healthcare, abortion, or the internet. This is because these are all services, not goods. Further complicating matters, “healthcare access” and “internet access” are both idioms for different things; “access” does not seem to be univocal.

I am further not sure that there is an athropological link between anti-materialism, a resistance to desert theories of property, and mild expansions of state services. My difficulty in forming an opinion here is increased by the fact that I can’t tell if the sentence on “[recoiling] against the idea that the only way to secure [the material necessities of life] was to work hard enough and long enough to own them” is meant to be normative or positive. Are we saying people began to recoil against the idea that it was possible to ever come to own stuff, that they began to believe it was just factually false? Or are we saying that people began to believe that, while it is sometimes possible, it is not possible in a general enough way to morally justify that style of ownership being the only game in town? I believe there is a distinction here, but I am not clear on how it plays out in the piece.

But as for the question of ownership versus access, I hope I can offer some clarity. Many, many words have stood in for ‘ownership’ and ‘access’ over time, including usus, dominium, proprietas, ius, possessio, and usufructus. I will spare you the Latin and assure you that each of these terms (originating from Roman property law) delineates subtle distinctions in the possession, ownership, dominion over, and use (just short of or including the total destruction) of property. Especially between the years of 1322 and 1324, when the Franciscan Order had it out with Pope John XXII over whether or not they owned stuff. Eventually the entire Order was declared heretical, which tips you off to how intense this argument was, and evidently continues to be.

Fortunately for us it is not necessary to rehash the Franciscan controversy. We can look instead at how Christians have dealt with the differences between ownership and access, and outline the relationship between the two.

First things first: you generally need both ownership and access to have the use of a thing. If I tell you that you own something on the moon but can’t get on a rocket ship, you still do not effectively own it, because you have no access to it. In that case ‘ownership’ is sort of an empty idea. But if you own the object on the moon and can get on a rocket ship, now your ownership has some teeth, because you have access to the thing in order to use it. So access is an aspect of use and ownership. But in this Daily Beast piece, ‘access’ appears to be used to mean ‘use’, or the benefit of a thing without dominion or possession of it. (This is the only way the inclusion of, say, healthcare makes any sense.)

But while use of a thing doesn’t exclude others from using it as well except in the case of consumables, ownership potentially means the exclusion of everyone from the use of a thing. So for Christians like Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Isidore of Seville, and Gratian, the question became: how to we justify the private ownership of property when the earth was obviously intended for the use of all people in common? Here is St. Clement I writing in the first century:

“The common life, brethren, is necessary for all and especially for those who desire to serve God blamelessly and who wish to imitate the life of the Apostles and their disciples. The use of all things that are in the world ought to be common to all men. But through sin one man claimed this as his own and another that, and so division was made among men.”

This primitive Christian communism was a popular ideal for a very long while, and it remained so with the Franciscans, but by the medieval period the canonists had come to see some good in the institution of private property (mainly its Aristotelian virtues: the prevention of tragedy-of-commons and greater productivity), and moreover, realized they couldn’t do much to defeat it anyway. So they tried to bring the good of common use to comport with the widespread institution of private property by arguing that all ownership comes with obligations. The Daily Beast piece refers to “prudent stewardship”, and these are both terms that came out of this marriage of right ownership and right use. For the Christian, prudent stewardship is more than successful administration of one’s own properties; as St. Basil writes (then glossed by Ambrose and later Gratian):

“But you say, ‘where is the injustice if I diligently look after my own property without interfering with other people’s?’ O impudent words! Your own property, you say. What? From what stores did you bring it into this world? When you came into the light, when you came forth from your mother’s womb, with what resources, with what reserves did you come endowed? No one may call his own what is common, of which, if a man takes more than he needs, is obtained by violence. . . Who is more unjust, more avaricious, more greedy than a man who takes the food of the multitude not for his own use but for his abundance and luxuries? The bread you hold back belongs to the needy, the clothes that you shut away belong to the naked, the money that you bury in the ground is the price of redeeming and freeing the wretched.”

The medievals read this Patristic take on property very carefully. If the problem with property comes when it is excessively hoarded and others suffer via exclusion, then it is not the case that property should be wholly dispensed with, but that the exclusionary aspects of it should be severely castigated. Therefore property was understood to come with obligations, one of which was ensuring that property would be freely given up to those in need. It is therefore the obligation to give others access that underwrites, for the Christian canonists, the whole institution of private property. Thomas Aquinas ST II-II q.66 a2:

“Two things are competent to man in respect of exterior things. One is the power to procure and dispense them, and in this regard it is lawful for man to possess property. . . . The second thing that is competent to man with regard to external things is their use. On this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need. Hence the Apostle says (1 Timothy 6:17-18): ‘Charge the rich of this world . . . to give easily, to communicate to others,’ etc.”

Ownership, in other words, is possible as an ethically upright institution insofar as use is readily available to the needy. If you have excessive property which you do not render to the needy, then you no longer have any right to it. Right ownership, then, should be understood as a function of correct access: only if you have met the criteria for correct use can you have legitimate ownership. So there is no conflict between access and ownership; rather, the latter depends on the correct arrangement of the former. We have always had both an ownership and an access society, in that the two are obviously folded together; what the argument needs to concern is what people should have access to, which is a point this Daily Beast way seems to shy from, though it is probably really the only relevant normative question.