Some social problems are blatantly obvious in daily life, while others are longer-term, more corrosive and perhaps mostly invisible. Lately I’ve been worrying about a problem of the latter kind: the erosion of personal ownership and what that will mean for our loyalties to traditional American concepts of capitalism and private property.
The main culprits for the change are software and the internet. For instance, Amazon’s Kindle and other methods of online reading have revolutionized how Americans consume text. Fifteen years ago, people typically owned the books and magazines they were reading. Much less so now. If you look at the fine print, it turns out that you do not own the books on your Kindle. Amazon.com Inc. does.
I do not consider this much of a practical problem. Although Amazon could obliterate the books on my Kindle, this has happened only in a very small number of cases, typically involving account abuse. Still, this licensing of e-books, instead of stacking books on a shelf, has altered our psychological sense of how we connect to what we read -- it is no longer truly “ours.”
The change in our relationship with physical objects does not stop there. We used to buy DVDs or video cassettes; now viewers stream movies or TV shows with Netflix. Even the company’s disc-mailing service is falling out of favor. Music lovers used to buy compact discs; now Spotify and YouTube are more commonly used to hear our favorite tunes.
The great American teenage dream used to be to own your own car. That is dwindling in favor of urban living, greater reliance on mass transit, cycling, walking and, of course, ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.
Each of these changes is beneficial, yet I worry that Americans are, slowly but surely, losing their connection to the idea of private ownership. The nation was based on the notion that property ownership gives individuals a stake in the system. It set Americans apart from feudal peasants, taught us how property rights and incentives operate, and was a kind of training for future entrepreneurship. Do we not, as parents, often give our children pets or other valuable possessions to teach them basic lessons of life and stewardship?
We’re hardly at a point where American property has been abolished, but I am still nervous that we are finding ownership to be so inconvenient. The notion of “possessive individualism” is sometimes mocked, but in fact it is a significant source of autonomy and initiative. Perhaps we are becoming more communal and caring in positive ways, but it also seems to be more conformist and to generate fewer empire builders and entrepreneurs.
What about your iPhone, that all-essential life device? Surely you own that? Well, sort of. When Apple Inc. decides to change the operating software, sooner or later you have to go along with what they have selected. Gmail is due to change its overall look and functionality, maybe for the better, but again eventually this choice will not be yours either: It’s Google’s. The very economics of software encourage standardization, and changes over time, so de facto you rent much of what you use rather than owning it. I typed the draft of this column using Microsoft Word, and sooner or later my contract to use it will expire and I will have to renew.
Imagine the internet of things penetrating our homes more and more, through services like Amazon’s Alexa. We’ll have ovens and thermostats that you set with your voice, and a toilet and bathroom that periodically give you the equivalent of a medical checkup. Yes, you will still own the title to your physical house, but most of the value in that home you will in essence rent from outside companies or, in the case of municipal utilities, the government.
As for that iPhone, it is already clear that you do not have a full legal right to repair it, and indeed more and more devices are sold to consumers without giving them corresponding rights to fix or alter those goods and services. John Deere tractors are sold to farmers with plenty of software, and farmers have to hack into the tractor if they wish to fix it themselves. There is now a small but burgeoning “right to repair” political movement.
Does that sound like something our largely agrarian Founding Fathers might have been happy about? The libertarian political theorist might tell you that arrangement is simply freedom of contract in action. But the more commonsensical, broad libertarian intuitions of the American public encapsulate a more brutish and direct sense that some things we simply own and hold the rights to.
Those are intuitions which are growing increasingly disconnected from reality, and no one knows what lies on the other side of this social experiment.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.