Men would live exceedingly quiet if these two words, mine and thine, were taken away."
- Anaxagoras (c. 500 BC – 428 BC)
My own ideas on the quote:
The idea that claimed personal ownership of things (also of humans) is the source of many of the majo0r problems in the human societies was not invented by Karl Marx. This fact has been self-evident for many of the thinking men for millennium.
Unfortunately, there really is nothing much that we can do just now to remedy this problem. Our world has simply been so strongly built on this very idea for tens of thousands of years.
The concept of personally and permanently owning land saw the light with the first agricultural societies. A hunter-gatherer can really own only the things he or she can carry. However, in stable agricultural societies cultivated land and all the things that are used in cultivating it soon become permanent and inherited property that can also be fought over. Unfortunately, also all the problems that are inevitably connected with ownership did soon arise.
Anaxagoras does not say that it would be possible to abolish the idea of ownership. He does just notice the inevitable consequences that come with the idea of ownership. Of course, one needs a bit of flexibility even to understand that the idea of permanent and hereditary ownership of things really is only a quite recent human idea. It is not a permanent and inevitable property of anything.
A man alone in an island does not need to develop the idea of ownership. He can freely use fish and all other resources. He has the need to "own" them exists only in relationship to other people. However, if there is more than one person in the island the idea of ownership is suddenly relevant.
The original loner can still "own" the fish he gets from the sea as long as nobody else knows about them. However, a society can decide that fish of the sea are a common property and can order him to share his catch with others.
In the end, ownership is just a commonly agreed social relationship. There is nothing absolute in it. We have just decided that it is beneficial for the whole society to let individual people have the sole ownership of also of some of the common resources like land and water.
Bringing this idea up does not diminish the fact that the system of private ownership has at least up this day shown itself to be the best available method for creating a maximum amount of well-being from existing resources.
However, history is full of instances where ownership is partially overturned in due process of law. For example, land has been often distributed more fairly. This can happen when the ownership of land has been concentrated in too few hands. This has caused the society to dysfunction.
The Communist or Soviet experiment did clearly show how giving the state ownership of all common resources does not work very well in real life. This does not mean that all other models of owning things would be wrong also. There could be even more effective and beneficial ways to run things that can be developed in the future.
Ownership is important commonly only of things that several people can use or can benefit from. However, ownership is often claimed over things that can give you a benefit over those who do not have this ownership. A piece of desert or of deep seabed has no private owners. Ownership of man-made things has existed as long as people have been able to make new things by themselves.
Ownership of land and water is a quite another issue altogether. Owning land or water means that the resources situated in these areas are reserved to its owner only, and the use of them is denied from others. Thomas Paine noted that nobody has created the land. Thomas Paine wrote that people are entitled only to claim the added value that they can produce with land, but the land itself is inevitably a common property of mankind.
By giving the state the right to tax our income and our property, we give our consent to the idea of giving up part of our rights of ownership for greater common good. Of course, we simply have do it if we want to be able to run a complex modern society.
In a normal modern society, there is generally no disagreement over the basic principle that one must always give up a part of one's rights to keep up and defend the society in which one does live. Libertarians who completely deny this right are still a very small minority.
The disagreement is often only over to what degree people are willing to sacrifice for the common good. People disagree over the specific things that should be paid for with the money that is collected with the authority of the government and which not. So, the disagreement rises normally only over the borders in which the best interests of the whole society and the needs of an individual will be best served.
On the other hand, it just is all too often very difficult to bring up the negative sides of any big issue that has both negative and positive effects. Unfortunately, there is almost nothing in this world does not have both.
Very often those who are mentally tied to an idea do not want even to know about the other side at all. They can see even the bringing up of these issues assault on their own values. The idea of private ownership seems to be even almost sacred to some people.
In reality, full objectivity over even of our own decisions is an unreachable goal. I will also strive for it in vain. However, even by trying to reach this kind of unreachable ideals we can improve ourselves and our societies, as at the end we are the society.
(This piece was completely refurbished on 13th of December, 2012. This little essay was originally published in my own other major blog or Being Human -blog at http://beinghuman.blogs.fi in 2009, and the later completely re-written version is also in this blog.)
Anaxagoras is in Facebook at:
"Anaxagoras (Greek: Ἀναξαγόρας, Anaxagoras, "lord of the assembly"; (c. 500 BC – 428 BC) was a Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher. Born in Clazomenae in Asia Minor, Anaxagoras was the first philosopher to bring philosophy from Ionia to Athens. He attempted to give a scientific account of eclipses, meteors, rainbows, and the sun, which he described as a fiery mass larger than the Peloponnese. According to Diogenes Laertius and Plutarch he fled to Lampsacus due to a backlash against his pupil Pericles."