What Surfing Can Teach You about Ownership

Release Date
September 9, 2013


Basic Economics Rights

To understand ownership, it helps to understand something about surfing. Surfers employ a system of ownership over waves so that everyone gets a turn. Prof. Dan Russell describes a scenario in which three friends are surfing but none wants to be selfish. As a result, the good waves pass by and no one has a good time. If they had prescribed a system of ownership instead, they would all have their turn to the waves. Among people who are not friends, a lack of ownership often leads to pushing and shoving. People who want peace need to instead determine whose wave is whose—or who owns property.
Although many people conflate ownership with selfishness, this is not accurate. Ownership plays an important role in a functional society for several reasons:

–          Ownership allows for more creativity and enables us to do the things we want to do.

–          Ownership puts a check on selfishness and greed because it gives the owner the right to say no. This also makes conservation possible.

–          Ownership fosters greater civility and fairness. Respecting ownership is a way to respect each other, and when ownership isn’t protected, the most vulnerable people usually suffer most for it. As Prof. Russell says, “If we care about fairness for everyone, we have to care about ownership.”

How Property Ownership Changes Your World View [article]: Julia Hanna from the Harvard Business School explores how property ownership affects our beliefs and our attitudes toward capitalism
Private Property Ownership (video): Robert McNamara explains why private property matters in a free society
The Power of Property Rights (video): Professor Tom W. Bell explains that property rights allow people to live together in peace, prosperity, and freedom.
Property Rights: The Little Guy’s Best Friend (video): Professor Aeon Skoble argues that equally protected property rights are the little guy’s best protection against the rich and those

What Surfing Can Teach You about Ownership
If you want to understand ownership there are some things you need to know about surfing. Suppose that George, Sam, and Jill go surfing together one day. Now they’re all friends, so no one wants to grab all the good waves. The point is for everyone to have a good time surfing. So now the first good wave begins to break and no one wants to be selfish about it, so they look around at each other wondering whose wave it is. And by now that wave is gone. This is not a good time surfing.
What George, Sam, and Jill need is a way to determine the ownership of the waves so that everyone gets a chance to say. “This next wave is mine.” That’s not because they’re being selfish, though. It’s precisely because they’re not being selfish. The selfish thing would be to do away with that sort of system and just start pushing and shoving. People who want peace instead of pushing and shoving need a way to determine whose wave is whose.
Ownership is a right to tell other people no. If you own a smart phone, then other people can’t use your smart phone without your permission. But you don’t need their permission to use your phone. Now that might make it sound like ownership is something really selfish. In fact, though, it’s the opposite of selfish.
That’s why ownership is so important in society. For one thing, ownership lets us all be more creative and do things we want to do. When people can own resources, they can prosper from developing those resources and making them more valuable. Then they can exchange with each other and create even more prosperity.
Second, ownership actually puts a check on selfishness and greed. When people’s ownership isn’t protected, greedy people are free to come through and push everybody else out of the way. But with a strong ownership system you can tell greedy people no. That also makes conservation possible: When people can say no, they can stop other people who don’t just want to use resources but want to use them all up. Plus, a lot of the things that we want to do are totally unselfish things. Who knows? Maybe your biggest ambition in life is to give things away. It takes a system of ownership to protect your right to make that choice.
And third, ownership helps us all get along with greater civility and fairness. Ownership allows us to set things aside for our own use. So really, respecting ownership is a way of respecting each other as we go about using the things that we depend on. But when ownership isn’t protected, it’s generally the most vulnerable people, people without power and political connections, that suffer the most. Other people with more power can then run them off their land or collect their money in the form of a subsidy or a bailout. If we care about fairness for everyone then we have to care about ownership.