Do you really own your smartphone? Michael Heller and James Salzman claim that we are hardwired to bring physical concepts of fixed ownership into our real and virtual lives. In reality, our increasingly online world involves licensing access to a series of ones and zeros. Our “own” data isn’t even “ours”.

In this episode, EconTalk host Russ Roberts engages with its authors My! How the Secret Rules of Ownership Rule Our Lives, in a discussion of their taxonomy of six characteristics of ownership that may challenge how we think about the subject. The authors propose ownership as a choice, not a given, that law is not always the answer to our various demands, and that a common language of ownership can enhance our ability to understand and resolve ownership controversies. Please tell us how this conversation prompts your own thinking about ownership

1- Elinor Wolstrom identified and described “closed communities with reciprocity of approval”. Salzman uses the story of a South Boston parking space as an example of an identifying object (the parking chair) and attributes its alienation to gentrification. Could this ideal be degraded for other reasons? Explained.

2- The authors suggest that the stories people use to claim each of the world’s resources are captured in six categories: attachment, first time, possession, labor, self-ownership, and family change. Can you identify an example of each story in your life? Are there stories of ownership disputes or conflicts you experienced?

3- According to Heller and Salzman, the history of American westward expansion went from foraging to “no trespassing”. How did the invention of barbed wire in the 1860s change the nature of property ownership to the annexed version we know today?

4- How do the tragedy of the commons, runaway wealth, unitization and the transaction costs of monitoring explain how we have created ownership in the United States?

5- How does Roberts’ statement about mutual harm clarify the Coasian approach to property rights disputes? Why has the Coase theorem been misinterpreted?

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