On co-ownership and public property


Ownership is the most complete right one can have in relation to a specific object, which means that the owner can do whatever with his or her property as he or she sees fit. The owner may use, sell, give away or destroy his or her property – provided that this does not violate the rights of others.

Objects may owned by a single individual, in which case that person will not face many problems with the enjoyment of his property. However, goods are often owned by multiple people simultaneously and this situation is called co-ownership.

Examples of co-ownership are numerous, think of married couples who own a house together, friends buying a car together or business partners owning capital goods.

Co-owners are limited in dealing with their property, as they have to be taken into account the wishes of the other co-owners. Basically co-owners can only exercise their full property rights collectively and hence co-owners need to agree on how their common property is used. Consequently conflicts between co-owners is far from unusual.

Public property

In this section I will develop the theory of public property as a special case of co-ownership.

The idea is that there is no limit to the number of co-owners a piece of property can have. Hence there is nothing to prevent a piece of land to have a hundred thousand, a million or even more co-owners.

A large number of co-owners is, of course, far from practical. In practice we see that co-owners will appoint someone to manage their property on their behalf.

Public property is not different. And in this case the citizens of a polity are the co-owners of its public property and the government is assigned to manage public property for the benefit of its citizens.

In this view public property is not the government’s property but of the citizens collectively. Instead the government is more akin to business agents and like them the government has to pursue the interests of their employers, not their own.

Though citizens do own public property as a collective, it does not allow individual citizens to treat public property as if it were their own. As this might jeopardize the rights of the other citizens/co-owners.

Theory of public property as a form of collective property has significant consequences for the relation between individual citizens and the government, and for the position of the government in society. However, for a full understanding of these relations a more detailed discussion of the difference between property, possession and holdings is required.