The Matter With the Ownership Society

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Apropos of yesterday’s post about how Westernization can sometimes be conflated with modernization, there was a piece up at Good a couple of days ago arguing that developing countries would be ill-advised to adopt America’s culture of ownership.

 As the East develops, and the size of the middle class grows, there is a push toward individual ownership. With increased incomes, the incidence of joint families reduces, and sharing resources is less of a financial necessity. However, if the East starts to choose individual ownership more readily over communal access, emerging economies will likely struggle to manage these patterns of consumption, particularly with regard to pollution and waste.

From an economic development perspective, Western practitioners are guilty of seeking solutions for the poor that are based on these American values. It’s only natural; this ideal is integral to the West’s notion of progress. Solutions to a lack of access to clean water, sanitation, healthcare, and education often cater to the provision of individual ownership: a faucet in every kitchen, a toilet in every home. However, this paradigm is wasteful, and thus, may not be ideal or sustainable for developing world countries.

Of course, as the article points out, this cuts both ways: the United States has been practicing an unsustainable level of consumption for awhile now. Luckily, the collaborative nature of the Internet has engendered some positive trends on that front.

To me, this isn’t just a matter of allocating resources responsibly: there’s a political and (self-parody alert) philosophical dimension. Pooled resources and communal interdependence are naturally going to foster more of a community-minded spirit. On the other hand, our culture’s over-emphasis on individual ownership has created* an illusory sense of independence. Instead of depending on our neighbors, we’ve just wound up depending on bigger, more abstract forces. And sure, we’re never going to be wholly not dependent on those things. But these aren’t forces that one can necessarily feel a sense of collective responsibility towards, and that sense of collective responsibility is an important and (in the here and now) hugely undervalued ingredient in the glue we use to build nations.

*And/or been caused by, but let’s stay away from the chicken/egg implications for now.

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