What Does “Ownership” Mean?

I just saw a news article (Pima County Board of Supervisors Votes to Approve Smoking Ban) and it reminded me of those PBS brand commercials built around something like, “You Own This…”?

Basically the gist was that the camera went swooping over the National Mall in DC and then the words would pass over the screen “You Own This…” The shot then faded to helicopter shots of Mt Rushmore and Yosemite followed by “You Own This…” It went through a couple of iterations on this theme, ending finally with a slow fade-in and light flare across the PBS logo and then a last drop in of that phrase, “You Own This…”

How patriotic, right?

I was always really offput by those… In my mind, we don’t own ANY of that. The US federal government owns those assets (PBS being a public-private partnershipy thing). We are given some access to those places and assets, but we don’t OWN them in any meaningful way.

Ownership is defined by a set of property rights. Property rights commonly are held to be of 4 types: The right to modify; The right to utilize; The right to exclude; The right to despose. Modification means the right to change a piece of property or land (ex: add on to a house, change the paint color of your car, etc.). Utilization means the right to operate, occupy or otherwise use property for your own benefit. Exclusion means that you have the right to say who else can utilize the property and who cannot (ex: you can exclude people from your home, you don’t HAVE to share your iPod with a neighbor, etc.). Finally disposal means you have the right to sell, gift, destroy, use-up any property which is yours by right.

Different ownership types have different combinations of these above four attributes, but they all have some level in each four and ALL four are at the least addressed in all legal ownership arrangements.

Where do we have any of those rights on public land??

While we may be granted certain limited and pre-approved access to public spaces, the government holds the deed to these properties. They have the right to modify, to utilize, to exclude, to dispose.

People love to use the vocabulary of ownership to talk about our government lands, offices and services, but it’s all just pretty sounding rhetoric. We all get to cast our vote to have our 1/100millionth share opinion considered in how these things get used once every 2 years. But that is NOT ownership in any real sense of the word.

Could an elected board stop you from smoking on your back porch? Well a group just voted that you can’t light up a cigarette in a county park that… supposedly… “you own”…


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