Americans Own Less Stuff, and That’s Reason to Be Nervous | Bloomberg Opinion

Source: Americans Own Less Stuff, and That’s Reason to Be Nervous | Bloomberg Opinion, by Tyler Cowen

What happens when a nation built on the concept of individual property ownership starts to give that up? … Lately I’ve been worrying about … the erosion of personal ownership and what that will mean for our loyalties to traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.

The nation was based on the notion that property ownership gives individuals a stake in the system. It set Americans apart from feudal peasants, taught us how property rights and incentives operate, and was a kind of training for future entrepreneurship. Do we not, as parents, often give our children pets or other valuable possessions to teach them basic lessons of life and stewardship?

We’re hardly at a point where American property has been abolished, but I am still nervous that we are finding ownership to be so inconvenient. The notion of “possessive individualism” is sometimes mocked, but in fact it is a significant source of autonomy and initiative. Perhaps we are becoming more communal and caring in positive ways, but it also seems to be more conformist and to generate fewer empire builders and entrepreneurs.

The libertarian political theorist might tell you that arrangement is simply freedom of contract in action. But the more commonsensical, broad libertarian intuitions of the American public encapsulate a more brutish and direct sense that some things we simply own and hold the rights to.

Those are intuitions which are growing increasingly disconnected from reality, and no one knows what lies on the other side of this social experiment.


From Comments:

The article identifies some problems but totally misses their actual source. The problem isn’t that we own less stuff, it’s that the ownership is replaced by a dependency on a handful of corporations which we have no ability to influence or appeal to.

The substitution of individual ownership for a communal one in which individuals retain a stake – a real community, or at a larger scale, a democracy – is not inherently bad. The problem with our recent trend is that we aren’t getting communal ownership in return; we’re getting nothing but convenience.


Renting is giving up money for conditional access to an item. Owning is giving up liquidity for unconditional access to an item.

In renting, when you are done with the item, you terminate, yielding access and recouping none of the money. In ownership, when you are done with the item, you sell, yielding access and recouping some money.

High-end hobbyist equipment such as camera lenses and woodworking tools are great things to own; they offer great enjoyment, tend to retain value, and you can typically find a buyer if and when you want to sell.

Things that are difficult to sell and poor at retaining their value are good things to rent.

I’ve heard compelling arguments for both Renting and Owning of Houses and Cars and it really comes down to circumstances, but it’s always good to own something you can use and sell if the need arises.


> It’s pretty obvious to me that a deliberate and intentional effort has been made to ensure that only people who own a lot of property have any voice in the system; to flip that relationship around and make it a moral statement is frankly a little scary.

That’s not true. The reason why property ownership was required to vote is because in a democracy, the founders knew that if the majority of voters didn’t have property then they would eventually just vote to take away the property of others. But they also knew that if the majority of people didn’t own property then the government would also fail. So their solution was to only allow property owners to vote, but to make it easy and basically free for all citizens to become a property owners, and to heavily incentivize them to do so.

Early American democracy only worked because there was basically an unlimited amount of free land to give way. And to the extent that it still works, it’s because technology and intellectual property have replaced land as the primary sources of capital.

American democracy is designed around broad-based capital ownership, not broad-based ownership of stupid shit you don’t need. This is why this article doesn’t make sense, because it would be far better for democracy if e.g. the average American owned $20,000 worth of Uber stock rather than $20,000 worth of car. Stock is capital, whereas a personal car isn’t.


To understand the point of the author you need to look back, deeply back, at the history of human society. For most of human history, most people did not own any property. In a feudal society, for example, a few lords owned everything, and everyone else worked for them and owned nothing.

The “American experiment” was radical in that it placed the individual at the center of governance. The U.S. system of government is “built up” from citizen consent, not “pushed down” from a divinely-granted right of hereditary rule.

In order for this system to work, citizens must own property. Otherwise, they don’t have the resources to collectively enact change. The Bill of Rights presumes citizens who have the resources to speak, associate, petition, etc. That’s why it is worded to constrain the government’s power, not worded to grants things to citizens.

The fundamental idea behind American democracy is that Americans have the means to pursue their goals and to influence each other.

This is why it was so much easier for early U.S. citizens to found churches and corporations than it was in Europe. European churches and corporations were top-down, and therefore few and conservative. U.S. organizations were bottom-up, and therefore many, diverse, and innovative.

So… that’s why property ownership is at the heart of American democracy.

But what about:

> deliberate and intentional effort has been made to ensure that only people who own a lot of property have any voice in the system

There’s actually a lot of evidence against this, for example the entire labor and environmental movements. Collective citizen action has worked a lot of change to the U.S. over the years, and I predict it will continue to do so.

All that said, I think it’s a pretty far reach to claim that the American experiment is at risk because a few people don’t want to buy CD’s or cars anymore. People still like money and things! The real estate market is not drying up. There’s plenty of property being owned and desired by Americans.

I think that lack of money is a bigger issue. Over 40 million people in the U.S. live below the poverty line! I think that’s a much bigger problem for American “stake in the game” than whether someone who has disposable income decides to spend it on a Kindle instead of books.