July 31, 2019
By Timothy Sandefur
In a classic episode of the ’80s sitcom Family Ties, the ultraconservative Alex Keaton takes his baby brother Andy to preschool only after taping a sign to his chest that reads “I know what’s mine.” The joke, of course, is that Alex’s insistence on property rights makes him skeptical of the whole idea of “sharing.”
But the reality is that a healthy understanding of private property facilitates—in fact, is essential—to sharing, or at least any sharing worthy of the name. And a new article by Chapman University law professor Donald Kochan makes that point in a clever and important way, by examining research by child psychologists on the phenomenon of sharing among kids.
The development of “ownership understanding” in children is a gradual thing, writes Kochan, and the first step is the development of the distinction between “mine” and “not mine.” This usually begins around the age of five, “at which point a child begins to develop an appreciation for the rights of retention inherent in the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate transfers (such as stealing).” And that appreciation is essential to the next step—the appreciation and enjoyment of sharing. “Sharing starts to seem more acceptable to a child when a child understands [his or her] reciprocal claims and obligations regarding owned things,” Kochan notes. “We are more willing to share once we know three things: (1) we can get our things back; (2) we can set the terms and conditions of sharing; and (3) the sharer must accept the bitter with the sweet in sharing and abide by the owner’s terms.”
These findings aren’t all new, of course. Benjamin Spock—hardly a conservative—noted in his 1988 book Dr. Spock on Parenting that “when parents make too insistent demands for sharing, it only makes a child more ‘selfish,’” because the child “feels that not only other children but his parents are trying to deprive him of his possessions.” Kids must develop a sense of security in their belongings—knowing that what they prize won’t be simply snatched away—before they can feel confident enough to enjoy sharing.
That’s natural enough. All animals differentiate, in some way, between “mine” and “not mine,” and evolutionarily speaking, it makes sense that living creatures would develop ways to stake out territory and defend their interests. As Larry Arnhart writes in Darwinian Conservatism, private property serves a “natural human instinct for possessiveness” that’s essential to survival. Humans are only unique in elaborating this universal natural drive in complicated new ways that serve their needs and help us to cooperate. Contrary to the arguments of many political theorists, private property is not a “social construct” but—like eating, sleeping, and procreation—originates in natural drives. That’s why efforts to reconstruct society by raising kids without the concept of ownership have failed—inflicting psychological harm on the children in the process.
Unfortunately, the psychological approach to the idea of ownership is underappreciated in scholarly literature. Most property rights scholars focus on economic or philosophical aspects of private property—which are important, of course, but which overlook this indispensable part of the concept. It’s as if scholars seeking to understand love examined marriage contracts and the human reproductive system in detail, while ignoring the emotional side of the experience.
One of the few scholars who hasn’t neglected this is the late Richard Pipes, who covers the subject well in his outstanding book Property and Freedom. “Empirical studies,” he notes, demonstrate “that in order to develop normally, children, like animals, require a certain amount of private space.” Property ownership fosters that sense of security because “where property does not exist, privacy is not respected.”
But it’s not just about “what’s mine.” As Kochan notes, a feeling of security in ownership also fosters the enjoyment of sharing. That’s not just because we’re more willing to exchange things—which can lead to lasting friendships—if we feel confident in our ownership, but because we can better appreciate the other person’s enjoyment of the thing we’re sharing. Quoting psychologist Celia Brownell, Kochan concludes that kids in the process of learning to share come to appreciate “that others have expectations with respect to owned things, that objects can make others happy.”
This is all just a complicated way of saying that a system of mutual respect—in which each person is able to view others not as threats but as potential cooperators who acknowledge the individual’s sovereignty—is the foundation of a healthy and thriving society. Good fences make good neighbors, in other words. But that argument has too often been made in dry, academic terms such as “efficiency,” rather than in the environment of human feelings. And that has fostered the false idea that individual ownership somehow stands on the opposite side of the spectrum from friendliness, compassion, and love. In fact, the right—the need—of individuals to own things is the basic building block of any cooperation worthy of the name.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.