The University of Arizona

Who owns the flows? Distinguishing ownership of resource flows from ownership of resource stocks clarifies debates about property bundles, commons tragedies, and degrowth

Tilman Hartley


Theories of ownership have long focussed on the institutions governing resource stocks such as land, and largely neglected the ownership of resource flows such as the crops that flow from that land. Originating among early modern legal scholars, the assumption that the paradigm form of ownership was of land has been inherited by later theorists. The 'tragedy of the commons' thesis, for example, conflates the absence of stock ownership with the absence of flow ownership, and several commons scholars have now started to move away from a stock-centric conception of ownership. The same assumption has also been inherited by theorists applying Heinsohn and Steiger's 'property economics' to theories of degrowth. Here, I recast their theory to include ownership of flows as well as stocks, answering critics who point out that their theory cannot account for unsecured debts. This recasting places greater focus on the different ways in which ownership institutions not only assign an owner to a resource, but also motivate the transfer of resources between individuals. This prompts a new way to frame a key question for theorists of degrowth: in a nongrowing economy where fewer transfers can be motivated by the likelihood of receiving returns on loans, will this result in more possessive behaviours, in more communal ownership norms of reciprocity, or in more command ownership through coercion and status? Existing theory, focussed on stocks, groups these different institutions together as 'private' or 'nonproperty' ownership. This article suggests that disambiguation of the different 'nonproperty' institutions that govern the ownership and transfer of resource flows is key to better understanding the political and institutional implications of degrowth.

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