As we survey the modern economy, individual ownership appears to be on the demise. We see an increasing preference for access over ownership and collaborative consumption, from the streaming- and cloud-centric features of the latest technology to the increasingly “share-happy” habits of American consumers amid a burgeoning “gig economy.”
On the surface, such a shift would seem to bring endless benefits: more options, more flexibility, better quality, cheaper prices, fewer risks, and (presumably) more freedom. Yet despite such benefits, a void in private ownership also means an absence of certain moral, social, and economic lessons, many of which form and transform the habits, disciplines, and imaginations of everyday creators and contributors across the economic order.
According to economist Tyler Cowen, we’re right to celebrate the benefits and freedoms of collaborative consumption, but do so without forgetting or neglecting the necessity of individual ownership as a cultural value:
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.
A society with low ownership poses problems that are largely psychological—infantilizing us and diminishing our ability and capacity to own and cultivate and steward. But it also introduces significant risks to personal freedom and autonomy, consolidating power and control in products or solutions that are increasingly central to our daily lives while never actually belonging to us. From Netflix to Spotify to Amazon’s ebooks to Apple’s iOS, many of our core modern “solutions” are not ours to steward or preserve or protect, outside of a transactional decision to subscribe. “Yes, you will still own the title to your physical house,” Cowen explains, “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.”
Once again, the positives of our newfound interconnectedness and interdependence are real, extending beyond the mere material perks and flexibility. As economist Arnold Kling explains, “The more we consume the goods and services provided by others, the more we have to trust the institutions through which we obtain those goods and services.” From the standpoint of human relationship and creative partnership, this has the potential for many positive fruits, from more dynamic innovation to greater peace and social stability to increased economic growth. But only if we hold those gifts in tension with our basic calling to own and steward and transform creation. “Perhaps we are becoming more communal and caring in positive ways,” Cowen writes, “but it also seems to be more conformist and to generate fewer empire builders and entrepreneurs.” It can, but needn’t be so.
As Christians, our view of “ownership” is distinct and peculiar. Whatever property we own, manage, and multiply ultimately belongs to God, and our activities ought to be oriented as such. “God makes man the master of his temporal household,” write Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef in Faithful in All God’s House. “Like all stewards, man is not the owner. He is the overseer…The quality of stewardship depends on obedience to the Master’s will.”
To be clear, this doesn’t dismiss or diminish what we would consider “ownership” or economic responsibility in the current economic sphere. It amplifies it. “Our stewardship is the test,” DeKoster and Berghoef conclude. “Do we mean to serve God or mammon, the Lord or the Devil?”
Given the recent trends, Christians can wield ownership and steward our resources wisely while also seeing and seizing new opportunities to serve and share and innovate with those around us, whether through traditional material means or intangible, technological tools of exchange.
Collaborative consumption offers a path to both, should we be wise enough to pave the way accordingly.